Learning from the Left

Overcoming division helps everyone build their better world

Here’s a question I don’t often hear from my conservative friends: what can we learn from the left?

In an attempt to bring folks together, I posted earlier on ways for the left to work better with the right. Here I want to help the right better understand their brothers and sisters on the left—especially since growing ideological divides are inhibiting Catholic eco-activity. In the process, I'll be offering critiques of both the hard left and hard right. I do so in the spirit of fraternal correction, and, I admit, as my own means to sort through the mess we've found ourselves in.

But first, a few starting points:

I received comments on my post Conversations with Conservatives that I’m using terms that aren’t always precise—left, right, conservative, liberal, etc. That’s true. But for all their limits, we know generally what these conventions mean, and what they don’t, and we can all agree that there’s more to the words and the concepts behind them.

Second, just a few days after my posting, Politico published Matthew Hutson’s stellar piece Why Liberals Aren’t as Tolerant as They Think. Its title is certainly one-sided, but Hutson offers us lots to think about.

One statement is worth considering. It’s about the discriminatory nature of the left toward the right, and vice versa. According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2013, Hutson writes that

[c]onservatives’ discrimination was driven by their higher traditionalism and by liberal groups’ apparent violation of their values. Liberals’ discrimination was driven by their lower traditionalism and by conservative groups’ apparent violation of their values. Complicating matters, conservatives highly valued self-reliance, which weakened their discrimination toward liberal groups, perhaps because self-reliance is associated with the freedom to believe or do what one wants. And liberals highly valued universalism, which weakened their discrimination toward conservative groups, likely because universalism espouses acceptance of all.

But these differences didn’t affect the larger picture: Liberals were as discriminatory toward conservative groups as conservatives were toward liberal groups.

That context helps explain way it can be a challenge to build friendships across the aisle. But that doesn't mean we can’t understand each other’s motivations, and then move forward, together, while learning from the other.

And so I’d like to suggest four areas in which conservative Catholics can learn from their more liberal ones.

1. How to organize and act. The left has a vision of the world (more on that later) and they will not rest until it is realized—until theory becomes praxis, as they might say. For conservatives, I think, there's an assumption that it's unnecessary to expend energy on defending what has always been, or what has always worked, or especially what is natural. It’s as if the status quo is so rooted in reality that nothing can change it. So why bother defending it?

If the right wants to get its voice into the public consciousness—and they should, because they have much to offer about the Church’s teachings on integral ecology—then they’d better get busy.

For those on the left, the status quo hasn't always worked, so it becomes necessary—indeed, inevitable—to exert energy and influence to realize their vision of progress. It would be a moral failure to do otherwise.

Many of my friends on the right—who, yes, also organize and act, especially when it comes to issues of abortion and marriage—have a lot to learn from the left’s intuitive ability to gather, unify, and effectively engage the narrative. The left is impressive at this. Just look at how these past few decades they’ve changed pretty much everything about how people think of core realities—like marriage and sexuality.

If the right wants to get its voice into the public's consciousness—and they should, because they have much to offer about the Church’s teachings on integral ecology—then they’d better get busy.

2. Begin with what is right and just. Today’s leftist ideologues were almost certainly educated by academics and activists who themselves were educated by academics and activists that had legitimate beefs with the way things were done back in the day, and often still are. From racism to the harsh treatment of laborers and immigrants, the left has always defended the weak—“the little guy,” my grandmother, a Democratic party boss, would say.

The methods and means by which the left exposed, fought, and changed legitimate and objective wrongs were very often successful. And now, polished with experience and surging with momentum, these methods are being deployed for more subjective causes—for the vision that all people must be allowed to attain whatever one desires.

To help my conservative friends keep reading, allow me to add this caution: We have come to the point where the left has lost its why. It has found itself incapable of telling the difference between objective truths and subjective ones—between legitimate and dangerous ones. In addition, it seems to me, from its protests and politics—at its meetings and discussion groups—a great many on the left think too much of worldly power. If my left-leaning and overtly leftist friends and family are any indicator, they’ve placed the attainment of power over the humility taught by the Beatitudes—which provided Western Civilization with the very notion of caring for the least among us. When the pursuit for “empowerment” is detached from the truths of the Gospel, it can no longer rely on the built-in safety mechanism of prudence. Unfettered by the realities like natural law—which are seen as restrictions—many on the left today cannot stop championing causes like same-sex marriage (a battle they’ve mostly won among the young), aborting the unborn (a battle they’re beginning to lose among the young), and artificial contraception (a big win for them here, at least for the moment).

