Peter Boghossian on “the regressive left”

November 4, 2015 • 2:00 pm

“The regressive left” is a term coined by Maajid Nawaz to refer to those leftists in bed with extreme Islamists. In this week’s “The Humanist Hour,” presented by the American Humanist Hour, philosopher Peter Boghossian talks, eloquently, about the regressive left and its attendant tropes (denigration of free speech, concepts of safe spaces, etc).  If you have a spare 51 minutes, you could do worse than listen.

Click on the screenshot below to go to the podcast.

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39 thoughts on “Peter Boghossian on “the regressive left”

  1. We are letting too many on the regressive left escape being defined as such when we define them as “those who are in bed with extremist Islamists.”

    Most who we would label as the regressive left would say “well that’s not me” and move on. I would define the regressive left as all those who put religious and cultural sensitivity ahead of enlightenment values. Those who allow their taboo against offending the culture of others to take priority over their values of equality for women, gays etc.

    1. Agreed. It seems the narrative the “regressive left” has (at least the part I’m exposed to) is that extremist Islamists are not in any way representative of Islam, and that failure to disassociate extremist Islamists from Muslims is perpetuating bigotry. They don’t defend extremist Islam, at least not directly nor deliberately, and the only similarity is the similarity all moral movements share – that notion that morality trumps freedom of expression.

      The genuine issue seems to be the question of how we all get along despite our differences. The “regressive left” are almost the opposite of the theocrats like extremist Islamists or Christian theocrats in that their motivations are humanistic in nature – there’s injustice in the world, and that injustice is perpetuated on a daily basis thanks to imbalances in society and attitudes therein. In other words, the liberal values that enlightenment needs. The contention about the “regressive left” is one of tactics.

      Shouting down people, trying to get certain views or expressions censored, publicly shaming those who transgress those perceived moral boundaries, eagerly labelling speech bigotry / misogyny / racist, analysing patterns of speech for hidden prejudices, etc. All of these, at least to my mind, come across as authoritarian and against the liberal principles needed for there to be any sort of flourishing at all.

      1. Yes. Another observation is that they have a misanthropic view of humanity. When we blame a religion, they say no it’s PEOPLE! PEOPLE are bad not religions. They think bad people use religion as an excuse to do bad things, as opposed to good people being manipulated into doing bad things by religion. In short, they hate humans. You know the type. “Humans are awful!” “The world would be a better place without us humans!” “Humans suck!” That ilk.

        With such a misanthropic view of humans, who wouldn’t think that religion is necessary to keep our natural horribleness in check.

        1. “You know the type. “Humans are awful!” “The world would be a better place without us humans!” “Humans suck!” That ilk.”
          I find those people really strange. It’s that strange kind of moral judgement which in effects judges no-one worthy of our moral sympathies.

          I was channel surfing a few years ago, and came across some religious choir show. The lyrics went something along the lines of “We are despicable creatures. We’re not worthy to lick at God’s boots. But God in his infinite grace has saved us.” When I see those people who condemn humanity on moral grounds, I’m reminded of those lyrics. I wonder how it is people have come to disdain humanity rather than celebrate it.

          1. Yes, precisely! The “humans are awful!” types on the regressive left are unwittingly in exactly the same camp as the Abrahamic “fall of man” concept.

            My guess is that although they themselves were not raised religious, they grew up in a “Judeo-Christian” society and so this “fall of man” “repent for thou are not worthy” zeitgeist infected them and is the underlying cause of their misanthropic view of humans.

            Note that they are also the type who see everything humans do as “not natural” and they see humans as evil while all other animals are innocent.

            1. The more I see the “humans are awful” trope, the more I think it’s somewhat more than culture. Our moral sense, our intuitive reflexive emotive sense, seems to be nature rather than nurture. And those judgements bind and blind us (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Haidt) to how that thinking sits with something as complex as human nature. It’s easy to see why people have extreme reactions to moral transgressions biologically-speaking, and that the prevalence of humans failing to live up to moral norms would lead people to conclude we are intrinsically broken.

              1. Right, I agree. And I think they make that mistake due to scientific illiteracy. They do not understand morality in the way in which you just explained it due to their layman’s understanding of evolutionary biology and things like determinism. You can tell that they don’t understand that hate is irrational because they hate hate. And they hate the terrorists. They think they are evil people misusing a “great religion” but the terrorists are victims of that religion who deserve our pity.

