The (Ir)Relevance of Left and Right

*Permit me a self-reflective moment and perhaps from the specifics I give, a useful generalization may be made.*

Previously, I had kept my views on international politics entirely separate from my domestic political views, perhaps because I didn’t (still don’t) know enough about either to make an educated, principled, and thoughtful judgement. However, I’ve always had a solid grounding in philosophy, such that over time, I’ve developed a hierarchy of ideas. Nowhere has this become more prominent than at my time at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Indeed, I have come to accept the fact that the majority of people in such a program have their views coloured by the political spectrum, whether they are conscious of it or not. For instance, I tend to find many anti-capitalists, cultural relativists,  environmentalists, animal rights advocates, human rights watchdogs.  As for me, I place more emphasis on free markets, religious tolerance, security and securitization issues, the end of transnational crime, promoting a (neo)liberal international order of international institutions and global civil society actors, as well as the promotion of good governance and the breakdown of authoritarian regimes. Granted there are some places of agreement among these issues, but the way we think about solving world issues is drastically divergent.

We performed an exercise replicating the Rio Summit on Sustainable Development, with Northern, Southern, corporations, and global civil society actors (NGOs) represented. Obviously, the corporations and NGOs had the most divergent views, but the professor brought up the interesting observation that if these extreme views had not been at the table, it would have been very hard to find an ideal middle ground. Naturally, I tend to lean more towards corporate interests because I genuinely believe in human progress and these  businesses have come to realize a certain amount of social responsibility for their actions, which I fully endorse. That said, there are people in my class who would prefer to see the corporations go up in smoke, shut down, stop producing, etc. and let Mother Nature recuperate. I have never advocated for environmental destruction, but I certainly am an advocate for feasibility and stewardship duties to both the human race and the planet.

Ultimately, I find that the best people in the program are the ones who have truly risen above such division into the realm of productive critique; the ones who are able to see the obvious flaws in certain ideas and the utility of others, as if they were diamond cutters. It is a very Millian way to think about this field of study, using the various lenses of IR theory to understand the nuances and complexities of the international system.

Perhaps I have been ideologically indoctrinated and it does not sit well with me (perhaps one of the reasons why I have not picked anything by Ayn Rand yet), which is why I like to read Foucault. His writings manage to free the mind to think at a level that seems to rise above the political spectrum so entrenched in practical politics. These posts and my philosophical reading appear to be the only objective elements of my reflective thinking.

People have told me that they don’t like to be labelled or put definitively into one category or another – a subtle power relation in terms of allowing one’s identity be dictated by another. Yet humans appear so indecisive when it comes to asserting who they are. Some spend their whole lives trying to figure out who they are. Others lose their “sense of self” and feel that they shall never be the same again; perhaps exiled from their real selves. If one does not define oneself, they are as vague and impersonal as this sentence.

Was it Socrates or Plato who said that the philosopher must live on the outside of social and political life to be able to observe it usefully? Yet Strauss denounces the fact-value distinction. I think the ultimate philopolitikos lies in the ability to live meaningfully their values as well as able to reflectively withdraw from those values to examine what those values define. Is it not possible to be both partial and objective? In the hope that the partiality is part of knowing some greater objective ideal? I’d like to think so.

Hubris

The number one thing that irks me is being corrected and/or being made to feel stupid. The tendency to think oneself’s a perfectionist and flawless is nothing new for psychology, especially where narcissism and anthropocentric idealism reign in our Freudian superego.

Where does such a mentality come from? A lack of empathy, a willingness to exploit others for personal gain (greed, lust, and envy as precipitants), and an inflated sense of self-importance (induced by flattery, attention, or success). In other words, a complete detachment from our humanity and the natural right of equality, invocation of our liberties at the expense of others, and pettiness.

In psychology, there is something known as “healthy narcissism” or self-love based on confidence and high self-esteem (which for Freud is perfectly natural and reflects the balance between appetite and reason). The ability to learn from one’s mistakes, the humility to admit that someone is wiser than you, and the internalization of constructive critique are all ways to temper academic arrogance and empty ambition. The ability to laugh at oneself is also crucial to admitting one’s own humanity – that is, to err. Therein lies the better part of man: in the improvement of his nobility, grace, and good sportsmanship in the acceptance of his fault and not letting it hinder his progress towards some higher end.

At its heart, narcissism is a mask for loneliness – whether induced by the assumption of leadership or the overcompensation of one’s ineptitudes. Knowledge of one’s own disordinate amount of hubris is perhaps the first step to mastery of it; and then to harness it for the purposes of continual self-improvement and the pursuit of both Aristotelian virtue and Machiavellian virtù.