Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Rise of the Religious Left

A few months ago, a student protest at Claremont McKenna College in California got out of hand. The protestors shut down a scheduled lecture and question-and-answer session titled The War on Police by Heather Mac Donald, a prominent critic of the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to journalists covering the event, protestors blocked the entrances, ordered white male students observing the protest to leave, threatened journalists, and yelled ‘fuck the police’ at campus security officers. To add to all of this, a group of white protestors were observed pushing an elderly white professor while screaming ‘fuck white supremacy’.

Immediately following the protest, College Vice President Peter Uvin issued a statement declaring its methods unacceptable. This was followed by a similar statement by College President Hiram Chodosh. Claremont McKenna later disciplined seven students for their actions.

Claremont McKenna is part of a consortium of colleges, The Claremont Colleges. David Oxtoby, President of Pomona College, another college in the consortium, sent an email to Pomona students the day after the protest emphasising the importance of free speech.

The Claremont Colleges rank highly on The Heterodox Academy’s list of liberal arts colleges most committed to free speech and viewpoint diversity. The statements by Uvin, Chodosh, and Oxtoby show why.

But what might the argument be against allowing Mac Donald to speak? Three Pomona students wrote an open letter in response to Oxtoby, laying out their reasons. (It has been co-signed by 24 additional students.)

The letter is interesting because it’s written by what appears to be two first-year- and a second-year student, given their listed graduation dates, while being full of formulations that seem very characteristic of ethnic- and gender studies programmes. (The three students specifically identify as black.) It’s likely they are largely passing on ideas they’ve been taught, as the terminology and ideas are so distinctive.

As such, it provides outsiders a window into ethnic- and gender studies courses at universities, something that otherwise appears so opaque.

The letter is too long to quote in full, but there are some important sections that I want to highlight.

First, a criticism of Oxtoby’s desire to protect free speech:

Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.

Second, a rejection of the notion of objective truth, directed at Oxtoby’s mentioning of the ‘discovery of truth’ as one of the missions upon which Pomona was founded. (And which free speech is partly directed towards.):

Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth--’the Truth’--is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.

And finally, an expression of their ultimate goal:

Protest that doesn’t disrupt the status quo is benign and doesn’t function to overthrow systems of oppression, which is the ultimate goal.

There are several other elements in the letter, including the notion that some speech ‘projects violence onto the bodies of … oppressed peoples’ and that engaging Mac Donald would be debating black people’s right to exist.

Nevertheless, I think the three sections I mentioned are the most important, because they combine to articulate an alternative worldview to the one Oxtoby expressed in his email. (Which is roughly known as the Enlightenment worldview or the scientific worldview.)

The core ideas in this alternative worldview is that: 1) there is no objective truth, only a collection of subjective truths, 2) the ultimate goal is to overthrow all systems of oppression, so that every person’s truth has equal space to exist, 3) rather than pursue a non-existent objective truth, the goal of speech is to facilitate the overthrow of systems of oppression by allowing oppressed people to speak, but not oppressors.

Hence, Heather Mac Donald by criticising the Black Lives Matter movement is suppressing black people’s ability to criticise the systems oppressing them, and by defending the police she is justifying their role as oppressors. Pointing to the discovery of truth as justification for her to speak is meaningless, because there is no objective truth. The only question one should ask is whether she is criticising the oppressed or the oppressors, and that determines whether she should be permitted to speak.


The basic worldview the Pomona students are expressing emerged as a school of thought in Frankfurt during the early 1930s, known as Critical Theory. It originated within the Marxist tradition, and can be viewed as an extension of Karl Marx’s ideas of structural oppression to culture and epistemology.

A central part of Marx’s work is his historical analysis, outlined in the Communist Manifesto. He argued that power differences between societal groups has gradually decreased, as new systems have replaced older ones – from slavery to feudalism to capitalism.

At each step, the most oppressed groups became less oppressed. Marx extrapolated this development to communism, a system where no one would be oppressed, and he developed economic arguments to demonstrate the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse into communism.

In this sense, Marx is within the liberal tradition, regarding individual human freedom as the highest good. (Which represented a substantial departure from previous religious worldviews.) He departed from the classical liberals though in his idea of freedom. They believed individual freedom was maximised in a society where only physical force and fraud were restricted.

To Marx, labourers in a capitalist system weren’t free, because they were unable to escape the limitations of their class, regardless of any explicit use of physical force or fraud. Their oppression was structural. In other words, it was the system that was restricting their freedom, not the actions of any particular person.

During the 1930s, though, it had become increasingly clear that capitalism was unlikely to collapse into communism. The socialist movement inspired in part by Marx had led to the formation of the modern welfare state, but it was becoming increasingly accepted that socialism should occur within the framework of capitalism, rather than replace it.

