The educational divide that threatens to split the left
By James Button
Katy Barnett was born almost 11 weeks premature, with cerebral palsy, and was not expected to live. She could not walk properly until an operation at the age of 13 changed her life, although she still walks with a limp and sometimes with a stick. Kids called her “spazzo” and it hurt, but her parents told her to be strong – it was their problem, not hers. “It’s made me quite tough,” she says. “A disabled, nerdy kid has to be tough.”
Barnett’s parents both came from very poor backgrounds, and although they were the first in their families to finish school and go to university, Barnett says that poverty and insecurity still shape their thinking. “Mum has this immense fear someone is going to get me sacked every time I put my head above the parapet.”
Barnett has become good at doing that. The 46-year-old professor of law at the University of Melbourne writes on big debates in the mainstream press, and runs a popular blog on the High Court. She sees herself as on the left of politics, but she has also challenged some left-wing views, and over the years she has noticed that this has become increasingly hard to do.
Katy Barnett was born with cerebral palsy and is now a professor of law at the University of Melbourne.Credit:Joe Armao
In 2018, some students approached her, worried about the welfare of two academics who had been targeted by anonymous online allegations about their teaching approach to separate legal cases involving sexual violence and racism. The academics were condemned even for reading from court transcripts that contained descriptions of these acts.
“The substance of the allegations seemed to be that they were white males and inherently prejudiced, and should not even speak about these things,” Barnett says. She wrote an article arguing that it should be a civil wrong to mount a campaign, especially online, to try to get someone sacked.
Many people, including students, liked the piece. But she was attacked on social media – not for the article’s content, but simply because, after mainstream media outlets rejected it, she had sent it to Quillette, a libertarian and mostly centrist website that is hated in parts of the left. A man she had known for 10 years announced on Facebook that he refused to read it, and unfriended her. “I recall sitting in my office with my head between my knees, having a panic attack,” she says.
She also tweeted about an Indian international student who had taken a case against Monash University after he was failed on a class assignment all the way to the Court of Appeal. The Court rejected his claim. Barnett noted wryly that if the student had only put as much effort into his study as into his legal case he would have passed with ease.
In response, a man tweeted: “It’s wonderful to see a white privileged middle-class woman punch down on a person of colour.” That outraged Barnett, who says she had not even registered the student’s ethnicity.
She tweeted back: “How dare you make presumptions about me.” Despite her red hair and pale skin, she has Indigenous ancestry, she told her antagonist. (She had discovered a few years earlier that her grandfather came from the Darumbal people of north Queensland.) Seeing her response, the keyboard warrior changed his Twitter handle and name, and cancelled himself from the platform.
Over time, and especially since becoming a tenured professor, Barnett says she has lost her fear: “I publish like a maniac.” However, she thinks the changes she has seen over the past decade are bigger and more serious than just toxicity on Twitter.
In the university, some colleagues express anxiety about debating difficult issues, especially about race, gender and sexuality, and fear that such debates will lead to complaints and attacks. Others confess that they avoid contentious topics entirely. Yet, Barnett says, “the whole point of academia is that there should be many views. Our job is not to teach people what to think, but how to think.”
She also hears new, essentialist thinking. After she commented publicly on an Indigenous issue, a friend said: “It is OK for you to speak on these things because you have an Aboriginal ancestor.” Barnett replied: “But for a long time I didn’t know I had an Aboriginal ancestor – was it not OK then?”
“Today, victimhood seems to give status,” Barnett says. ”“Yet many in the academy don’t understand what it is to truly struggle. Class has been totally forgotten.”
Barnett’s story is a story of the modern left. Her grandparents grew up in tenement housing; one of them in a dirt-floor shack in Sydney. They voted Labor by tribal instinct. Her parents used to belong to the ALP, but left in the 1990s, feeling that the party was no longer connected to the lives of working people. “I didn’t leave the left, the left left me,” says Barnett’s mother, Lynne.
Many of the young people Barnett teaches also view themselves as on the left, as progressive. But many see politics almost exclusively through the lens of identity politics, with its intense focus on race, gender and sexuality.
Two narratives lie inside Barnett’s story. First, identity seems to be replacing class as the foundation of left-wing thought. Second, and related to the first, nearly everyone in the modern left is university-educated. These changes could be epochal in the long history of the left, shaping mainstream politics for years to come.
