“Right-Left Mythology”

Labels are bound to create division, even in the Church



Self-government in the political sense is only successful when each member of society is able to govern himself.  That is, democracy only works when the people are virtuous.  This truth, which has long been forgotten, was ever on the minds of the Founders and was the reason behind John Adams’s cautionary statement that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

But what happens when the people are neither moral nor religious?  The demon ever tempting democracy is mob rule.  Plato hated it.  It was the democratic mob that killed his teacher, Socrates.  Absent a moral majority, democracy inevitably becomes a battleground to control the mob.  Only after the mob is properly controlled can the business of ruling (as opposed to governing) actually begin.

This is not to say that democracy is bad or that we should ditch it. But democracy has flaws, and we cannot expect it to cover our sins.  We can only evaluate it by looking at the people.  The best government is the one that forms the most virtuous people.  When it fails at that we need to recognize it and discern why it is failing.

So much is made of how “divided” we are, but division is an effect of a deeper cause.  The issue is a loss of civility.  Civility allows for groups to be “united” in argument.  Once civility is lost, barbarism ensues.   Once the power to argue reasonably has been lost, only “might makes right.”  Civilians argue; barbarians bully their opponents into submission.  It’s obvious where we are as a society.

This “flood of barbarism” was anticipated by Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.  In a 1946 essay that appeared in The Catholic Mind, Dawson identified what he saw as a key tactic in the totalitarian attack on Western culture: what he called the “Right-Left mythology.”  He points out that the terms left/right, progressive/conservative, etc. are all relative terms.  They are applied to men in relation to some central point.  The Progressive is left of that central point while the Conservative is to the right.  But the central point does not exist.  Thus, the whole system is irrational and ultimately a trap designed to create division.  He writes, the “tactics of totalitarianism are to weld every difference of opinion and tradition and every conflict of economic interests into an absolute ideological opposition which disintegrates society into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.”

The “Right-Left mythology” is, Dawson says, “a contagious social malady” that infects every conversation.  The only antidote is to refuse to play the game.  Civility demands that we drop the labels completely.  Besides refusing to use the labels, Dawson also recommends the “old natural and political virtues” which have been discarded: “the virtues of justice and goodwill, the virtues of truth and patience, above all the virtue of prudence which Aristotle defines as the truly rational and practical state of mind in the field of human good and evil. It is only by the exercise of these virtues that it is possible to save society from the political disintegration that threatens it, and maintain an island of society amidst the rival barbarians of Left and Right.”

Dawson is realistic that perhaps the best we can hope for are “islands of society.”  The Church has some experience with forming islands of society amidst  barbarians.  But this requires that we leave the virus outside the confines of the Church.  The politicization of the Church has led to a liberal-conservative filter which masks orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  The latter are labels in reference to a true center point: the truth.  The former labels are just an effect of the virus infecting all of our thinking.  If the Church is to serve as leaven, she must be inoculated against this barbarian tactic.

Rob holds an MA in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a concentration in moral theology. He has a passion for spreading the joy of the Catholic Faith through teaching and writing.

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