For dedicated Marxists, the question was why people were unwilling to overthrow the system that was oppressing them. The Critical Theorists suggested that Marx had underestimated the extent to which cultural and epistemological norms play an active role in the perpetuation of capitalism.

Capitalism created a culture of ‘false needs’, spread through mass marketing, making people dependent on material items they didn’t need in order to keep up appearances, thus perpetuating capitalism as a system, supported by the growing, status-seeking middle-class. This locked them into a system of competitiveness and materialism, and alienated them from their true nature, including their sexuality.

(Marx had written on how capitalism alienated labourers from the products of their labour, and had also written on how ideology prevented people from overthrowing capitalism.)

Just as importantly, capitalism worked in coordination with a particular kind of epistemological system, positivism, both of which came to power during the Enlightenment. Positivism is roughly the idea that facts are ‘out there’ in the world, and that it’s the job of intellectuals to describe them. This made intellectuals naturally conservative, since there’s seemingly a contradiction between describing the world as it is, and changing it into something else. (This too, Marx had touched upon.)

Their response to the latter issue was to develop a competing methodology to positivism, called Critical Theory. It took as its starting point the idea that intellectual activity should criticise systems of oppression with the purpose of overthrowing them. (And thus liberating people oppressed by these systems.) Unlike positivism, it’s a normative methodology. The goal of overthrowing systems of oppression is taken a priori, it’s not something to be discovered or questioned.

Critical Theory had significant influence on the New Left movement that arose during the 1960s, in large part due to Herbert Marcuse’s bestselling book One-Dimensional Man. He also published the essay Repressive Tolerance, where he argues that Nazism could have been avoided if democratic tolerance was withdrawn earlier, and that society is in a state of emergency due to the shortened distance between word and action, so that suspension of free speech and free assembly is justified.

He argues that, given this state of affairs, there should be no tolerance for the right (the oppressors), and full tolerance for the left (the oppressed and their defenders), in both word and action:

Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: ... it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.

The small and powerless minorities which struggle against the false consciousness and its beneficiaries must be helped: their continued existence is more important than the preservation of abused rights and liberties which grant constitutional powers to those who oppress these minorities.

This essay provides, in my opinion, a valuable insight into the mindset of the far-left (and to a lesser extent, the not-so-far-left), despite it being fifty years old.

Critical Theory was joined during the 1970s by postmodernist and poststructuralist philosophies, which address similar issues, and with which it’s often conflated.

As a rule, the Critical Theorists were less explicitly relativistic (they were reluctant to deny objective truth outright – Marcuse affirms it, at least in principle), while being more focussed on the normative aspects. Later ideas drew on elements from both. The label, though, is less important than the methodology.

Replacing positivism with a critical theory that denies – or at least disregards – objective truth, has significant consequences for one’s academic activity, depending on how far one is willing to take it.

If the goal of academic activity is to overthrow power structures, not to search for objective truth, it’s meaningless to assess a theory’s validity according to ‘the facts’. Theories are not true or false, they are oppressive or non-oppressive. And likewise, criticisms of said theories are not true or false, they are effective or ineffective in facilitating overthrow.

A good, albeit extreme, demonstration of this idea is feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s assertion that Einstein’s E=mc2 equation is sexed because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds, and that fluid mechanics has been underdeveloped by physicists because physics is masculine and thus privileges rigid, solid things. Einstein and physicists in general are perpetuating a system of oppression through their theories, and therefore must be criticised. The question isn’t whether her assertion is true, but whether it’s effective.

A further consequence is that the validity of a criticism is proportionate to the amount of oppression being overthrown. Consider a portion of the Pomona letter:

We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora.

There are presumably some heterosexual black students, but they aren’t mentioned in the list of identities. Why? Because heterosexuals aren’t considered an oppressed group and therefore don’t add validity to the argument. In fact, as an oppressor group they might even detract from the argument. The same goes for Christian and middle- and upper-class students. These people also have an identity, but they aren’t mentioned because they aren’t oppressed groups and therefore don’t add validity to the argument.

Listing these identities also does little to address the topic of Mac Donald’s speech, but it reflects the extent to which the students view the validity of their argument as depending on the amount of oppression they can appeal to.


Critical theory has played an important role over the past fifty years in the coalescing of the social justice movement, by providing an intellectual foundation for it to build around. Partly due to this foundation, a number of disparate movements – socialism/anti-capitalism, ethnic rights movements, feminism, LGTB+, environmentalism – have coalesced into a single movement.

