Poll: What’s the best term for the cultural left?

Poll: What’s the best term for the cultural left?

One of the things I oscillate on is what to call what the ‘cultural left’, ‘progressive’ or so-called ‘socially liberal’ political ideology. By this I mean the ideology which puts a strong emphasis on issues such as race and gender, LGBT rights, the environment, safe spaces and trigger warnings, is pro-immigration, pro-EU and so forth, as opposed to the more traditional economic left, which typically focuses on concerns such as class, economic redistribution, unionisation, nationalising industries, taxing the wealthy and labour rights.

Clearly it’s entirely possible for the two things to go together, and many people may endorse both sets of positions. Equally though, they might not: in France for example, President Macron is economically to the right but socially and culturally to the left; someone could equally be economically left-wing but socially conservative. The descriptions above are also generalisations: not everyone will agree with everything within one strand, and many will have views which cross notional boundaries. Nevertheless, the broad grouping of ‘the cultural left’ is one that seems to have value in today’s society, such as the economic right and left do. The trouble is, there’s not really a good term for it.

Here are some of the options:

Cultural Left: This is reasonably clear and I think most people would know what it meant. The downside is that it’s a bit clunky and also implies that this is just part of the traditional left/right economic axis, rather than it’s own orthogonal axis.

Social Left: The same arguments apply as to Cultural Left. I don’t see this term used as much, so Cultural Left seems preferable.

Liberal/Social Liberal: This is often favoured by those who identify with the movement; however, from my perspective it’s an incorrect term. To me, it’s a political position that’s often highly illiberal and intolerant. It at times openly opposes freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to a fair trial, regularly seeks to ban things from smacking through faith schools to kosher/halal food and generally is highly intolerant of any dissenting viewpoints. I’m not using these terms.

Progressive: This is also used fairly frequently by those who identify with the ideology and has a number of advantages. It doesn’t use the language of right and left, making clear this is a different axis, and feels like a natural opposite to its opposing ideology, social conservatism. A downside though is that progressive is also sometimes used to refer to traditionally left-wing policies; I feel those who call for a ‘progressive alliance’, for example, mean an alliance of both economic and socially progressive policies.

Globalist/Internationalist: I’ve read that these terms are code words used by anti-Semites, so I’m definitely not using these terms unless in a very specific, technical sense. They don’t seem a good fit anyway: yes, the global outlook is a part of this ideology, but the domestic viewpoints around race and gender seem equally if not more important.

Anywheres: This term was invented explicitly to refer to this group; it comes from David Goodhart’s book, ‘The Road to Somewhere’ and references Theresa May’s statement about ‘citizens of nowhere’. The advantage is that it unambiguously refers to this ideology; the downside is that it’s fairly obscure, even amongst those who are politically engaged, and unintuitive unless explained.

Open: As in ‘open’ vs ‘closed’. Like ‘anywheres’, this refers explicitly to this ideology but is more widely used and a bit more intuitive. The disadvantage is that, unlike progressive vs conservative, where both terms express terms positive to their followers, open vs closed is pretty clearly biasing ‘open’ as the correct position. It’s also not all that intuitive, even if better than ‘anywheres’.

Social Justice Warriors: This seems to be clearly used primarily as a pejorative term by those who oppose the ideology. I’m not going to use that term.

Overall, either cultural left or progressive seem to be the best terms to use. However, I’d be interested in your views, especially as I believe a lot of my readers identify with this position. Please do take the advisory and non-binding poll below.


What's the best term for the cultural left?

22 thoughts on “Poll: What’s the best term for the cultural left?

      1. Neil, my assumption is that Guy is referring to how the word is used in Europe, e.g. the German SDP. And/or the old UK Social Democratic Party.

  1. While talking about left & right is perhaps a nice shorthand, I worry at such “groupings” are be led to such division in politics – as you acknowledge, everything is a spectrum.

    The other issue is that the left vs right terminology invites the idea of opposites, which in some cases is fair but in many cases is a gross oversimplification.

