I have put forward the idea that the left-right spectrum measures sensitivity to Difference, by which I mean the willingness to see it and attribute meaning to it. People on the left can tolerate more Difference and attribute less real meaning to it; those on the right do the opposite.
We use Difference as a tool to help us understand everything around us, because distinguishing one thing from another is the most basic intellectual process there is. Seeking and seeing Difference is therefore an important part of how we form abstractions – the building blocks of belief systems. It also underlies our political conceptions, because finding Difference is how we can most easily understand the communities we live in. These distinctions give us a sense of who behaves and thinks differently from ourselves. Assessing degrees of Difference helps us recognise friends and select enemies.
Some political beliefs exaggerate and expand the distance between people, rendering it unbridgeable. These are all on the far right and are the beliefs founded on extreme authority, sacred nations and race hatred. On the left, the quality of shared humanity always produces some connecting feeling of Sameness.
In social terms, the question of Difference is a particular question, not a general one. It has to be asked and answered in personal terms. The definitiveness of the answer to the direct question: ”Is this person like me?” depends on our individual sensitivity to Difference. If sensitivity is high then a small Difference prompts an exaggerated feeling of distance, in which case the other person will be considered different in an important sense, and his or her interests will not be considered aligned naturally with our own. An assumption will follow, such as: “I expect she thinks like me”, or “I am not afraid of him.”
Actually detecting Difference is a matter of relative perception of importance. Within our lives we do not have an equality of attention; we choose what bothers us. Perspective, and therefore priority, within anyone’s world view is determined by hierarchies of attention, of tractability of notice. Our personal political outlook, from left to right, is heavily influenced by these semi-elective, aesthetic distinctions.
These distinctions also influence us in those parts of our political and religious beliefs that are more consciously chosen, especially those grouped around questions of identity and authority – who I think is like me, and who I am prepared to obey. It is much easier to assess those we consider to be most like us as those most nearly equal to us. And this really matters within politics. Those on the right are not implacably opposed to equality as a principle, they are just much more picky about who can be admitted to equal status with oneself.
When we are dealing with near or actual equals, there is one related extra factor – reciprocity. This relates to the question: ‘Can the relationships I most value be reversed? What is the gradient of the power relation, and wherever it is not level, is it reversible by choice or agreement?’ This is a question about the mutuality of consent, the fundamental recognition or rejection of equality. Those on the right will never consider themselves reciprocally bound socially or morally to others from whom they consider they differ sufficiently.
The answer to this reciprocity question, applied across different areas, reveals different spectrum positions. If the answer is ‘Yes’ across the board then you are of the left. If the answer is ‘No’ in any major area then you are of the right.
How all this works can be illustrated with a couple of examples of social Difference, and the ways it can be perceived. When a left-wing person sees someone much richer than average, a perception of Difference is triggered. Left-wing principles prescribe that this kind of Difference is offensive and should be reduced or eliminated. The rich person has to be made more like the perceiver, i.e. less rich. All sorts of diversity are tolerable for those on the left, but wealth is a special category, within which equality should be imposed and maintained. Attitudes to rich people are different among right-wingers, who will also perceive the Difference, but will admire it – Difference of status is not a bad thing on the right of centre. All sorts of diversity can be tolerated in matters of social status, and the existence of rich people acts as proof that society is free – that virtue/good qualities are being rewarded, and that the path to wealth lies open to all. The significance of the wealth and its social meaning is not perceived as a threat or an injustice. When it comes to wealth, on the right Difference is inspirational, and creates an ideal.
In the case of immigrants, the reactions of left- and right-leaning people will also be distinct. Foreignness is perceived much more strongly, and negatively, on the right. There is nothing admirable on offer, and a palpable sense of invasion and offence can easily be generated, so the idea that the immigrant can ever truly become like a native will not be easily accepted. On the left, however, the Difference perceived will always be smaller, and can be completely eliminated by naturalisation and good behaviour.
In the case of wealth, an external quality, left and right see a negative or positive model respectively. In the case of alienness, left and right do not see the same kind of model at all. For the right, profound ‘natural’ qualities are not subject to change, and historically these even included social class, an idea now generally rejected by modern right-wingers.. For those on the left, change is a much more superficial thing, and human nature is not fixed. What makes rich people rich is likely to be contingent, random or even a bit dark. Discouraging, or even reversing the process of wealth accumulation is not harmful to wider society, but positively beneficial. The essences so beloved of the right are not really real.
The desirability of the maintenance of equilibrium and the promotion of positive models within society is not at issue between left and right, but they have their distinct approaches to this process. The left sees circumstances and the right sees essences.
On the left, human differences are superficial, malleable and not specially harmful. Different societies are reckoned to produce different sorts of people and characteristics. Societies can be changed, and if they are, different people will result. This is the basis for the fundamental leftist belief in progress; that better ordered societies will produce better people. On the right, none of this is true. There is one proper sort of society (ours), and human variation is natural because people are naturally different in their essences. ‘They’ can have whatever kind of society they want ‘over there’, but we should have our sort over here. It suits us, and changing it will make it worse. Bringing in outsiders cannot possibly improve it.
Left-wing thinking sees circumstances. Right-wing thinking distrusts generalisations and approves of local and individual variations – of the correct, dominant type.
Difference applies to individuals; when aggregated across a whole society the appropriate term is diversity. Those on the right will always be more willing to see degrees of meaning in diversity and will be more likely to draw distinctions between themselves and the whole society around them. Questions about how anyone fits in, whether they are in step or out, aligned or not with the host society, are right-wing staples. These questions also lead to the crucial question: ‘Am I being made to obey people like me?’ If the answer is ‘No’ then the full defensive range of right-wing attitudes will be triggered. This applies at the level of traffic wardens as much as to government ministers.
On a broader intellectual level, the role that Difference plays in the way we use logic makes sensitivity to it a crucial factor in all our analytical processes. For instance, the definitions and boundaries of terms like ‘class’ or ‘race’ or ‘nation’ are all produced by recognising particular distinctions and giving them inclusive categorical names. This suggests that sensitivity to Difference is prior to, and more important than economics in shaping an individual’s personal political standpoint. You have to be able to define ‘class’ before you can understand it in terms of your own life.
To those with exceptional sensitivity to Difference, i.e. those on the far right, multicultural societies are an unceasing agony of dissonance, with no visible conformity, no shared cultural bedrock, no common goal. For these worried people multiculturalism has ‘failed’ simply because it is multiculturalism and is not, therefore, a uniform culture. They feel that the protection from harmful Difference that conformity affords is tossed away, the prospect of meeting a ‘natural’ inferior on equal terms is multiplied, and the prospect of being ruled by outsiders who will outbreed them is a certainty. Extreme, rather hysterical, versions of this attitude are easy to find on the web. As in: the new multiracial empire of bloated consumerism will enslave us all and will ruthlessly enforce itself by violence. US society is its worst example and will impose its evil will on US citizens as it did in the Civil War etc etc.
Much of the debate about Islam in the West is precisely defined along these lines. Assessment of any minority in terms of its potential threat to the majority society depends on this type of thinking – with one insidious, erroneous, overambitious thought ruling all the others, which is: ‘They are different from me, but they are all the same as each other.’