The benefit for each movement is that they now closely support each other. The Pomona letter is a good example of this, emphasising various LGBT+ identities while disparaging capitalism in a letter aimed at a critic of Black Lives Matter.

The downside for them is that they have effectively become branches of the social justice movement, and must act accordingly, which means sometimes setting their own interests aside for what is perceived as greater oppression. For example, it has become frowned upon for feminists to criticise treatment of women in Muslim communities, as Muslims are considered an oppressed group and therefore can’t be criticised.

Shedding some people, especially classical liberals, from the various individual movements was an inevitable consequence of the coalescing of the social justice movement, but overall it has become a very powerful force.

In fact, the combination of an intellectual foundation in Critical Theory, which treats its central goal – the overthrowing of power structures –  as a priori (meaning it must be taken on faith), and a broad movement of people willing to set their personal and group interests aside to achieve it, makes for something very much like a religion.

Add to that a set of practices that sacralise the overthrowing of power structures by preventing questioning of it, and a powerful supporting narrative that draws on genuine philosophical uncertainty (the question of objectivity and subjectivity), and I think the best way to describe the social justice movement simply is as a burgeoning religion.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in an article describing a video of the protest that shut down a scheduled speech by social scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont:

And what I saw on the video struck me most as a form of religious ritual — a secular exorcism, if you will — that reaches a frenzied, disturbing catharsis. When Murray starts to speak, the students stand and ritually turn their backs on him in silence. The heretic must not be looked at, let alone engaged.

A YouTube video of a speech by psychologist Jordan B. Peterson at McMaster University shows how a small minority of fervent students can control a situation.

This is especially true when moderate people are sympathetic to the ideas of the social justice movement. As a student later said of the Murray incident:

I fully believed that Middlebury should honor its institutional commitment to academic freedom and debate by letting Charles Murray speak. But I also believed that students’ voices should be integral to this dialogue and so I planned to protest before the talk and ask Murray tough questions in the Q. and A. that followed his presentation.

My plans changed when I arrived at the event and sat next to an activist friend. When Murray began his speech, she said, protesters would stand, turn their backs on him, read a statement in opposition, and then do a few chants. I was hesitant, but when the protesters began to read their statement, many of the students in the room stood with them, me included.

While committed members of the social justice movement still make up a small portion of the population, even at universities, their religious approach grants them significant influence. Because of their shared intellectual foundation and language, they present a united front, and their fervour is intimidating to moderate people. As a months-long investigation into the state of free-speech at elite Boston-area private school Tufts University by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted:

Students have been systematically investigated, interrogated by police, and punished by Tufts for speech the university claims, generally, to permit. What’s more, numerous students told us the campus climate is “toxic” for free inquiry, with a passionate but small and exceptionally like-minded student body attempting to silence “offensive” or disfavored speech — even reporting it to administrators and police, or characterizing it as a literal act of “violence.”

These mutually reinforcing phenomena create a perilous combination for students who want to speak their mind at Tufts: Open disagreement isn’t just “social suicide” — it can get you in serious trouble.

If a small minority of people can wield such influence, imagine what could happen if the movement grows larger. Is that a genuine possibility?

The answer, clearly, is yes. In fact, after having spent the past few decades coalescing into a single movement, while simultaneously gaining an increasing foothold within academia, the social justice movement has matured to the point where it has already begun to make significant inroads in Western society at large, with developments occurring quite rapidly.


Last month, public radio station KPFA in Berkeley cancelled an event where evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was to promote his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, because of his past comments criticising Islam. The station’s event coordinator told the New York Times that he couldn’t recall in his three decades at the station any other live event it hosted being cancelled because of its content. (KPFA hosted Dawkins in 2015.)

The New York Times article contains a quote by the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which had emailed the station before the cancellation:

“KPFA is a progressive institution in the Bay Area, and an institution that reflects social justice,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday. “It isn’t required to give such anti-Islam rhetoric a platform.”

In its defence of the cancellation, KPFA in a blog post mentioned three of Dawkins’s tweets it deemed offensive, and included the following statement:

We serve a broad and diverse community, including many Muslims living under threat of persecution and violence in the current political context. Islamophobic rhetoric stokes that threat.

Dawkins in his own response questioned why it’s fine to criticise Christianity, but not Islam. Why should the religious ideas he’s criticising depend on the people holding them?

The implied answer by KPFA is that Muslims are an oppressed group, and therefore their beliefs may not be criticised because doing so reinforces their oppression. The paradox is that while American Muslims might be oppressed, Islam has approximately 1.8 billion followers worldwide, is the world’s fastest growing major religion, and is the majority religion in 49 countries. Not being able to criticise one of the world’s most influential belief systems is deeply problematic, but this doesn’t seem to have been a consideration for KPFA in its pursuit of social justice.