    Left and right are pretty abstract and non-descriptive (to the uninitiated). I wasn’t really politically engaged until my early 20s (and even then didn’t really read political media), and it took me a while to work out whether I was left or right – partly because I was figuring out what I thought, but mainly because I was figuring out what being left wing meant other people thought. Of course that wasn’t helped by the fact that the two major parties at that time were effectively both pretty central on many issues.

    For the group you describe above, then I think something like “socially inclusive” might be a good description, in order to avoid left/right. It is inclusive of people exhibiting a wide range of inherent characteristics (LGBT, gender, race, background etc.), though I agree that it can sometimes be restrictive (rightly or wrongly, and sometimes only in the extremes of the group) towards people exhibiting some behaviours (some aspects of religious freedom, various types of speech, smacking, smoking).

    “Cultural” seems a bit inappropriate in terms of definition to my mind, though that might be semantics. It’s culture a part of society or society a part of culture? It’s generally stated that our society is made up of different cultures

    1. It’s a good point that left and right are completely undescriptive! I guess they have the advantage of being around for a while. We maybe shouldn’t seek to use them as the default for other axes though, on that basis.

      I’d see two problems with your ‘socially inclusive’ suggestion:
      – The opposite is pretty clearly bad. Ideally we’d go for axis names where both sides felt positive (or at least neutral) about their ends, c.f. ‘conservative vs liberal’ ‘traditional vs progressive’, ‘right vs left’.
      – Many of us outside your group don’t feel that you’re at all socially inclusive. 🙂

  2. I’d go with Social Liberal or Cultural Liberal, and explain the paradox of tolerance if necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s an incorrect term – that Social Liberalism is intolerant is a feature (and arguably logical consequence) of Social Liberalism, rather than a position that is incorrect or not thought through.

    You missed “woke” off your list – this is my preferred term to specifically refer to this contemporary incarnation of social liberalism. I can’t imagine the term will stand the test of time, but it is used by both sides (as opposed to SJW, which is entirely pejorative from my experience).

    1. Very good point on ‘woke’! You’re right that it’s used by both sides. I’d be reasonably happy using that.

      I’m willing to provisionally accept that the intolerance is a feature if you say it is, but that still doesn’t change the fact that it is deeply illiberal.

  3. It seems to be a difference over what is prioritised:
    1) do you protect an inherent characteristics, with the necessary result that some people can’t behave as they’d otherwise like, at least to some degree;
    2) or do you protect people’s right to act/behave/speak however they like (within some limits, of course), with the result some groups with certain inherent characteristics are excluded to some degree?

    I don’t know how to simplify those into two-word descriptions… 🙂

    To make it topical, though rather unnuanced:
    1) do you protect LGBT+ rights, but prevent people teaching that heterosexual families are the only option?
    2) do you allow people to teach that heterosexual families are the only option, but exclude LGBT+ people.

    I suspect the issues on the extremes are that some people in group 2 don’t necessarily think that LGBT+ is a choice rather than an inherent characteristic, and that religious behaviour/opinion *is* an inherent characteristic rather than a chosen behaviour.

    (the above is clearly simplified for the purposes of explanation – I’m aware there’s a large grey area in the above, and I’m not trying to belittle anyone’s opinion through such simplification).

    1. You’ve dwelt here on who is protected, but not on what they’re protected from. Under the classic liberal position both sides are protected from criminal sanction or economic discrimination, and neither are protected from debate or criticism.

      Under ‘wokism’ one side is protected from debate, and the other side is subject to criminal sanction. Personally if you ever succeeded in showing that being right wing had a genetic component (it has a correlation with self control, which might have a genetic component), and then argued that therefore we weren’t allowed to criticise Tory’s I would have deep objections.

      (I don’t mean to imply that homosexuality does have a genetic component – the selection pressure against seems very strong – and I do note that you have neatly sidestepped this question with the vaguer, term ‘inherent’, which I’m happy to work with.)

      1. Here’s how I see it:

        In case 1, a group is protected from being told (explicitly or implicitly) that they cannot or should not engage with society in some way (e.g. marriage, certain careers etc.). If someone acts in such a way to breach that protection then there are sanctions (criminal or otherwise, such as “no platforming” etc).

