Left Right North & South

The Confusing Nature of Our Political Directions

If you're sitting at your favorite coffee shop and someone asks you where the nearest grocery store is, how would you tell them how to get there? (Play it out in your mind before you continue.) Did you say something like, "Go straight up the street. Go left at the light and then go straight another two blocks and it's on your right," or was it something like, "Go north one block then East for two blocks. It's on the South side of the street." Whichever you choose (cardinal directions) vs. (orienting to the particular point in space you occupy) you were participating in a system that's trying to solve how to spatially navigate the world. 

When we talk about politics it's not uncommon for someone to ask, "Are you on The Left or The Right?" When we conceptualize political ideologies this way we are participating in two metaphoric systems of spatial navigation that have similar properties to the ones just described. Depending on which navigation system you choose, it may effect the way you think about other people's political leanings.

The first orientation method is much like the cardinal directions, which is, you have a philosophical understanding of what "left" and "right" have historically meant and you orient someone's political position in relationship to those ideologies.  Someone can be "far to the right/left" of what that ideology has stood for, and someone can be closer to the center of those beliefs.

The second way you can orient is in relation to the point in political space that you occupy, i.e. "They are to the left/right of ME." This approach is definitionally more egocentric than the former because it centers the spatial orientation around you. The ramifications of this conception are that as you move further to the left or right, what is conceived of as "the center" moves with you, as does what is viewed as the extreme far left/right of the opposing view.

Part of the political polarization that's occurring in the US may be helped along by this more egocentric view of political spatial orientation. It's a much harder problem to understand the philosophical traditions that these political views stem from and then track them over time to understand where an individual's belief sit in relation to them. It's much easier to spatially orient other peoples' beliefs to your own. The simplicity of the later method is what is so appealing and probably why it's used so frequently. 

Understanding the metaphorical nature of abstract thought helps us see how the ideas we participate in constrain our thinking. The obvious constraint in this system is that one can only move in two ways, to the left and to the right. The simplicity of this conception is again its advantage, but it simultaneously hides a lot of nuance of the directionality of positioning people's views of the world in relation to one another, as well as to the philosophical traditions (since there are more than two). 

I don't view any metaphorical framing as ultimately bad. If you look hard enough you can always find problematic logical entailments to metaphors. Rather than recommending not using Left/Right as a conceptualization, I would say it's better to have access to a multiplicity of ways to think about political orientation and to understand the constraints of each system. In this way we can become better political navigators, not just in relation to the political beliefs we find swirling around us, but to the philosophical traditions they stem from.