Earlier this month, Google engineer James Damore was fired after an internal memo he wrote was leaked to technology website Gizmodo, which labelled it an ‘anti-diversity screed’. An article at reported it as Damore claiming that women are not biologically fit for tech roles, an article at called it an ’anti-woman screed’, and an article at called it an ‘anti-diversity tirade’. Even more dispassionate articles addressing the science behind Damore’s claims focus almost entirely on his references to gender studies.

Yet, it’s clear from reading the memo that gender differences were not primary concerns for Damore. Consider his summary of the memo at the beginning of the document, titled TL;DR:

·        Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of ​psychological safety​.

·        This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.

·        The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.

o   Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression

o   Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression

·        Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don't have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership.

·        Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

(There’s a section titled ‘reply to public response and misrepresentation’ before the summary, but it appears to have been put in later.)

There is a bullet point dedicated to gender differences, and their discussion takes up a good portion of the memo, but it’s clearly not his main focus. He makes it clear both in the memo and in an interview that he thinks the main problem at Google is that people are afraid to speak out against the social justice ideology that has come to dominate Google, and that the associated policies are becoming more extreme, in part because people are afraid to speak out against them.

Damore is arguing for more diversity, not less. He points to the same problem that The Heterodox Academy, co-founded by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, has emphasised. Essentially, that an unchallengeable and overzealous focus on gender- and ethnic diversity above all else leads to institutions full of people that look different but think alike, because it gradually pushes out anyone who doesn’t view the world through a framework of structural oppression.

Even worse, it can actually increase tensions by activating an oppressor-victim narrative that increases hostility, Haidt and psychologist Lee Jussim argued in a Wall Street Journal article that Damore linked to in his memo. As Haidt wrote in ablog post commenting on a paper by two sociologists on the dangers of microaggression training (which Damore suggests in his memo is part of Google’s diversity training):

The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

As a response to what he views as an overzealous, ideologically driven attempt to remove outcome disparities, Damore suggests that some outcome disparities with respect to gender may be due to biological differences. (He titles the section on gender differences ‘Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech’.) In other words, it’s possible that outcome disparities are not entirely due to structural oppression, and that treating them as such while refusing to accept alternative explanations may do more harm than good.

The fact that this caused such an outcry demonstrates the point that Steven Pinker made at the beginning of The Blank Slate:

My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing—no one believes that—but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme. (Kindle loc. 71-73)

While most mainstream liberals, including those in the media, would probably say in principle that both genes and culture play a role in various outcomes, in practice when someone like Damore suggests that outcome disparities may not entirely be due to culture (i.e., structural oppression), they are treated as heretics.

In fact, Pinker might as well have been writing about a large portion of the early Damore media coverage when he wrote:

The taboo on human nature has not just put blinkers on researchers but turned any discussion of it into a heresy that must be stamped out. Many writers are so desperate to discredit any suggestion of an innate human constitution that they have thrown logic and civility out the window. (Kindle loc. 92-94)

The fact that this is not a university, but Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, is the world’s second most valuable company, with 72,000 employees, demonstrates the extent to which the social justice movement has moved beyond academia. And as Damore implied in the interview I linked to, the situation is very similar at other large technology companies.

This suggests that some of the world’s most valuable and influential companies are now training their employees to believe that output disparities are entirely due to structural oppression, are implementing increasingly aggressive policies to overthrow these systems of oppression, are teaching employees through microaggression training that words are a form of violence, and are teaching them that criticism of social justice beliefs is not tolerated, regardless of any appeal to facts. It’s not quite at the level of Tufts yet, but it’s clearly moving in that direction.

For now, these arguments are focussed on identity groups, but it’s only a matter of time before they move on to narrower and narrower groups and then eventually individuals. Even if you manage to forcefully eliminate output disparities between large groups, there will always be subgroups that are below the mean, until you’re eventually at the individual level. Once you’ve established the idea that outcome disparities are due to structural oppression, and that criticism is unacceptable, communism is the inevitable result.

This is why the Google situation – with its silencing of dissenters, shaming of privileged groups, and forceful removal of systems of oppression – is so eerily recognisable to anyone with even a vague familiarity with the communist regimes of the past century; it’s the same basic idea, just in its early stages.

There’s no mystery here. Marcuse saw in the 1960s that identity groups were the path to overthrow capitalism.


But why does the social justice movement continue to grow? In an age where most religions are on the retreat, what makes this one different?

The reason is that while the social justice movement – with its a priori intellectual foundation that subordinates debate and inquiry, powerful myth, sacralising rituals, and fervent followers – bears many resemblances to other religions, it’s not just another monotheistic religion like Judaism or Christianity. Rather, it’s the liberal analogue to monotheism.