        In case 2, a group is permitted to act or speak in such a way that would state or imply that another group with a certain charactistic cannot engage with society in some way. If someone has that characteristic then they are told (explicitly or explicitly) that they cannot or should not engage in society in some way.

        I agree that it is possible for the extremes of case 1 to go full circle and effectively become case 2 (or at least a mix of the two). I would agree that it could be argued that Tim Farron was treated in such a way – he held a personal view, but never used that to breach anyone’s rights (judging by his voting record), other than implying they couldn’t /shouldn’t “engage fully” with a religious group. In response to that he was effectively told he couldn’t engage with society in a certain way (in his case by being a party leader).

        1. I think that’s accurate. Crucially in case 2 the spoken about group can ignore the speaker, and carry on doing what they were before (they have freedom) where as the speaking group in case 1 end up sanctioned and do not have the freedom to continue as they were before – i.e. the social liberal position is less free than classic liberalism.

          1. I think this is another reason why the two sides are unlikely to agree. The jokes or slurs are the tip of the iceberg, and not really the main problem, but they do act normalise the kinds of behaviours that *are* the problem. The problem is the constant battle to do things like worry about being careful with how you state your point so add not to be disregarded as being bitchy, bossy etc.; or to be on constant guard against being stared at or touched inappropriately by colleagues; or being worried that by doing something someone from another group might do without a moment’s thought you might get arrested or possibly even shot; or not be able to join in the discussion about your personal life for fear of ridicule or ostracisation; or generally not feel that you can be yourself at work; or look over your shoulder every time you want to hold hands with your partner to see whether anyone is watching who might object. (Hopefully not all of the above).

            These are things which can be ignored when occuring as isolated events, but which when continuing over months or years become a drain on energy and attention, and in many cases can, for example, act to discourage someone from staying in a career they either like or are good at.

            I’m not suggesting that you would think any of all of those things are OK or appropriate. And I’m not saying there are other groups who don’t face similar minds of problems, though I’d hazard a guess not generally in such a “fundamental” way. And I’m not saying that things haven’t got better in recent decades, but there’s a long way to go.

            I’d agree that a group should be able to continue to disseminate its cultural values, but only up to the point that they don’t infringe on others in some way. Where that “point” lies is, I’m aware, a big bone of contention.

          2. Chris, I hope what I’m saying here doesn’t cause offence, but I’d like to ask you to consider the fact that your world-view, values and ethos are not ‘neutral’ or value-free. Maybe a good analogy here is the way some people describe someone as ‘not having an accent’. If you can’t hear it, it’s because the same as yours, and in the same way, if you don’t see that your culture, workplace or society has a strong world-view and values, it’s probably because they’re the same as yours.

            1. Do you imagine that Christians, social conservatives, Orthodox Jews or others in your out-group do not self-censor extensively in the workplace and elsewhere, to avoid negative comments and potentially worse consequences, such as those you describe above? I can assure you we do. Or that the dominant presence given to socially progressive views – including casual dismissal of other viewpoints, perhaps as stupid, racist or ill-educated – aren’t a drain on energy, and might not discourage someone from staying in a career? Surveys repeatedly show your own profession has a representation of just 10-20% conservatives, a proportion which, as Haidt observed, in other areas would be seen as strong evidence of discrimination.

            I’d ask you to reflect on how the following three, symmetrical, situations would play out in your work-place:
            i) A staff member displays a large, A2 ‘People’s Vote’ poster in their office, a location regularly visited by other staff and students; vs a staff member displays a large, A2 ‘Brexit means Brexit’ poster in their office, a location regularly visited by other staff and students.
            ii) A colleague posts an article on the faculty ‘activities and community forum’ saying they are running a half-marathon to raise money for a pro-choice charity, and would colleagues consider sponsoring them; vs a colleague posts an article on the faculty ‘activities and community forum’ saying they are running a half-marathon to raise money for a pro-life charity, and would colleagues consider sponsoring them.
            iii) A colleague regularly strikes up conversations with others at the coffee point in a mildly annoying but non-aggressive way, asking them if they’ve thought about how they can cut their carbon emissions, that there’s a really inspiring ‘Earth Day’ being run in town this weekend in the city centre and suggesting that they consider the benefits of veganism; vs a colleague regularly strikes up conversations with others at the coffee point in a mildly annoying but non-aggressive way, asking them if they’ve thought about the meaning of life, that their church is running a really inspiring ‘Gospel Day’ in town this weekend and suggesting that they consider the benefits of following Jesus.