In all of these and so many other issues, the left uses the same playbook that was and is used to fight noble causes. Begin with righteous anger and make the issue personal; gather, protest and fight; and do not stop until your people are in positions of every power imaginable—government, the media, the entertainment industry, the pastor—and so seize the means to turn the narrative your way, and so make the vision a reality.

Now here’s an example of were the right is getting it right. The battle for abortion is being won today because of the framing of the matter as a “right to life”—as the unborn having a “personhood.”

The right can learn something here. Putting aside the left’s recent habit of bullying and even a disposition towards violence, they build their successes on matters of justice—actual or otherwise.

Now here’s an example of were the right is getting it right. The battle for abortion is being won today because of the framing of the matter as a “right to life”—as the unborn having a “personhood.” With all of that supported by the scientific findings of advanced forms of biology, the right is winning the hearts and minds of younger generations—potential victims of the practice who will someday be the ones choosing who lives and who dies.

So the right must frame its arguments with clear and demonstrable connections to helping the little guy—the weak, the vulnerable. Then, and only then, can it hope to win the war of the narrative, and then seize the powers that pull the strings that make things, well, right.

3. Realizing that the left is right sometimes, too. I’m convinced that the often dismissive attitude toward eco-protection and the downright denial of climate change is, for many on the right, largely rooted in the lazy reaction of simply opposing anything the left supports.

Issues have to be examined by their own merits. Ecology in particular. It makes no sense to deny science—even if voices on the left use ecology for political, anti-life ends. Rather than walk away after robotically denying that the left is correct about eco-issues (but not necessarily eco-solutions), the right should instead charge in, find common ground where it is to be found, and add its voice to the solutions being offered—all in defense of innocent life.

4. Learning from their mistakes. How many Catholic parishes these past few decades have taken down their sanctuary crucifix and replaced it with some form of the Risen Christ? Try and advocate for the return of the crucifix and you start a war.

Similarly, many on the left have pretty much rejected sin and the Cross needed to overcome it. Their worldview is one in which no one should be asked to pick up their cross. It is a kind of imminent eschatology—and it has infiltrated our politics and our liturgies. This is a grand generalization, I know. But it has a good deal of truth to it.

Here’s what this means for the right—here’s where their responsibility comes in. The left cannot hope to achieve success in, for instance, the arena of eco advocacy because it has adopted a narrative that ultimately rejects self-denial. How can the left truly teach sacrifice for the planet’s good when it sees everyone’s bodily desires (not needs, but desires) as fundamental rights that must be accepted, encouraged, and provided for?

In Catholic eco-circles, it is the doctrine of sin and repentance that reminds us that we very often have to give up what we want to get something better—and sometimes that something better is actually for someone else.

Our ecological ills are the results of sin on a cosmic level as well as those particular ones that come from the fallen nature of communal policy and personal choices. Our longing to attain whatever feels best is akin to the very reasons we’re using up and throwing away our planet’s resources. We want what we want, when we want it, and no one can tell us we should not have it. After all, who are they to judge?

In Catholic eco-circles, it is the doctrine of sin and repentance that reminds us that we very often have to give up what we want to get something better—and sometimes that something better is actually for someone else. As I posted on Good Friday, there can be no ecological conversion without the Cross.

Civilizations cannot survive without abiding by the laws of nature and natural law—which includes appreciating that the miracle of human life begins at conception; that marriage is the union of one man and one woman designed for the procreation of new life—with the goal that children are reared and educated in stable families, and, thus, communities; that societies possess a common good, and we best live in a way that helps the attainment of that shared and necessary good.

Sacrifice, at first, is not an easy sell. But the truth of it is always self-evident, if not right away then after things begin to fall apart.

The trick for the right is to build the relationships now to offer that truth in ways that people will hear it—or at least have access to it when they learn that they need it.

But in order to do that, you first have to be open to relationships with the other side.

And to do that, you have to talk to them. And listen.

And learn.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.