What are the main differences between liberals and conservatives?

Haidt, who has spent decades researching moral and political psychology, appearing on author Sam Harris’s podcast, gave a rough description (starting at 01:02:09, lightly edited for clarity):

So, I take part in a lot of discussions, I’m invited to all sorts of lefty meetings about a global society and… you know… the left usually wants global governance, they want more power vested in the U.N., I hear a lot of talk on the left about how countries and national borders are bad things, they’re arbitrary. So, the left tends to want more of a universal… I’m just thinking about the John Lennon song… this is what I always go back to, Imagine. Imagine there’s no religion, no countries, no private property, nothing to kill or die for, then it will all be peace and harmony. So that is sort of the far-leftist view of what the end state of social evolution could be.

Now, is that possible, is it consistent with our evolved nature? Now , here’s the other side. The other side, the conservative view, is that we are fundamentally more groupish, more parochial creatures, and to have global governance, and one giant country, or one giant community of all Earth would be a nightmare, it would be chaos, it just wouldn’t work. Far better to have authority at the lowest level possible, at all times, and build up with nested structures. So for conservatives, a country ends up being a very reasonable basic building block, and they would not want as much of a global society. They certainly would want international law, they would want treaties, they would want all sorts of things.

So I think this is kind of case where if you have a blank slate view, or a very positive view that our basic nature is love and cooperation, and it’s only capitalism that screwed it up, you’re going to want a kind of John Lennon view of the future. Whereas, if you start with Edmund Burke, who talks about the little platoons of society, we develop into families, so conservatives are really focussed on the family as lower level institutions. And if you focus on making those strong, and then you think of some sort of a legal and social architecture, that allows multiple families and communities and states and countries to work together with a minimum of friction, I think that’s much more workable.

So getting a correct view of our evolutionary heritage and the psychology that resulted from it, I think is very helpful. It doesn’t tell us what’s right or wrong, but I think it does tell us which way is more likely to work. And if you see us as products of multilevel selection, with a deep, deep tribalism, that suggests you’re probably better off going for the Burke way, and having groups that are composed of groups and finding ways for them to work together, rather than the John Lennon way, which is let’s erase all group boundaries, let’s erase divisions of nation and everything else, and just have one giant planet, I just don’t think that’s likely to work, as with the communist societies, it’s making assumptions about human nature, that end up… people just refuse to live that way, and it’s a disaster.

There’s a bit of an imbalance here, as Haidt was comparing a more radical liberal viewpoint to moderate conservatism in the context of problems with the social justice movement, which naturally makes the latter seem more reasonable than the former. In general, though, Haidt used to be a liberal and now considers himself a centrist, so he doesn’t favour one or the other.

Nevertheless, it provides a valuable insight into the main difference between liberals and conservatives, in my view: their desire for structure. Liberals want to remove structure, and conservatives want to preserve, or even strengthen it. (Where structure here refers to institutionalised patterns of behaviour.) And, as Haidt implies, radicals want it even more so than moderates. In fact, if one were to fit people along a political spectrum, all the way from ultraconservative to radical liberal, this would likely correlate strongly with the amount of desired structure in society.

The labels are more descriptive than they’re sometimes given credit for. Liberals want to free people from the restrictions of societal structures and allow them to act unrestricted as diverse individuals. This was true of the classical liberals, who wanted to remove the restrictions on commerce and beliefs placed on people by feudalism and The Church. It was more true of Marx, who wanted to free people from the restrictions of capitalism, and even more true of the Critical Theorists and postmodernists, who wanted to free people from the restrictions of cultural, epistemological, and linguistic norms.

It's important to distinguish objective from consequence, especially when dealing with the latter two. When looking at communist regimes or the Damore situation, it seems like Marxists and Critical Theorists want to place restrictions on people; to force them into ideological and behavioural uniformity. But when reading Marx or Marcuse, it’s clear that’s not their goal. Rather, they genuinely seem to desire the type of sandlot society that Lennon sings of in Imagine. A society where everyone is entirely free to do as they want, liberated from all the restrictions of societal structure.

When communists point to the communist regimes of the past century and say ‘that’s not real communism’, I think they’re being sincere, and that the totalitarianism of these regimes was not what Marx envisioned.

Conservatives, on the other hand, want to conserve structure: families, local communities, nations, and private property. As Haidt suggests, they are operating under different assumptions about society and human nature. It’s not that conservatives are against individual freedom, it’s that they believe that structure is necessary for society to function, and that that necessarily places restrictions on people. Evolutionary theory, to some extent, replaces traditional religion in offering an account of why structure exists and is necessary.