Since 2016, the year Britain voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected Donald Trump, to the dismay of the educated classes in both countries, speculation has grown about whether centre-left or social democratic parties can remain in the electoral race, or whether a polarising world has no place for them.
The centre-left’s demise is far from certain – the German Social Democrats did well in recent national elections. Yet in a host of countries, including Australia, social democrats are struggling to balance the interests of their two big support bases: educated progressives and working people, who in Australia are majority Anglo-Celtic but also contain people from many migrant and refugee backgrounds and Indigenous Australians.
The gaps between these groups over climate change, identity politics issues and – in many countries – immigration, can seem too great to enable a centre-left party to craft a coherent policy platform and election-winning story.
Fifty years ago, there was no such divide. The proportion of the population that was university-educated was just too small. As late as 1975, only 15 per cent of Australian 19-year-olds went to university. Most young people left school to enter factories, trades and shops, as well as nursing and white-collar jobs in banks, company offices and even the public service. Half of all workers were union members.
Today globalisation and technological change have swept away the manufacturing and clerical jobs that were so plentiful in 1975. Unions represent a mere 14 per cent of workers, and just over 5 percent of workers are under 24 years old. As the number of middle-income jobs has shrunk, inequality and the premium paid for a good education have soared.
French economist Thomas Piketty has described the “great reversal”in voting tendencies among the university educated and those with less formal education since World War II.Credit:Charles Platiau
Aside from some tradies, construction workers and the odd DJ or sports star, people who leave the education system after year 12 will not have a well-paid job. The gap between the lifetime income produced by someone with a university degree and those with a year 12 qualification or less is $700,000, according to a 2016 report by the Grattan Institute. These changes help to explain why 42 per cent of 19-year-olds now go to university.
As the size of the tertiary-educated class has expanded, its political views have changed places with those of the less educated. French economist Thomas Piketty calls it “the great reversal”. Piketty analysed electoral results in the US, Britain and France since World War II to show that in 1960, a person of low education and income in these countries was almost certain to vote left. Today, except for members of some minority groups, that person is increasingly voting right. At the other end of the scale, a person of high education levels in 1960 was most likely to vote right. Today, he or she is almost certain to vote left.
In the US, Trump won much of the white working-class vote in 2016 and held a good share of it in 2020, despite slashing taxes on the rich and trying to nobble initiatives such as Obamacare that helped lower-income people. On the night of Trump’s defeat in 2020, Republican politician Josh Hawley, a graduate of Princeton and Yale, tweeted: “We are a working-class party now.” Hawley’s tweet was self-serving and only half true: there remain plenty of rich and powerful Republicans.
Yet the change may be underway in Australia, too. The ALP still holds most federal lower-income electorates; there has been no Trump tide or breach of the “Red Wall”, the Conservative rout of British Labour in working-class seats in the north of England in 2019.
Nevertheless, in the 2019 federal election, the average swing to Labor in the 20 seats with the highest share of university graduates was nearly 4 per cent. The average swing against Labor in the 20 electorates with the lowest share of university graduates was just over 4 per cent. It is a perfect reflection of Piketty’s argument.
In their report on that election defeat, senior Labor figures Craig Emerson and Jay Weatherill pointed to the growing gap between the party’s two constituencies. The party had “become a natural home for diverse interests and concerns, including gender equality, the LGBTQI+ community, racial equality and environmentalism”.
These issues were important, and Labor should not abandon principled positions on them, Emerson and Weatherill wrote. However, working people often resented “the attention progressive political parties give at their expense to minority groups and what is nowadays called identity politics”. At a time of great economic dislocation, working-class voters “would lose faith in Labor if they did not believe the party was responding to their needs”.
The risk for Labor is that if its membership continues to shrink and become more concentrated in the inner cities, the priorities of its progressive activists will predominate. The party has a model for where that might lead in the crushing defeat of British Labour, including the loss of many working-class seats, under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.
A progressive politics that emerges almost exclusively from universities will take particular forms. The student cohort is much more culturally and economically diverse than it once was. Yet political or viewpoint diversity on campus seems to have shrunk.
The shift is troubling political scientists on the centre-right, according to Cancel Culture: Myth or Reality?, a paper published in July by Pippa Norris, an Australian political scientist at Harvard University. Her analysis of a survey of nearly 2500 political scientists around the world, including Australia, suggests that “cancel culture is not simply a rhetorical myth”. More conservative political scientists are experiencing “worsening pressures to be politically correct, limits on academic freedom and lack of respect for open debate”.