            What might be the likely impacts, in terms of reception from colleagues, student reaction, potential protests and petitions and potential management action (from asking the colleague to end the activity, up to and including disciplinary action or dismissal)? And now potential reconsider who is most free to express themselves at work without concern for the repercussions.

            To quote (full article well worth reading): https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/05/01/neutral-vs-conservative-the-eternal-struggle/?comments=false
            “In the hospital where I work, there’s a RESIST TRUMP poster on the bulletin board in our break room. I don’t know who put it there, but I know that anybody who demanded that it be taken down would be tarred as a troublemaker, and anyone who tried to put a SUPPORT TRUMP poster up next to it would be lectured about how politics are inappropriate at work. This is true even though I think at least a third of my colleagues are Trump supporters.

            I went to a scientific conference in a field completely unrelated to politics where one of the researchers giving a presentation started with a five minute tangentially-related anti-Trump rant. I can’t imagine someone giving the opposite rant any more than I can imagine a pro-Trump commencement speaker at my friend’s graduation.

            The overall impression is of a widespread norm, well-understood by both liberals and conservatives, that we have a category of space we call “neutral” and “depoliticized”. These sorts of spaces include institutions as diverse as colleges, newspapers, workplaces, and conferences. And within these spaces, overt liberalism is tolerated but overt conservativism is banned.”

            2. You focus heavily on intangible harm that is quite hard to measure, such as being seen in a certain way, or not being able to be yourself at work. I’ve discussed above that I think this type of harm is not limited to your (dominant, majority) in-group, and is likely to be at least as prevalent in your out-group. Perhaps more importantly though, whatever weight we put on such harm, it seems on a completely different scale to real, material harm such as losing your job or being barred from a profession.

            This is a regular consequence for those in your outgroup. I could refer to the NGO CEO who was sacked because she had once – in a previous job – praised UKIP, or the African student expelled from Sheffield and barred from a career in social work because of a comment he’d made on an online forum about what (in his view) the Bible said about homosexuality. Such dismissals aren’t the actions of a lunatic fringe. They are the explicit, publicly proclaimed goals of many in the socially progressive movement, endorsed by widely quoted communicators and influencers, enforced by those in power and (usually) upheld by the courts.

            3. You like to say ‘up to the point that they don’t infringe on others’. I’d suggest that if your definition of ‘infringing on others’ includes what members of a minority group does, in its own community, without directly affecting others outside that group or seeking to impose it on them, then the caveat has lost all meaning.

            More broadly, I’m going to be blunt and say I don’t think you abide by that principle. You’ve consistently argued for positions that show you’re entirely happy to allow cultural values to infringe on others, providing that they’re your cultural values and the people being infringed upon are members of your outgroup. You support (as I understand it) abolishing faith schools and compulsory SRE in schools – two policies that clearly directly infringe upon others’ values and ability to maintain their culture. Other social progressives campaign to ban male infant circumcision (there was a notable case a couple of years ago in Germany, of all places) or to ban kosher and halal food, indicating again that this principle is not widely followed or applied. These are all directly impinging upon others, sometimes in a very consequential way.

            4. In this specific discussion, two members of a minority religious group (Neil and the individual on Facebook with initials JFM) have suggested to you that they feel imposed upon, threatened with criminal sanction and their family life impinged upon by the dominant culture. At no point have they suggested that their culture or values should be imposed on you, your family or anyone else (they are not, for example, arguing for prayers in secular schools, or to ban same-sex marriage). You, and other members of the dominant culture, have responded to them by saying that they are incorrect and that actually, they’re imposing things on others. I’d ask you to consider whether you’d respond in such a way to members of other minority groups.

