foreign policy
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

What does right and left wing mean anymore? We need new words

‘Politics’ can be a noun or a verb with very different meanings, yet another example of how words can create or destroy

Rio de Janeiro
A Bolsonaro supporter in Rio de Janeiro protests his electoral defeat; November 2023.BRUNA PRADO (AP)
Juan Arias

I’m in Brazil, but I could just as easily be writing from China. The world has shrunk, compressed by global problems and the common language of social media. The language of politics, for example, has become increasingly blurred. Right and left, conservative and progressive, traditional and modern — these words have become so calcified that we often get lost in the labyrinth of ambiguity.

The danger is that words that were sacred or demonic just yesterday are now losing their meaning. Language is changing as the world evolves. No one can doubt that we live in times of radical change, when even the best soothsayers cannot predict what will happen tomorrow or even this afternoon. And this is happening all over the planet.

Everything begins with language. Even the universe, which God spoke into existence according to the Bible. So then, what does “artificial intelligence” actually mean (to use the latest buzzwords)? Even the brainy scientists don’t really understand it.

Language is a powerful force, so indispensable to our relationships, yet so dangerous. This is also true in politics. Just look at words like democracy, freedom, right and left, conservative and progressive, fascist and Nazi.

If words created the world, then words can also enrich or impoverish it, sanctify or demonize it. Politics can be a noun or a verb with very different meanings, yet another example of how words can create or destroy.

Some of the most hackneyed terms in politics are conservative and progressive, right and left, democracy and obscurantism, freedom and slavery. Language is rich in words and meaning, but it can also become petrified while reality creatively evolves around it.

Being left-wing or right-wing today is not necessarily synonymous with progress or obscurantism in some parts of the world, nor are the words identified with good or bad, modern or old-fashioned.

The power of words is such that they can spark a war or bring about peace. A politically oriented father once explained to his son that the heart is always “on the left,” which is where all life should be. And yet, throughout the ages and even in the Bible, the left has always been associated with the negative. In fact, “sinister” comes from a Latin word meaning “on the left side.” In the Jewish and Christian sacred texts, the righteous are always at the right hand of God and the wicked on the left. How do we explain that all are equal in the eyes of God to the evangelicals that are so involved in politics today?

It’s not just a linguistic discussion because words often supplant facts and reality. When the extreme right wing, especially fascists and neo-Nazis, shocks democracies with its surging popularity, there is danger in attributing the concept of “conservative” to the disintegrating right wing and “progressive” to simple modernity.

Things aren’t so simple. As Nicolau da Rocha Cavalcanti wrote in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, to call the Bolsonaro movement conservative or liberal would be a gift to the extreme right. He says if being conservative or liberal in any aspect of life were synonymous with right-wing politics, then the Bolsonarists have already won the battle in Brazil because over half the country (especially the poorest and least educated) are sympathetic to some sort of conservative flag, especially in matters of traditions and morality.

If people view Bolsonarism, which has heavy Nazi overtones, as a right-wing or conservative mirror, the immediate danger would be to endow extremism with sacred qualities. To homophobically say, like the barbaric Bolsonaro once did, that you’d rather be run over by a truck than have a gay son, is not the same as simply saying you prefer a “normal” son, another word that can poison the language.

I have friends who consider themselves politically conservative or liberal, and I appreciate them for their human qualities, their altruism, their respect for differences. But we all know people who trumpet their leftist credentials and end up entangled in webs of corruption, intransigent and incapable of understanding the richness of diversity.

As a young man abroad during the cruel and antidemocratic Francoism that ruled Spain, I wasn’t able to vote for many years. When I did vote, it was for left-wing candidates because I was haunted by the ghost of fascism, Francoism and Nazism.

I wasn’t waving the flag of the left or the right, but the freedom of thought banner. That freedom included an appreciation for certain conservative and libertarian values passed on by my parents. They were both teachers in poor, rural schools during Spain’s bloody civil war and the ideological conflict that followed. My parents were stripped of several months’ salary because, apparently, their students “asked too many questions” when they got to high school. And, of course, in the Franco regime, questions, challenges, doubts and innovation were all synonymous with degeneracy.

Nowadays, with many years and experiences behind me, if someone asks if I’m progressive or conservative, I answer as an Andalusian who spent his childhood in Galicia would: “It depends.” However, I’m always very careful about the impacts of words used to denude and identify us.

Amid the whirlwind of our changing times, in which even the new language gurus cannot tell us where we’re going, there must be some universal value that can define us. So when it comes to assigning political labels, I resort to the words of my ancestors, the ones who farmed their lands, who would simply say, “That’s a good person.” Progressive or conservative? “You will know them by their fruits,” said a wise young Jew from Nazareth named Jesus, who revolutionized human history.

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