A version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.
Describing political perspectives on a left-right spectrum began with the French Revolution.
In the National Constituent Assembly of 1789, deputies most critical of the French monarchy began to congregate in seats to the left of the President’s chair. Supporters of the monarchy to the right. No assigned seating. Just a natural affinity for sitting near those with which you most agree. So developed the party of movement, and the party of order.
Left-right is a metaphor. It only means something because the concept developed widespread familiarity, and it’s a helpful framework for explaining complex identities. Helpful, at least, in that it neatly described a spectrum of opinion on that very specific question in 1789: where do you identify on this spectrum between movement and order during this open debate on the role of monarchy?
Following the well-established trend line of metaphor in language, this nuance has been largely sanded down. Many of us even reduce ourselves to this single axis: how far left or right or near the center am I (on every issue)?We attempt to incorporate all of our hopes, beliefs, experiences and philosophies into a single point that is either to the right or the left of some (shifting!) middle.
Surely we know this can’t hold up under scrutiny. People are complex. Yet it’s how we treat each other (and ourselves).
When we understand someone as a single point on a single axis, I think of this as a kind of flattening of that person. We do this to historical figures. I was reminded recently of an off-handed comment buried in a 2017 book review. We understand the complexity of a friend or a contemporary, the reviewer wrote, but “the moment someone becomes a feature of the past, however, he is reduced to a vector with a single transit and historical purpose.”
We don’t have the memory to hold nuance about every person. Flattening is a feature of our mental data storage. We remember simple narratives about historical figures and celebrities and distant acquaintances. Simple, unoffensive. Until we do it to everyone. When we do that, flattening becomes a tool of war. War could be defined as a period in which all complexity is flattened down to two opposing forces. There are no politics in the foxhole.
Outside of war, though, democracy depends on “free trade in ideas.” We’re struggling to maintain that marketplace as a single-axis. Us versus Them becomes constant. In his farewell address, President Obama called this the Great Sorting. It seems an unworkable premise to reduce everyone to a single point on a single axis of “good” or “bad.” If we do, for practical purposes, it seems to be that we are in a societal war. “We must end this uncivil war” is then not a metaphorical call but a literal one.
It’s worth remembering what happened in 1789 after the right-left ‘great sorting’ of the French Revolution. (I am not even mentioning here the Dark Enlightening neo-reactionaries of recent years). During the ensuing Reign of Terror, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for their views and 17,000 people were executed. A dictator followed. So, too, did many lasting societal concepts we cherish today. The French Revolution is too complex to flatten and put on a single good-bad spectrum. People are too.