Illusion of Purity: Deconstructing the Political Spectrum

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A question that consistent lifers ponder to themselves is where we fit on the political spectrum. The simple answer is that we are a form of centrists. This is because we incorporate positions that are both on the left and the right. We are certainly not the only type of centrists, and for that reason, we should probably not put so much emphasis on it, lest we be confused for the likes of Joe Lieberman or Rudy Giuliani. However, the bigger problem is the political spectrum itself. It's simply not a good metaphor for political philosophy in regard to consistent lifers.

If there is anything that unites everyone across the political spectrum it is the belief in the political spectrum. Many simply take it for granted as the ultimate divider of groups and philosophies. It creates a grid of intelligibility which defines the limits of opinion, and one of the limits it has imposed upon the political populace is that pro-lifers go over here, peace activists go over there and never the two shall meet except in conflict. They may point out the inconsistencies of the other side, but never shall they oppose both acts of homicide.

Not only does the spectrum divide movements but it also divides perceptions of reality. Film theorist Mas'ud Zavarzedeh argued that visual images (including real life) are not auto-intelligible but can only be interpreted through ideology. [1] The images of dead fetuses and dead foreigners are interpreted differently depending on ideology, thus the victims of abortion and euthanasia are segregated from the victims of war and the death penalty into two different perceptions of reality. This reveals why consistent lifers must deconstruct the political spectrum. We must show that all of these victims inhabit the same world and the violence against them must be approached with a consistent ethic.

The political spectrum is not a literal spectrum. There is no real way of measuring anything from it. It is merely used as a way to visualize the range of political philosophy. The problem with this visualization is that it makes it seem as if progressivism and conservatism are running in a straight line in opposite directions, and that the ends of each spectrum is what happens when the philosophies are so pure and consistent that they have no gradations. For this reason we have terms like “hard right” and “hard left” for each end and “mushy middle” for the center, which is perceived as the least pure in regard to principle. An example of how a spectrum conjures an image of pure end points and a compromised middle would be a gray scale. One end is white which is the purest form of light and other end is black which is the purest end of shadow. The gray middle is mixed and compromised.

However, the ends of the political spectrum are only asserted to be pure. Progressives, for instance, are supposed to believe in peace, tolerance and equality, yet what if they decide that dismembering the unborn isn't peaceful, that the eugenic idea of destroying fetuses for their genetic defects is intolerant, and that lethal ageism is anti-egalitarian? Are these people deviating from their philosophy? No, they are being more pure with their principles, but because they do not fit the liberal stereotype, pro-life liberals are unfairly placed in the center as if they are less pure than pro-choicers. Thus we see that the ends of the political spectrum are really just how much one fits a predetermined view of what progressivism and conservatism is rather than how pure one is to principle. Lethal ageism is progressive because progressives believe in it. Big government anti-life projects called wars are conservative, because conservatives believe in them. Ultimately the ends are based on self-affirming conventions, not actual conclusions to applied principles.

This illusion of purity is what legitimizes conservatism's and progressivism's inconsistencies. Claiming to be pro-life, pro-war and pro-death penalty is not seen as a contradiction but rather as following a straight “consistent” line rightward. The same goes in claiming to be pro-peace while supporting the legal killing of the unborn. The spectrum conflates metaphorical direction with consistent principles.

As a cinema major I cannot help but express this through film theory. A basic principle of editing is that when two or more images are placed in sequence with each other, they give a third meaning. A classic example given by Alfred Hitchcock would be showing an image of mother and child playing in the park juxtaposed with an old man smiling. [2] This creates the third meaning that this is a kindly old man, perhaps a grandfather. If however we were to replace the image of mother and child in the park with a girl in a bikini and kept that same image of the old man smiling, the third meaning is totally changed. He's suddenly a pervert. The political spectrum puts issues in sequence, and I would argue that doing so creates the same “third meaning” effect. It creates the third meaning that these lists of policy positions given by both parties represent a coherent system of thought. It's the sequencing of policy positions that creates ideology and gives an assertion of principle.

However, films can be re-edited. Their images can be re-sequenced to a point where the entire meaning of the film is changed. It's time that consistent lifers totally re-edit the national film that is the political spectrum. The pacing is terrible, the acting is shallow, and the plot doesn't make sense. By sequencing the causes of life and peace together, we create a third meaning: the victims of these acts of homicide inhabit the same world, and the same ethical rules ought to apply to both.

For this reason consistent lifers should interrogate (to use a feminist term) this illusion of purity at the ends of the spectrum. We should measure principle by how consistently it is applied, not by how well it follows a metaphorical and ultimately constructed direction.



[1.] Zavarzadeh, Mas' ud. Seeing Films Politically. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

[2.] “Hitchcock demonstrates montage” Youtube, np, 2010 August 27.


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