Left, right and the middle way

Was it George Bernard Shaw who said words to the effect of 'if you're not a commie when you're young you're heartless and if you're not a capitalist when you're old you're brainless"? Now a bit of research from Brock University in Ontario, Canada has found a co-relation between being rightwing and being unintelligent and prejudiced. O what joy -- what a wonderful opportunity to poke fun at all our blessed rightwing friends, especially in light of events at the Jaipur Literary Festival and then the Kolkata one. Religious fundamentalists decided that the presence of Salman Rushdie and the writings of Taslima Nasreen were objectionable and a cowardly government capitulated.

Skewed judgement: Every one has the right to feel hurt, regardless of
his political leanings, but in the case of Rushdie, any attempts to engage
intellectually with detractors came to naught

Human history is littered with examples of the socially conservative being cruel, judgmental, obscurantist, closed-minded, prejudicial and so on to those whom they could not understand or who were 'different'. Those who tried to question established beliefs were punished or worse, killed. There is undoubtedly a battle between those who try to understand life and those who refuse to question anything they were brought up to believe is true.

It can't be that simple, surely? After all, the commies were equally swift in punishing those who questioned them and the fall of the Iron Curtain revealed several injustices. And frankly, only the socially conservative are impressed with Communist China and applaud its infrastructure growth even if it is at the cost of its people! The Brock study, it must be pointed out, talks about left and right wing, not communist and conservative. The study was based on tests done on 15,000 teenagers in the UK, who were visited again when they were in their 30s and asked political questions. The findings suggest the less intelligent flock to rightwing views because they find them safe and are most likely to racist and anti-gay.

Empirical evidence would agree with this and certainly anyone who writes or speaks against religious or social conservatism -- of whatever denomination -- is usually subjected to some vicious, if illiterate and ignorant, abuse, particularly in these days of the Internet.

Perhaps what the study best delineates is power of fear. It's a convenient thing, fear because best of all, it prevents you from thinking. So then maybe it is power of thought which being rightwing protects you from. This is not to suggest that rightwing theory has not been propounded and supported by some very intelligent people. Nor is it easy to divide rightwing and leftwing by current political parties, wherever they are in the world. Rather, it is the ability of the powerful to prey upon lesser minds and intimidate them into thinking in a particular manner.

Therefore, when the Chinese question their current regime, they are swiftly and sometimes ruthlessly silenced, in case the questioners manage to raise doubts in the minds of the flock. In the cases of Rushdie or artist MF Husain, any attempts to engage intellectually with their detractors came to naught because of the innate anger of the believer. When this anger is based on ignorance it is usually intractable. Knowledge sometimes forces us to question what we have always believed to be true.

Of course, everyone has the right to feel hurt, regardless of your political leanings. But the question is, how far should you take your reaction to that 'hurt', perceived or real? A street protest might be all right but violence or censoring may not. In the case of Rushdie and Husain, both tactics were used. To what avail is another matter.

The answer -- if one is even possible -- would be to waffle along in the middle of the road, since both extremes are equally dangerous. And that is the avowed viewpoint of a left-of-centre, woolly-headed, liberal, secular, atheist type!

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter@ranjona

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