      2. I don’t think the majority of the regressive left really give a crap about the welfare of the developing world or cultural diversity at all, they care only about cultivating a cheap and unearned sense of moral superiority.
        There are some people on the regressive left whom are simply obsessed with race and gender and frequently make character judgements on those criteria alone.
        I don’t think Bahar Mustafa was very concerned with anyone other than herself when she abused her position as student union welfare and diversity officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, by excluding white men from activities she organized simply on the basis that they are white men, then tweeted her desire to kill all white men, then proffered a ridiculous explanation as to why she can’t possibly be guilty of racism or sexism because the only people in the world that should ever be held accountable for bigotry are . . . wait for it . . . white men.
        I think more often than not, it’s childish, “us vs them” identity politics which serves no other purpose than shameless ego-stroking.

        1. Just remember that the best form of deception is self-deception. I think people want to care about that sort of stuff, I think most people feel good about sharing that sort of stuff. And people feel really good condemning those who don’t similarly join in. That’s just how we are wired up, psychologically-speaking.

          Put people in a community where those things matter, and that’s what they do. It’s not much different to acts of piety and professed faith among the faithful. People do them because it feels the right thing to do. When divorced from that context, we see the disconnect.

        2. Got to agree with all of that. You can tell that their position on race and gender is disingenuous because of how many times they use the phrase “white men” to mean “assholes.”

          1. Don’t forget the reverse. I’m a white man, so I’ve got some incredulous stares from the (neo-)authoritarian left when I explain that I too have suffered prejudice and bigotry. I was a geeky Anglophone in Quebec. Two strikes. 🙂

      3. It seems the narrative the “regressive left” has (at least the part I’m exposed to) is that extremist Islamists are not in any way representative of Islam, and that failure to disassociate extremist Islamists from Muslims is perpetuating bigotry.

        That may be the reason given, but it would be trivially easy to denounce the muslims who throw gays off buildings and the muslims who behead unbelievers while pointing out that they are not denouncing Islam per se. Christians and nonbelievers alike in the US denounce the KKK and the Westboro Baptists – both Christian organizations – and nobody takes those “these are bad Christians” statements to imply “Christians are bad.”

        There is simply no justification and it makes no sense to prevent criticism of specific members of a group out of some desire to not tar the group itself an undeserved generalization. Jerry Sandusky was a nasty child rapist. He was also a Penn State coach. Should we not criticize his behavior out of respect for Penn State employees or football coaches? How screwed up would that be if we didn’t speak out against his behavior? ISIS is a bunch of murders and rapists too. How screwed up would it be if we didn’t speak out against their behavior?

        1. The general issue, eric, is that we live in a society where people do make that connection. The way I’ve come up understand the “regressive left” is that they are opposing the fascist right – that growing wave of political parties that are explicitly making that connection. How many governments have said in one way or another that they only wish to take Christian refugees from Syria? How many have cited ISIS using the crisis to sneak operatives across borders? How many groups are living Islamic doctrine to terrorism as justification for anti-Muslim bigotry?

          In other words, I don’t think this group is making an error of logic, but simply trying to counter the rival narratives that are part of our culture already. In Australia, we have idiots protesting the building of Mosques – as if the problem is Muslims having a place to worship. It’s easy to see the language that criticises fundamentalist Islam as broad and incendiary because there are people who are taking that interpretation. The question is how to make criticism and have effective change without stoking the flames of fascism that are burning. This is difficult to do, and it’s understandable that some on the left would err on the side of rooting out bigotry even if that means being uncharitable to what’s actually being said.

    2. Not much to disagree with there, Matt. Yet, not only does the regressive left provide cover for the worst murderers, it also refuses to give a voice to their victims.

      Here, Diane Abbott, UK Labour Party Shadow International Development Secretary, declines to let anti-Assad Syrian democrats speak at a ‘Stop the War’ meeting. Peter Tatchell, who does a helluva lot of good work is the source.

      Andrew Murray is mentioned in the article. Ex-Chair of StW, he supports North Korea, believe it or not. I know that loads of StW types are crypto-and-not-so-crypto-anti-Semites, but North Korea???? x

      1. Aaargghh! Here’s the link I meant to attach.

  2. I prefer the term “authoritarian left”. I think it’s both more descriptive and less inflammatory.

    For the authoritarian left, the sense of “authority” is the concept of social justice. Anything in the service of social justice has the final say. Think of a policeman who will do anything to stop lawbreakers. No matter the severity of the crime, all guilt has severe penalties.

