I have spent many years cataloging the differences between secular humanist and civil libertarian values of autonomy, democracy, and freedom over against the religious and authoritarian desire to control thought and behavior. I draw these distinctions because I believe that understanding authoritarianism is vital to defending civil liberty and promoting human rights.
Authoritarianism is a fear of freedom and individuality, a loathing of the elements of others and of the self that contradict traditional systems of moral regulation, that is religious, culturally, and politically closed systems. Fear, insecurity, intolerance, and poor emotional regulation leads to the desire in some to control others, to embrace and defend ideologies and arguments for aggressive violence dressed as defensive and just moral action.
The authoritarian mindset cannot abide autonomous lives and unwelcome opinions. The authoritarian cannot tolerate modes of thinking that do not align with his. He opposes association and assembly for groups expressing opinions with which he disagrees. He disrupts gatherings of individuals who are sharing ideas he opposes, although, granting his fashion sense, he hasn’t quite worked out why he opposes them. Either though force, shame, or defamation, he desires the imposition of speech codes. He takes offense at speech that makes him feel uncomfortable, that insults his identity, that hurts his feelings. He blurs the line between speech and violence, claiming at once that those who upset him are assaulting him, or that they are at least a physical threat to his person and with whom he identifies or sympathizes, offenses that justify according to him suppression and violence, coercive actions held up as legitimate forms of protest and resistance.
In contrast to the authoritarian, secular humanists and civilian libertarians teach that we should instead strive to be cognitively free and emotionally autonomous, a state of being that exists when people are at liberty to think and speak as they wish, enjoy free and easy access to the means to produce knowledge and share ideas, social spaces that do not exclude people with disagreeable views, or allow groups with particular political and religious standpoints to regulate and limit interaction by imposing their ideology and behavioral controls on others. Secular humanists and civilian libertarians recognize that free speech and free thought is as much for the audience as it is for the speaker or the performer.
This standpoint permits for autonomy of belief, allows for the richest democratic practices, pushing participation into the fundamental social structures (e.g. the economy), encouraging law and policy to emerge as the work of consensus, work performed in open spaces, while simultaneously respecting individual or collective action that does not physically harm others who did not or cannot consent to be part of that action. Secular humanists tolerate a diversity of opinion and beliefs, permitting ideas to be expressed so they may be engaged. We seek to persuade people to change their minds, not coerce them to behave as if they have.
The authoritarian attitudes I have described mark the right-wing – the conservative, the traditionalist – while that those on the left – progressive liberals, radicals, socialists – are the natural defenders of secular humanist and civil libertarian values. Indeed, I still believe the humanist-libertarian tendency comes more organically to those of us on the left. Yet, today, there are some on our side whose actions betray an internalization and even embrace of authoritarian attitudes. Meanwhile, there are some on the right whose politics are guided by, or at least dressed as such, secular and libertarian values of free speech, assembly and association, and religious liberty.
The tragedy of this is that authoritarianism on the left makes more palatable right-wing ideas, since these ideas come with those who are defending – or at least appearing to defend – the core values of free and open society, values that most people desire in the ideal, but who actually represent a politics for less material freedom and a more superficial democracy. This is compounded by the fact that identity politics, left and right, dovetail with capitalist relations, politics and relations that fracture solidarity, when the left should be unified in an anti-capitalist movement. Without a choice between sides where at least one is engaged in changing the perilous circumstances of economic uncertainty, it is more likely that young men and women will run with the ideas that promote a type of hyper-individualism.
Left-wing identitarianism as a response to right-wing identitarianism is not a solution to the problems of injustice but an authoritarian attitude that serves the interests of the status quo. The one commonalty across all the groups that represents the basis for unified action, the one politics that could transform the system that underpins other divisions and antagonisms, is fractured, and the working class left disorganized, its power siphoned off into self-reifying groups based on socially constructed essences. Left-wing identity politics cannot represent a negation of, but instead serves as a mirror to right-wing identity politics, reflecting its intolerance, exclusion, essentialism, hierarchy, division, rage, and aggression. Left-wing identitarians become like their enemies in form. It is a betrayal of what the left should stand for, namely freedom of thought, the open society, democratic politics, and anti-capitalist struggle.