Posts Tagged ‘language’

Lots of people in politics are fans of using the political compass system to describe politics, where we distinguish politics along two dimensions when talking about political ideologies instead of conflating both social and economic policy together in different ways for each nation when we pick the two words we use to describe political parties. This is especially helpful in systems like New Zealand, where we have 7 viable political parties at the moment. (assuming you define “viability” as “getting at least one MP elected”)

Some recent discussions have made me aware that not only are some people a little less familiar with the labels that discussing politics this way requires, but that we’re also missing a few relevant terms.

traditional poltical compass

Traditional political terms have largely focused on left-right or liberal-conservative divides

Usually this splits political dimensions into the economic/class aspect and the social/cultural aspect of politics. On this blog, I general refer to the left-right economic dimension of politics, and the liberal-conservative social dimension. It’s also sometimes called a “libertarian-authoritarian” social dimension, but both of these terms imply a lot more radical and specific political ideologies than liberal and conservative do, so I’m usually a fan of those names.

The original political compass site only gives us the most basic five: centrism, leftism, right-wing politics, “libertarianism,” (which in other sites is often substituted for “liberalism”) and “authoritarianism.” (likewise for “conservatism”) For a useful discussion, you really need at least nine labels for the various political positions, and if you want to get really technical, you probably want somewhere between 25 and 30 to try to translate the idea of a graph into colloquial language, even online.

It also doesn’t capture some complicated political variables that also operate on something of a spectrum, like degrees of nationalism, or of environmentalism, or monarchism-vs-republicanism, (or more generally, sovereignty versus independence, or federalism vs local democracy) etc…

Of course, every once in a while, you run into someone using a more specific political dictionary or reference that is technically correct elsewhere in the world, but places these political terms in a more regional context, when most of the political internet settles on using variations of left, right, liberal, and conservative. (sometimes substituting “tory” or “progressive” into the equation) For instance, in the US, liberalism still generally implies moderate right-wind leanings and a gradual approach to social reform. This isn’t anything inherent about the idealogy, it’s just how the democrats that call themselves liberals in the US have conducted themselves in congress. Confusingly, this old definition comes very close to neoliberalism, which is just the modern version of classical liberalism, which is not the same as generic US liberalism, which is generally in the Democratic party, and is also different to the Australian Liberal Party, which is actually to their right. To all of them I say: stop confusing people. When people use “liberal” as an adjective anywhere outside the US or Australia, it’s generally to refer to a freedom-oriented approach to social issues.

With all that confusion, we find ourselves maybe needing some extra terms, because actually we routinely do discuss all 25 spots on our 5×5 table of two-dimensional politics, and less loaded generic terms, as traditional names for complicated areas on that political graph can get you maybe 19 of the 25 really relevant areas, when really we need a full 26 terms to describe what we’re talking about, and they don’t follow any sensible system. (We need 26 because we need two terms for the middle so we can distinguish between the social and economic centre when talking generically, four names for the orthogonal extremes, (ie. right, left, liberal, conservative) four names for the diagonal extremes that mix the previous four together, eight moderate versions of the the eight previous extremes (ala “centre-left”) and another eight names for those with opinions on both dimensions but who value one dimension over the other, such as leftist liberals who value the economic politics more than social ones) The other confusing thing about using the traditional terms is that “liberal” shows up all over them with different meanings. Oh, and we can’t use the term “social” for conservatives, because they hate that word too.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

generic political compass

Here we have a systematic approach to generic political labels. I have used the word “clutural” to describe people with more socially-oriented politics for international portability. I’ve stuck with “moderate” for the four extra diagonal centrist positions, because mixing “left” or “right” with “centre” in a larger term sounds stupid. The hidden 26th term is that “moderate” refers to social centrism, and “centrist” to economic centrism, re-using the distinction between British terminology for economic dimensions and American terminology for social dimensions that people already engage in. Most sucessful centrists are really only centrist in one of the two ideologies in order to fill a political gap elsewhere, so arguably there are also “conservative centrists,” “left moderates,” “liberal centrists,” etc… that can replace terms like “centre-left” if you prefer.