    Police are usually what people think of when people think of “authority” and that’s why I think “authoritarian” is a more apt descriptor.

    1. I agree. Regressive implies going back to some prior state, as if there is some old, discredited, form of liberalism that is being revived. That’s not my sense at all. I suppose it is an old form of thinking, tribalism, wrapped in the fashionable garb of “social justice”, but it’s not really an old form of liberalism, per se.

      “Authoritarian” really does get to the core issue very quickly.

      1. “Authoritarian” is a good descriptor — though I think at least some of the members of this group would hotly deny that they’re authoritarian because as they see it they’re fighting against all that’s authoritarian in the modern world. Not just colonialism and technology, but science and reason are Western impositions on cultures which need to be accepted and tolerated as different, not worse.

        And yes indeed, things were better in the past — a halcyon era where there was little violence because these simple times were inhabited by noble savages untouched by the need to acquire material objects or remove themselves from a close association with nature. The spiritual world and its truths were never doubted or questioned because a skeptical attitude bullies its way in from the outside. Liberals in this definition are against anyone being “wrong.” That’s judgmental and a form of forcing views on others.

        1. It does seems somewhat ironic that their brand of authoritarianism is strict enforcement of anti-authoritarian ideals – down to the authority of “culture”.

          That lack of self-reflection going on with the enforcement of moral norms is quite alarming, and seems self-defeating given what’s being fought for.

          1. On regressive vs. authoritarian, as we’re all basically talking about the same thing, I think it depends on whom you’re debating with and the context.

            But ‘regressive’ is a new coining and refers to the attitude of some traditional western leftists to a newish phenomenon: the eruption onto the stage of history of apocalyptic Islamist states and movements. From that point of view it is a useful general phrase.

            Those of us who were brought up in the European left see the phrase the authoritarian left as coming from Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s critique of the censorious tendencies in the state apparatus of the Bolsheviks very early on after the October revolution. But you couldn’t describe Lenin as ‘regressive’, as Trotsky tells the story of his offering not to be a Commissar since he was wary of widespread Russian anti-Semitism: Lenin appointed him anyway.

            That authoritarian left strand became entrenched by the 30s with the isolation of the revolution, the reaction of a backward economy, the disappearance of the idea of Socialism in the major economies and Stalin’s mangling of the Comintern into an organization to defend the U.S.S.R., into Socialism in one country.

            Hence the decades of intellectuals and western leftists seeking some Fatherland to worship. For the authoritarian left, it used to be the Soviet Union: now that has gone, loons like Andrew Murray transfer their adoration to North Korea. Or you can refuse to criticize a régime. This is a habit of thought among some sections of the left.

            But we have the emergence of Jihadism as a political force in regions historically colonized by, or exploited by, western imperialism. This is a new set of relationships and therefore, it seems to me, the old description of authoritarian or totalitarian left doesn’t quite cut it. A new phrase is needed: after all an authoritarian or totalitarian system can in principle be progressive in the sense that it could be benign, economically and perhaps even socially, but definitely not politically. One thinks of Germany and Japan, post-1945.

            The phrase regressive left is a rebuttal to people like Murray, John Rees of the SWP and StW and now Diane Abbott of the Labour Party, who would all describe themselves as ‘progressives’. ‘Regressive’ indicates a yen for a non-enlightenment idea. It’s pejorative, and yes, propagandistic, and should be used appropriately. But, to take the example of StW, there are plenty of decent people, straight-ahead Labour Party members, pacifistic Buddhists and Quakers who assume the leadership has something like their world-view: the sooner they are disabused of that idea the better. x

    2. I don’t see these people as authoritarian at all. Yes, they indirectly support an authoritarian social order, but it’s more by accident than design.

      1. Preventing views you disagree with from getting a platform (see Dermot C’s response to #1) is pretty authoritarian. And preventing critics of Islam from speaking at University events seems to be de rigeur for the left in the UK, at least.

          1. May be true Scott, but Islamism being dogmatically anti-liberty of expression, you’d expect their non-Muslim apologists to be infected with the desire to shut others up.

            As in this example revealed today of another UCL case of no-platforming. It’s free-speech-whack-a-mole in the British universities again: the question is what percentage of certainty would you put on the censor in this story being a crypto-Islamist? Given his history of electoral fraud. x


  3. I’m kinda wondering if the term “regressive left” had gained enough notability (by Wikipedia’s definition) and there are enough sources that are reliable (by Wikipedia’s definition) to create an article on the subject in Wikipedia.