Studies show that liberals and conservatives differ on a variety of preferences, including their preference for participating in hierarchical structures. Unfortunately, as psychologist José Duarte points out, many of the models used in these studies embed liberal terminology (often thick moral concepts like social dominance and authoritarianism) and caricatured questions, which means that while they may be predictive, their interpretation and communication has a liberal framing.

The subtle implication being that preference for less hierarchy is good, implying that conservatives are less good than liberals, and radical liberals best of all. Which, as Haidt’s speech above demonstrates, is nonsense. If hierarchies – or any social structure – are to be evaluated, it should be on their function, not on some a priori morality.

Another difference is openness to experience. Liberals tend to be more open than conservatives. (Although Duarte has suggested that the questions may be biased.)

Understanding that liberals and conservatives differ primarily on their desire for structure helps explain the difference in appeal between monotheism and the social justice movement. Monotheism is built around a set of eternal moral laws that apply to a variety of behaviour. This, of course, is appealing to someone who desires a structured society. But why the religious aspect? Because it ties the belief system into a supernatural account, thus eliminating the need for appealing to facts. Conservative monotheists don’t have to explain the utility of a given societal structure, they can point to God’s commands as something that supersedes any functional account.

The same is true for liberal social justice followers. Their desire to remove structure can be grounded in the moral narrative that humans are naturally free (blank slates), and that it’s the highest moral imperative – known a priori – to free them from the oppression that civilisation, the Enlightenment, capitalism, gender roles, and other oppressive structures has placed on them. Also here, there is no need to discuss the function of any given structure, because ‘oppression’ is always wrong, and this belief supersedes any fact.

The religious appeal is conceivably stronger on the far ends of either side of the spectrum. For a person especially averse to uncertainty, the eternal laws of monotheism are likely especially attractive, because they allow that person to rationalise his or her discomfort by saying ‘it’s not me that’s rigid, it’s society that’s corrupt’. And for a person especially averse to structure, it allows that person to rationalise his or her discomfort by saying ‘it’s not me that can’t conform, it’s society that’s oppressive’.

A study of left-wing protestors arrested on suspicion of politically-fuelled offences in Berlin showed that 92% lived with their parents, and a third were unemployed. This offers some plausibility that people attracted to radical liberalism and a desire for radical overthrow of ‘systems of oppression’, might be people who have an especially difficult time conforming to society, perhaps due to a high degree of openness.

It’s possible that, at least on the far ends, psychological traits toward or against structure may be more important than care and empathy, for instance.

While Haidt doesn’t address this specifically in The Righteous Mind to my recollection, he demonstrates convincingly how prevalent rationalisation is in people’s thought processes. Radical liberals may think they’re acting out of empathy (because it sounds much more heroic, or perhaps because they aren’t aware of their psychological traits), but a significant driver might be a psychological trait towards openness that drives them to want to remove structure in society.

The same, of course, might be true of ultraconservatives. A significant driver of trying to implement a highly structured society might be a psychological trait towards certainty, although they might think they’re doing it for the good of society, and/or according to God’s will.

 (Both extremely high and extremely low openness correlate with personality disorders.)


Haidt briefly mentions that communism failed because people refused to live like that. It’s more than that, though.

Economist Ludwig von Mises explained that communism must fail, because a communist society lacks something critical: information. Communism eliminates trade, since it removes private property and tells people where to work. But when people trade they aren’t just trading products and labour, they’re also trading information about their preferences, and when this no longer occurs there’s no way for producers to know what to make, and so eventually you end up with a society where people’s desires are unfulfilled and there’s a spiral into misery. (And people’s desires aren’t arbitrary, they have evolved to form a system that also addresses environmental pressures.)

In other words, communism didn’t just fail because it went against human nature. It also failed because capitalism forms a structure that helps society function.

This is a theoretical argument. Perhaps the best example of the fundamental shortcomings of communism in practice was demonstrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. After seizing power, the Khmer Rouge forcefully relocated millions of Cambodians from the cities to rural areas, where they were to form a classless, agricultural society. Private property was confiscated, money abolished, religion banned, books burned, merchants and intellectuals killed, anyone suspected of subversive activity executed, institutions closed, families broken up, language changed to delete class references, and culture changed to remove traditional signs of deference and to force social activities like eating together at all times.

It was perhaps the most comprehensive attempt at social engineering ever recorded. There was a nationalist and racial element involved, leading some scholars to suggest that it resembled fascism more than pure communism. This certainly adds to the horror of the event, but doesn’t negate its significance as an example of the fundamental shortcomings of communism, I think.