And yeah, the “circle” around the outside full of liberal-leftists and right-liberalists are a little confusing, I admit, but it could catch on as a way to describe the “north by northeast”-type directions on our political compass. I also considered terms like “right-conservatist,” for the lower half of the graph, but at that point it began to sound silly, as “liberalist” at least sounds like it should be a word, so I left out the quicker alternative names on the bottom half of the chart. (for the short names in the x-by-xy spots, whichever part is first is the one the emphasis is on, so if liberal is first, it’s cultural, and if left or right is first, it’s economic) Feel free to talk about conservative leftists and conservative rightists though instead of cultural left- or right-conservatives, those actually sound like words.

Under these generic terms, you actually have political-compassy ways of describing some more complicated political idealogies. Neoliberals are Right-liberalists. Tories are Right-conservatives. Greens are Left-Liberals. Neoconservatives are Conservative-leftists. Libertarians are (normally) right-liberals, or maybe sometimes they’re Liberal-rightists, and Left-liberatarians are Liberal-leftists, which is what the old Whigs of their day roughly were.

In the New Zealand  political parties context, here are my estimations:

  • Labour are centre-left. (or, if you prefer, a coalition of leftists, liberal-leftists, left-liberalists, and economic left-conservatives that generally average out to somewhere between “centre-left” and “moderate left-liberal”)
  • National are a coalition of right-wingers. (including right-liberalists, and both types of right-conservatives)
  • ACT is a single right-liberalist who nobody takes seriously.
  • United Future is centre-right.
  • The Māori Party is the hardest to place but are probably wander between being moderate left-liberals when working with Labour to being moderate right-liberals when working with National. Somewhat like New Zealand First, they have a nationalist bent to their politics, but it is a specifically Māori one rather than a xenophobic one.
  • New Zealand first are centrist conservatives on most issues, but they can wander into left-wing and liberal politics from time to time too, as their defining political attribute is nationalism rather than economic or social politics.
  • And as everyone expects, both the Greens and Mana are both left-liberals, with the Greens having an environmentalist dimension to their politics, and Mana having a Māori nationalist one.
  • The alliance were probably left-liberalists when they were around, and ironically, the Progressive Party’s brief stint in the Clark era had them probably showing up as economic left-conservatives.

Hopefully people find these ideological distinctions helpful in discussing politics. I hope they also stop people reaching for those archaic variants on the word “liberal,” as politicians everywhere have tried to corner the rhetorical market on derivative words of “freedom.”

With backlash becoming such a strong counter-force to all sorts of anti-discrimination movements, I feel it’s time to talk about various types of actions which feed into discriminatory narratives- that is, things we’d usually discuss as racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on.

There seems to me to be four essential levels of discrimination:

  1. Insensitive – casual ignorance, poorly phrased statements, or minor dismissal, devaluing, or trifling objectification is insensitive.
  2. Insulting – gross mischaracterisation or stereotying, heavy dismissal, devaluing, or objectification is the sort of thing that’s likely to insult minorities- the difference between insensitivity and insultingness is a matter of degree or frequency.
  3. Problematic – a narrative or psychological bias, especially one which people aren’t conscious of, is problematic. Unlike being insensitive or insulting, being problematic is more a matter of how wrong what you’re saying is and how badly it needs correcting, rather than the sort of reaction it might provoke.
  4. Open – discrimination to the point that even if it isn’t necessarily open and deliberate, it’s so problematic and ignorant that it can’t be regarded as innocent.

Obviously as you climb this ladder, elements from below may also be present in several different frustrating combinations. Things that are problematic are often also insensitive, for example.

The problem we’re running into is that when we say words like “racist”, people automatically escalate that word to level #4- even if you hedge a bit more and say “you did or said something homophobic”, they read that as them having accidentally engaged in fourth-degree discrimination. Feminism has been a bit more successful in gradating misogyny, but it still suffers from this problem sometimes. Likewise “problematic” is an adjective that’s already caught on in communities, and we need to expand on that.

We need to start using those other three words- what you’re saying has (or creates) problems. What you’re doing? That’s insulting to me. The way you’re acting around me? That’s not sensitive to who I am, or these other people in our community. Describing discrimination by degree or type is really important, as it reinforces that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types aren’t just a binary, with a person being intrinsically a bigot, but rather a continuum that people fall on based on how much privilege they’ve assimilated.