    1. Dunno about Wikipedia’s criteria for notability but Harris, Nawaz, Dawkins, Maher all use the term. Nick Cohen approves the phrase and Maryam Namazie links to a discussion on it. x

  4. I’m sorry, but I don’t follow this. Who is this regressive or authoritarian left? I consider myself a leftist (on economics) and a liberal (on just about everything else, and Jerry said the other day that he was too), but I’m not like that — and Jerry certainly is not. To me, this slapping on of vague categorizing terms without either definition (they seem to come afterwards as properties) or example does not really get us anywhere. Even the word “bad” is relative to the speaker.

    I do not mean to insult anyone on this discussion, but I do think we need to clarify our thoughts on this issue. Sure, there are leftist jerks, just as — I insist — there are religious folks who are not at all jerks. When talking about a continuum, it is good to define your coordinates.

    1. Btw, that is one of the interesting things about this group. We have much in common (love of science in general and biology in particular, cats, atheism and so on), but we differ on other things. It’s always good to discuss with “the other side”, especially when it’s “my side”.

    2. There’s a short definition in the first sentence of the article.

      – “The regressive left” is a term coined by Maajid Nawaz to refer to those leftists in bed with extreme Islamists.

      You might be missing the context here – see Maajid’s Nawaz’ article in the Daily Beast for more.

      It’s not a term that is meant to apply to all on the left, or even most. He is very precise in who he is talking about: he gives both a definition and specific examples.

      1. Thanks, Mitch. I have found the article Jerry discussed recently.

        I still want to know, who are these people? Maybe it is largely a British phenomenon. Altho there are certainly contrary examples, my leftist friends in France do not have that attitude towards Muslim extremists, they — are on the contrary — scared s**tless of them.

        I guess the issue is far too complicated for my little brain. 😉

        1. Here is the States a lot of them are the so-called Social Justice Warriors and the PC, anti-free-speech crowd.

          1. John, a key example of the regressive left would be Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War, SWP crowd. Corbyn, who calls Hamas and Hezbollah supporters ‘friends’, who calls the loud British Islamist Ibrahim Hewitt, his ‘good friend’, who apparently holds surgeries in the formerly Finsbury Park mosque, who views 9/11 and the lack of a trial for Osama Bin Laden as morally equivalent, while speaking on Iranian Press TV and failing to bring up Iranian human rights abuses, who presents phone-ins on Putin’s RT TV.

            And you’ll find Corbyn gathers around him people like Seumas Milne as his press secretary, a tankie as we on the left used to call Stalinists: people like Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s new political adviser, who advised voters in 2014 to vote for Class War, an insane middle class anarchist thug collective, and who has called leading Labour Party people all kinds of Anglo-Saxon epithets. The trolls are at the bridge.

            If you engage with StW people, you will be shocked to find widespread anti-Semitism and echo-chamber wolf-howls as well as open defense of Bashar al-Assad as a secularist and Ba’ath ‘Socialist’. You’ll shudder at the far left groupuscule the SWP, highly influential in StW (which, remember, organized possibly the biggest demo in UK history against the 2nd Iraq war): its leadership labels as ‘Islamophobic’ the criticism of Islamic attitudes to women.


            1. I see a bit better. Thanks, Dermot.

              I was of course all for the StW campaigns around Europe in 2003. (I participated in a couple here.) But I had no idea some of the folks behind them in the UK were such … honorable men.

              It’s also true that the socialists in the UK (aka Labour)– as in France — are moving right and getting nasty. Doesn’t leave us much choice in the next elections, does it? It’s still too complicated for my little brain.

              I will now get back to my study of General Relativity, something I have a chance of understanding. 😉

  5. I agree with this, but I feel like we need to do more than just talking about the regressive left. We need to talk about the rise of the fascist right whenever we talk about the regressive left. The fascist right is, after all, the more dangerous of the two, and leaving it out is… well, there needs to me more public dialog about it. Not just the regressive left. That’ll do its intended purpose, but with the extra “benefit” of allowing the right to leech power off of that narrative.

  6. We have to be careful not to give the fascist right too much power. Criticism of regressives is somethign I agree with, but more needs to be done. One thing is ensuring that the fascist right doesn’t get to leech power off of this narrative.

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