In attempting to create a classless society, the Khmer Rouge forcefully eliminated all the structure that allowed Cambodian society to function. What might have seemed like systems of oppression to the Khmer Rouge were vital societal structures. In the span of four years, more than two million Cambodians died, out of a total population of eight million.

What’s especially telling about Cambodia is that there was an element of anti-intellectualism and counter-Enlightenment ideology more reminiscent of newer forms of Marxism (including Critical Theory) than original Marxism, and which seemingly made the situation even worse. (Many of the Khmer Rouge leaders studied in Paris during the 1950s, and participated in French Marxist groups.) The rejection of urban life was apparently based on a desire to return to the ‘old ways’. (A parallel to the Noble Savage myth.) Suspected intellectuals were killed, including people with glasses, and modern medicine was forbidden.

Which to a large extent demonstrates that the more extensively one identifies and overthrows ‘systems of oppression’, the more extensively one tears away the structure that makes society function.

So where did Marx go wrong? Why have communist regimes been disastrous, in many cases playing out in very similar ways to Cambodia? It does seem that Marx’s historical analysis is accurate, that society has become less oppressive. After all, there’s a reason we don’t allow slavery any more. And if society has gradually become less and less oppressive, surely it makes sense to extrapolate it all the way to zero?

The answer, I think, lies in what we mean by oppression. Marx is operating within the liberal tradition, where the highest value in society is individual freedom, and oppression refers to restrictions on individual freedom. The classical liberals focused on person-to-person restrictions of freedom in force or fraud, Marx on economic restrictions, and the Critical Theorists and postmodernists on cultural, epistemological and linguistic restrictions. And, of course, all these things do place restrictions on freedom.

But they’ve forgotten or dismissed the most important restrictor of all: nature. The fact that humans are unable to fly like birds restricts our individual freedom. The fact that we have to eat every few days or die restricts our freedom. And so on. So, one cannot simply remove all structure through social engineering because the restrictions society places on us are often derived from the restriction nature places on us.

Capitalism places restrictions on us, but it does so in order to satisfy the restrictions that nature places on us. One cannot simply eliminate it. The same is true of epistemology and language. It is certainly restricting for schools to teach that some beliefs are false, or that some statements are more grammatically correct than others, but these restrictions derive from the restrictions that nature places on knowledge and language as tools for navigating the world.

And there is no way to step outside of nature, because that would mean there’s something else to step into, which in that case would be part of nature. Therefore, any structural change must take into account the restrictions nature places on society. In many cases, they have evolved biologically or culturally to address these restrictions, sometimes in non-obvious ways. (As Mises demonstrated with the price-setting mechanisms of capitalism.)

Marx was partly right – there is a structural progression where human freedom is gradually increased. But it occurs within the framework of natural constraints, which means that societal structure is refined rather than eliminated. In fact, that might simply be the definition of societal progression – the refinement of it its structure, i.e., institutionalised patterns of behaviour. As the structure becomes more complex, people have more freedom, yet this occurs within the structural constraints that allows society to function, which includes effectively addressing its many natural restrictions.

This is why both liberals and conservatives play a vital role in societal progression. Liberals strive to remove structure, while conservatives strive to keep it in place. But because they both do so selectively, they can each focus on different areas. The result being that liberals pull apart the structure that is most oppressive, while conservatives hold together the structure that is most necessary. Sometimes they might conflict head on, but when they don’t, the structure is refined in a way that is less oppressive without losing its necessary function, with the additional freedom allowing for a more complex society.

The problem occurs when one side becomes too strong. When liberals become too strong, structure is torn apart and society is unable to function, the results of which Cambodia and the many communist regimes are examples of. When conservatives become too strong, structure becomes rigid and society is unable to function, the results of which theocracies are good examples of.

We are now in a situation, I believe, where liberalism has become too strong. The main reason is that there’s a religious asymmetry. It’s no longer acceptable in Western society to appeal to conservative religion, i.e., monotheism in a public argument, as a result of the past few centuries of scientific resistance. Meanwhile, appealing to liberal religion, i.e., social justice, is perfectly acceptable.

Concepts like (social) justice, oppression, diversity, and equality are taken a priori, with no requirement that their reference is clarified in relation to the natural world or that they conform to scientific knowledge. They get to end arguments in the way that monotheistic concepts used to, with no further questions asked. In fact, they often get to overrule appeals to science, for example through moral outrage and sophistry. All this used to be something monotheism could rely on, but not anymore.

The best way to judge the balance between liberals and conservatives is to ask who has the moral high ground. Clearly, in public debate, that has shifted very strongly towards liberals.

This needs to change, or Western society is in danger of being torn apart. There are three things that must occur, I think.

