Shutting down debate can create a cultural pressure cooker, something which critics of Australian universities dismiss with their glib references to ‘left wing political correctness’, writes Dr Tristan Ewins.
It has become commonplace for conservative commentators to make the accusation that our universities are enthralled to ‘left wing political correctness’ and ‘Marxism’. But the narrative of political correctness itself can be deployed to shut down debate; such as in right-wing circles where there was once the common dismissal of the Left as promoting a mentality of ‘save the gay whales’. In other words, there existed an insensitive mentality which dismissed the rights and experiences of those of non-heterosexual orientation as nothing but political correctness.
On the Right particularly, there has also developed a narrative around so-called Left elites who enforce political correctness, and who are out of touch with mainstream Australia. Some Left narratives are far from the thinking of mainstream Australia on some issues, although one must not forget that at times in this country’s history, racism, sexism, and contempt towards other minorities was considered mainstream. The shift in this country’s view of minorities and women has occurred only as a consequence of the leadership provided by the Left and Centre-Left.
Specifically, the off-hand dismissal of narratives around the ‘invasion’ of this country can also be seen as reinforcing insensitivity towards indigenous people, and consolidating the kinds of perspectives that reinforced the narrative of terra nullius: the narrative that the continent we live on was unoccupied (or more specifically ‘there was no sovereign state’ before colonisation), legitimising settlement.
On the other hand, the injustices experienced by Indigenous Australia need to be resolved through a process of recognition, reconciliation and compensation. There has to be a point at which the nation moves on together. But this is not really possible, though, without a Treaty process.
“There is demand for critical thinkers.”
Red-baiting and promoting misunderstanding and confusion around Marxism is another common tactic deployed by conservative forces. It is true that an array of repressive regimes identified as Marxist throughout the 20th century. But it is also true that prior to the rise of Leninism and Stalinism, Marxists were the strongest advocates of free, universal and equal suffrage. (Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of Europe used a weighted suffrage system which granted voting power overwhelmingly on the basis of wealth, entrenching the control of the nobility and bourgeoisie despite an exploding working class vote for the social democratic parties.) Some of the strongest critics of Stalinism and Leninism were other (democratic) Marxists.
Many democratic Marxist narratives retain force, and do not rest on any totalitarian world-view. At the core of Marxism is the desire for a society based on the distributive principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need”, as well as the aim of empowering every individual to reach their full potential through immersion in the breadth and depth of human culture: from music, literature and art, to sport, philosophy, economics etc. This is a side of Marxism rarely acknowledged by its critics.
Finally, criticisms around employability miss the mark. The humanities and social sciences have long been condemned by those who opposed a critical society: a society which subjects itself to criticism, and does not take Ideological assumptions for granted. For some people, however, there is a technocratic outlook for which nothing matters except the technical demands of the labour market, and the imperative of maximising GDP. That said, there is demand for critical thinkers who can conduct research and criticism, and can express themselves fluently. Sometimes narratives around employability are more about shutting down criticism and pluralism in our democracy.
“It’s time we rejected right-wing narratives.”
To conclude, it is only fair to concede that sometimes parts of the Left do not tolerate internal dissent around their orthodoxies. And the relationship between parts of the Left and the principle of free-speech has become inconsistent and unclear. Pluralism generally means you engage with your political and intellectual rivals rather than just shutting them down. Shutting down debate can create a cultural pressure cooker, which over the long term builds up resentment. Though for instance when faced with a real and present danger of fascism that may warrant a rethink.
Also modern identity politics often revolves around a series of identities – around gender, sexuality, race etc – which are sometimes promoted in a kind of arbitrary hierarchy rather than through an integrated analysis. At the same time, also, parts (not all) of today’s Left have largely abandoned their traditional narratives around economic justice, economic democracy and equality, effectively distancing themselves from the working class and the working poor.
The problem is not so much with the critique of socially-constructed identity so much as it is with the method of an arbitrary hierarchy, and the abandonment of older Left narratives on the struggle for equality, and on the failings of capitalism. Here, though, the commonly-deployed term cultural Marxism is absurd for anyone who has an understanding. It was economics which was at the core of the old Marxist orthodoxy.
It’s time we rejected right-wing narratives around so-called political correctness. Ironically these very narratives shut down debate. They promote exactly the same kind of distortion and intolerance that so-called Left elites are accused of engaging in by the conservative Right.