Has Left-Wing Political Discourse Become an Echo Chamber?

Posted on May 31, 2011


I’ve been living at my parents’ house in Markham, Ontario for nearly a month now, and life in the suburbs is really starting to wear on me. Chief among my frustrations is the fact that I have very little common ground with my family when the conversation turns to anything more substantial than the latest hockey game. My immediate family are all intelligent, well-meaning people and the one or two Harper votes that they cast were the result of an entirely understandable over-dependence on the political narratives coming from the mainstream media.

I know that I should be carefully choosing my battles here, given that discussions between political opponents can be quite unpleasant, and I have to live here for the next three months. Sometimes, however, I can’t help myself. The discussion of The Bro Code and rape-enabling language that ensued during tonight’s drive home from a pub supper was just such an occasion. Not only could I not resist rocking the boat, but, in this particular case, I wound up convincing myself that I actually had an obligation to do so. So, much to the chagrin of the other occupants of the car, I waded into the topic of rape culture.

I’m not going to give a play-by-play of the conversation. That wouldn’t be very polite to my family members, who probably don’t want their comments published on the internet without their knowledge or consent. I’ll simply say that some limited progress was made, at the expense of about half an hour of civil relations. Not a terrible trade-off by any means. What really struck me, however, is the difficulty I had in communicating my point. Concepts that I can easily explore with my liberal arts educated friends became extremely difficult to articulate to this new audience. Among the words which were out of bounds were “rape culture” and “patriarchy”. I let the word “oppression” slip at one once, and the whole point I was making was immediately swatted down as an example of political correctness run amok.

This is not the first time I have faced this problem. When debating a similar subject with a friend of a roommate a few months ago, I had a great deal of trouble explaining why a course that purports to help women avoid sexual assault by modifying their daily habits to be less risky is really not helping the problem. In different company, I could and eventually did spend hours deconstructing his comments, but there was such a conceptual gulf between us that all my careful analysis of the issues became rhetorically useless.

My diagnosis of the problem is a difference in language. We progressives have been talking to each other for so long that we have developed our own lexicon to describe deep-rooted socio-economic problems and the possible means of fixing them. This was necessary because there are a lot of important debates to be had within the progressive movement and in  a these debates we need a means of discourse that is sufficiently precise to allow us to articulate the nuances of our different views. However, a problem arises when our entire political consciousness exists within this discourse. Our increasing use of jargon has rendered us incapable of communicating with the outside world.

This is a problem, because the kind of people who understand what the term “intersectional oppression” means are not a sufficiently large portion of society to make any real progress at actually combatting intersectional oppression within our representative democracy. We can work in the margins, of course, but the keys continue to be predominantly held by those who do not speak our language. If we are to have any success at all in countering our society’s most fundamental injustices, then we are going to have to learn to express our ideas in less familiar language, to be understood and engaged with by intelligent people who nevertheless have a different intellectual and political background than us.

This process will not be comfortable. Other political communities have their own specialized language, and in order to work within that framework we will have to engage with those communities on their own terms. Hopefully this will allow them to learn something from us, but we will have no success if we do not approach the project with a sufficiently open mind that we can also wind up learning from them. That is, after all, how the public sphere is supposed to work. Isn’t it?