How the Liberal Left Lost Its Way

The Left lost its way the day it decided to deride and ridicule the Right. The day it decided that its rationalism was superior and that the Right would ‘evolve’ to catch up.

A protest at JNU. Credit: PTI

A protest at JNU. Credit: PTI

The media is rife with the excesses of the BJP-led central government and its followers. Interestingly, unlike ‘Western’ nations such as the US and Australia, many of our prominent newspapers are liberal Left in their leanings, and have come out strongly against the communalism and general intolerance (though most TV channels are pro BJP). The secularism that is written into our constitution, the tolerance which is supposedly at the core of Hindu doctrine and the multiculturalism that was ensured in the very formation of the nation, have all been invoked to argue that the current policies of the government and the practices of its acolytes are irrational and anti-democratic.

Historians, sociologists and political commentators have long noted that the polarisation of issues can lead to the escalation of conflict, often culminating in anger and physical violence. This may extend from conflict within families to warring nations. The very adversarial nature of such arguments renders the possibility of common ground impossible, or at least, implausible. It is easy to cast the Right versus Left battles in India – or, for that matter, Australia, US or Western Europe – in that light, whether seen along political, economic or religious axes.

However, all this has been said before: that the liberal Left has lost its way in falling prey to polarisation, succumbing to an adversarial battle which it cannot win, because by its very engagement, it has lost. What I will attempt to argue here though is that there is a fundamental reason, an inherent trait, that has been responsible for the descent of the liberal Left into near-hysteria, that explains why the same conflict exists throughout the world, even in the ‘most developed’ nations. The argument has two interlinked parts – the nature of rationality and the communication of knowledge.


One of the most fundamental human traits is xenophobia. In the early evolution of human or pre-human societies, this must have conferred higher fitness on individuals who possessed a ‘fear of strangers’ as they were more likely than not to harm your kin/village or tribe. Regardless of the other advances of the Christian era, and the technological revolutions of the last two centuries, little has changed in this regard. From internecine conflict in Asia, Africa and South America, to battles between adjacent nations, to the globalised wars of the 20th century by its superpowers, each one can be traced to a xenophobic response. At a cultural level, this surfaces in developing societies as a hatred of people with languages, religions and lifestyles other than one’s own, and as a fear of immigrants in developed societies.

A protester from a far-right organization holds up a sign which reads "Islam Stop" during a protest against refugees in Lodz, Poland. Credit: Reuters

A protester from a far-right organization holds up a sign which reads “Islam Stop” during a protest against refugees in Lodz, Poland. Credit: Reuters

The liberal Left has long believed that the emancipation of the ‘other’ is a matter of rationality. If you are of this Left-leaning ilk, you have likely made or heard statements such as ‘I can’t understand why they should be so intolerant’ or ‘I find it hard to understand why you cannot live and let live’. But the ‘other’ view of the world was not created by the same value system. Equally importantly, the ‘other’ world view has been treated with scorn and ridicule for its lack of rationality. For its lack of adherence to a set of values held dear by the former. However, as irrational as the Rights’ fears and beliefs are to the Left, they are nevertheless real to them. Some may be instigated by malicious politics, but at an individual level, most beliefs are as real to the individuals who hold them. In addition to the polarisation of arguments, the ridicule of irrationality has personalised the problem. It is now a direct insult to the individual, rather than a mere contradiction of an idea.

Also read: Understanding the Right, and the Liberal vs Illiberal Discourse

Another critical error relating to the nature of rationality is the belief that sufficient rational argument over time, in other words education, will weed out irrationality and therefore the Right. Surely this is the most irrational belief of all, rich in irony. The presence of a prominent and highly-educated right-wing in the West should be testimony enough that this is not true. Growing right-wing movements and parties in Scandinavian countries (which routinely top the Human Development Index charts) provide further support for this, even if it is the relatively less educated within those domains. A related belief is that humans who are capable of rationality in one sphere (thanks perhaps to a modern education) can apply it in all their interactions, but this is patently untrue. It is quite common to be rational in understanding how planes fly, and irrational in one’s belief about God or abortion.


The second serious misunderstanding of the Left relates to the nature of communication. Rationalists believe that modern knowledge, which is based on the doctrine of evidence and empiricism is communicated rationally – that it is received by the recipient independent of the relationship with the donor, and of the recipient’s perception of the donor, examined and weighed and accepted if the evidence supports it. This is how, in fact, we purport to teach science at institutions of higher education across the world. The objectivity that is built into this form of learning is one of the cornerstones of science. However, this is patently untrue of much of even how knowledge is communicated in the universities, let alone the rest of the world. Much of knowledge that is communicated is taken on authority, what is, in fact, defined as pre-modern in the history of scientific thought.

A prime example of this flawed thinking is Richard Dawkins, eminent evolutionary biologist and evangelist for atheism. Apart from his wonderfully rich and evocative books on evolutionary biology, Dawkins has also written a book called The God Delusion, delivered lectures and engaged in debates with the clergy on the existence of God. In each of these, Dawkins makes the fatal assumption that his argument will win because it is (a) rational and (b) supported by evidence. But Dawkins convinced few of his opponents, nor has he won many hearts from the other side of the fence. If anything, random religious members of his audience have heaped scorn and abuse upon him.

One can argue that the ‘illiberal’ Left lost its way the day it decided to deride and ridicule the Right. The day it decided that its rationalism was superior and that the Right would ‘evolve’ to catch up. That relentless rationality would by itself, without considerations of trust and understanding, lead to change. That metrics like literacy and per capita income would correlate to a degeneration of the Right. Needless to say, none of this has happened. Without a doubt, there is something to be said about the nature of education, that degrees and literacy do not necessarily correspond to values and sensitivity, to either other people or their environment.

Also read: Why India Needs the Left

Communication can only happen when the channels between donor and recipient are completely open. Therefore, a transformation must involve a non-adversarial meeting of cultures, an acknowledgement of each other, before any rapprochement can take place. One has to consider alternate rationalities and find common ground that has the greatest consensus. There may be a path to change, but it has to lie in the realm of building trust and understanding.

Given the current socio-political goals of the Right, there seems little possibility of that happening. And, of course, there may be little scope to negotiate with white supremacists, religious zealots and all those who would resort to violence. But surely they constitute a minority (if a vocal and powerful one). And one must oppose those forces in every way possible. But should we not make at least an attempt to reach out to that wider world that is unlike us and yet may be willing to talk?

I am a rationalist and yearn for a world that is governed by rationality. But given human sociology and psychology, relentless rationality is unlikely to win friends or move mountains. On the other hand, a little humility and an iota of empathy may help the Left and the Right to at least begin a conversation.

Kartik Shanker is Director of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore and a Trustee of Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore. The views expressed here are personal.