            I’m sorry this reply has become so long. I’d again like to emphasise that the intent of this comment was not to offend, or to personally attack you or values. Before you reply, I would ask you to reflect really carefully upon the extent which you genuinely recognise your own world-view and values as being specific and definite, rather than neutral and universal; the way in which having values that align with the dominant world view in our culture today, and in particular in your specific industry, makes things more comfortable for you (and how the experience may be very different and less comfortable for those with a different world-view); and, after doing so, the extent to which you really feel it is justified to use the coercive force of the state to impose your values, not just in public places, but in the homes, schools and community groups of minorities with a different world-view. If, after doing so, you would still like to discuss further, I would be happy to do so by email or direct message.

          3. Firstly, no offence taken – I am happy to debate, and also reflect on the issues you (and others) have raised. You may be pleased to know that these kinds of debates do change my views on a range of matters to varying degrees, which I guess is part of the point. As a concrete example of previous discussions (on- and off-line), I would now *not* advocate abolishment of faith schools (though I still have reservations). I’m certainly cognisant that I am a member of a dominant “in group”, and that I have more exposure and involvement with some outgroups than others.

            Secondly, I apologise that I’ve given the impression that someone else’s world view is “wrong” in and of itself – that was certainly not my intention. I *think* what we’ve been debating is the effect that various people’s world-views and actions have on other people/groups – rather than the world-views themselves. I would concur that there are effects and impacts that both/all parties do not consider as important or impactful as the other.

            I’m also happy to take further discussion into email.

          4. Chris, thank you for your generous response. I appreciate it – and your honesty about changing your views, such as on faith schools. I do find our discussions genuinely interesting.

            To give a similar concrete example, I have also shifted my views from discussions with you (and others), and, for example take more care around gendered language when communicating publicly (see for example the penultimate paragraph of this article, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/dont-harm-opportunities-for-other-peoples-children/ , where I believe I’ve chosen the minority gender in each of the four cases).

            To return to the original purpose of this post, the exchange has, I think, conclusively shown that ‘liberal’ is not a good term to use as common terminology (for either side!) as it is too contested. 🙂 From the various comments, I’m leaning towwards social left or socially progressive, with ‘woke’ when I wish to be more colloquial.

          5. A++ starting to use language that avoids embedded gender assumptions. I’m glad we agree on SOMETHING. Fingers crossed for more points of agreement, even if we remain utterly disagreeing about most things.

        2. Chris, thank you for acknowledging that some of your out-group have faced a degree of societal exclusion for their beliefs and actions. Either Neil or I could give a large number of examples (not restricted to Christianity) of those, less prominent than Tim Farron, who have faced such exclusion.

          To me the issue of social progressive iliberalism goes further than this though. Even more fundamental than ‘Can a group engage fully in society?’ is ‘Can a group maintain its existence, passing on its culture, history and values?’ The Amish in the US might be a classic group that cannot do the first but who have rightly been given a high degree of toleration to do the latter.

          In seeking a high degree of control over its out-group’s education (in both state and private schools and in voluntary groups), to impose its values on family life, to police language and to destroy the cultural heritage of its out-group (most prominently, but far from exclusively, statues) the social progressive movement seems to have moved from seeking to control public life into direct cultural suppression.

  4. Progressive has an established economic meaning. As a word describing an alternative social axis I think this is pretty fatal.

    I don’t mind cultural left, but it looks like your pollsters hate it. Personally I’d say social liberal (vs. social conservative), and likely discuss how it is is the opposite of the classic liberal position on a lot of issues – a valid complaint, but not as important as the neutral, unambiguous language.

    Woke has the drawback of being entirely technical, but the advantage of being in general usage – I think this might be the answer in future if it continues to gain traction as a term – for the next few months I think you might have to keep putting bracketed explanation after it.

    1. Neil, I think the problem with social liberal is that it accurately describes a previous generation (some 2nd wave feminists, earlier Gay rights activists like Tatchell) who argued for a similar vision in terms of liberty, rather than imposing things on others. So social progressive seems more useful.

      1. Good point. Could we describe them as classic liberals (at any rate they seem to believe in freedom of speech), or are there important differences there?

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