First, an insistence on not letting science, especially social science, be taken over by emancipatory methodology, such as that of Critical Theory. Science must be free of a priori beliefs, or it cannot function properly.

Second, conservatives need to reclaim their sacred mission, which is as protectors of history, culture, and other societal structures. These things have been left almost entirely to liberals, especially radical liberals, with the result being an increasingly severe attack on Western history, culture, and values. Rather than protecting Western culture, radical liberals have been attacking it. But it’s not their job to protect it; that’s the job of conservatives. Expecting otherwise is foolish. The job of liberals is to question, challenge, deconstruct, and eliminate. If there’s no one defending, everything is eventually going to be torn down.

Third, conservatives must avoid falling into a classical liberal position. Because liberalism, especially radical liberalism, sometimes turns on itself, it’s tempting for conservatives to adopt a classical liberal position and essentially try to ‘out-liberal’ liberals. For example, by pointing to restrictions on free speech and silencing of oppression in liberal environments. This is worthwhile pointing out, but liberals will always ultimately win a debate where liberalism (i.e., human freedom) is taken a priori as the highest value. Conservatives should embrace the idea that liberalism and conservatism are equally important activities in ensuring robust societal progress.


  1. Thanks for this brilliant piece, Uri. You pulled a lot of strands together in a way that makes sense. I found your comments on the link between natural restrictions and cultural restrictions especially insightful. I've often thought how freedom from restrictions seems like a nice thing, but in its extreme form is actually nonsensical since freedom can only exist in relation to natural restrictions. The following excerpt nailed it:

    "And there is no way to step outside of nature, because that would mean there’s something else to step into, which in that case would be part of nature. Therefore, any structural change must take into account the restrictions nature places on society."

    I have one question for you, though. What do you mean by the following statement: "And people’s desires aren’t arbitrary, they have evolved to form a system that also addresses environmental pressures." I take it to mean that people's desires aren't frivolous things, as is commonly claimed by capitalism's critics - human desires are the way by which we ensure food, shelter, and sufficient leisure. Could you confirm that I've read this right?

    Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your articles.
    - Tristan

    1. Hi Tristan, I appreciate the compliment.

      I agree you picked out a central statement. It's important to keep in mind that much modern leftist thought has an underlying Hegelianism: the idea that apparent limitations, including those of 'nature', are socially constructed and can be removed through societal development that identifies and overcomes intellectual shortcomings. If you're suspicious of that, as I am, then you must recognise that nature places limitations that one cannot step outside of.

      Regarding your question, yes you've read it correctly. And it's not just food, shelter, and leisure in the broad sense. Even the specifics of a societal system may have developed to address specific requirements, for example feeling disgust towards certain things, sexual preferences, taste preferences, etc. This isn't to say society can't be changed, of course, but it's important to keep in mind that society is a calibrated system that includes people's actual desires, and that changing something can lead to unintended consequences.


  2. Compliments above seconded, especially for the three Quillette pieces.

    I haven't thought through my argument yet, but I wanted to suggest an issue or topic arising from the article above, on which I'd be interested in your thoughts. The issue is this:

    Aren't there different kinds of liberalism even within the "classical liberal" category in the way in which you've used it towards the end of the piece?

    I'm thinking that what you describe by "classical liberal" is closer to libertarian "-ism" rather than the ideas say of Burke and Locke.

    "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" as AC Crowley put it, or (before him) de Sade; as opposed to principles of life, liberty, and property derived from hard-won experience and tradition, the latter illustrated in Dr Jordan Peterson's exposition of the Biblical stories. Arguments over abortion, for example, precipitate some of the variety of positions, both liberal and conservative, that I'm gesturing towards.

    I hope this clear enough at least as as a starting point. I haven't had time to marshall evidence from your statements. In fact, the clarity and care of the way you do this impresses me most of all about your writing.

    Noach (Neville)

    1. Sorry I missed your comment Neville. I appreciate the compliment.

      I agree that there are different kinds of liberalism. I think of liberalism as defined broadly as the belief that human freedom is the ultimate societal value or moral good, which differentiates it from religious systems, where the ultimate value may be obedience to God's word, or conservative systems, where it's social stability. (Obviously, all this is debateable.) This then leads to questions of: 1) what is human freedom, and 2) how do we achieve it. Classical liberalism and leftist liberalism disagree on both these points, as I see it.

      As you point out, I'm using a different conception of liberalism than what was used originally, but that's much easier to do in hindsight. Kant is thought of as a classical liberal, but he advocated a very strong deontological ethic that a modern classical liberal or libertarian wouldn't accept. So yes, I use the term classical liberal the way a modern self-described classical liberal would. I agree there's a difference.


  3. Great Uri, thanks, I have to think about what you wrote.