Another trend emerging from universities and shaping left-wing thought, including its extreme manifestation in episodes of cancel culture, has been identified by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.
The crushing defeat of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 provided an example to the ALP of where the split between its two political bases might lead.Credit:Getty
About eight years ago, Haslam noticed that concepts of harm were taking on broader meanings across many fields of academic research. He also found that the threshold for identifying an instance of harm seemed to have dropped. This pattern held true in work on abuse, trauma, bullying, mental illness, addiction, violence, prejudice, racism and hatred, among other concepts.
For example, the meaning of abuse had expanded over time to include not only physical or sexual assault but psychological or emotional injury, and neglect. Bullying now refers to adults as well as children, while addiction can refer to sex and gambling as well as drugs.
In a 2016 paper Haslam gave the trend a name: “concept creep”. He thinks an increased focus on harm is helping to shape the goals of the progressive left.
“It has become standard operating procedure in sections of the left to appeal to harm, to the need to protect the vulnerable, when trying to justify some initiative,” Haslam says in an interview. “It also explains why verdicts on behaviour are so moralistic, since harm is central to moral judgment.”
He sees these trends playing out in the claims of identity politics, with their frequent use of terms such as hatred, phobia, racism and violence. “People are reacting in a way that seems disproportionate to the acts themselves (at least if you don’t accept the recent stretching of these concepts), and in a way that is turbo-charged by social media and political polarisation.”
Haslam stresses that “concept creep” has positive aspects. Broader concepts of mental illness and bullying, for example, have helped sufferers. People concerned about harm often show high levels of empathy, and in many ways we are a kinder society than we once were. Nevertheless, he worries that “concept creep runs the risk of pathologising everyday experience and encouraging a sense of virtuous but impotent victimhood.”
Haslam’s work shows how ideas born in universities migrate over time to the wider society, as students in the humanities, psychology and law go on to work in the media, arts, publishing, the public service and education – fields where the priorities of the progressive left will be most powerfully expressed.
A left dominated by the educated class is likely to be idealistic and principled in fighting racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind. It will support redistribution of wealth – it remains a left-wing movement – but is likely to
register material issues and poverty as more distant concerns. It will focus intently on climate change and on creating the no-carbon economy, but be less sensitive to the claims of workers whose jobs are lost in the transition to it, as Bob Brown’s 2019 Adani convoy revealed.
Bob Brown’s Adani convoy revealed that many educated progressives were less sensitive to the claims of workers whose jobs were being affected by the transition to a no-carbon economy.Credit:
In times of crisis, the new progressive left may also be more concerned with order and stability than the right, a historic reversal. In Victoria during the recent lockdown, the left followed COVID rules, while part of the right, dominated by men, was rioting on the streets.
Being educated, progressives will be concerned with proper behaviour, even good manners; hence their frequent use of terms such as “problematic” and “inappropriate”. Some may unconsciously look down on those without education and the “right views” – the people whom Hillary Clinton called “the basket of deplorables” in the 2016 campaign. The risk of this elitism is why Thomas Piketty calls the new progressives: “the Brahmin left.”
Finally, this left-wing movement will focus on language. It may be the first in history to use words that are incomprehensible to people without degrees. That language has some very long words – like cis-gender, intersectionality, heteronormativity, othering – and some very short ones. Like pronouns.
The Victorian Public Service Commission’s inclusive language policy encourages all public servants, “regardless of gender identity, to include their pronouns in email signatures.”
Pronoun use refers to the she/her, he/him or they/them you’re starting to see on email signature blocks and Zoom screens. Declaring the pronouns we use about ourselves is a respectful acknowledgement that some people who are gender-diverse do not want to be described with traditional, gendered pronouns.
The commission’s policy advises every public servant to always ask what pronouns another person wants to use. If you slip up in a formal presentation, “seek out the person privately after the event to acknowledge your mistake.” If you make a mistake in a casual conversation, “correct yourself as soon as you realise your mistake,” thank anyone who corrects you, and “move on with the conversation.” Critically, “avoid apologising, so no one feels obliged to say, ‘It’s okay,’ if that’s not how they feel.”
The policy shows a remarkable concern for language. Rather than accept that
misunderstandings will happen, but that people of good faith will work them out, the commission has scripted public servants’ speech, seemingly to avoid causing hurt to a group seen as vulnerable.
But in focusing so much on words – even policing them – progressives risk alienating those with a less confident attitude to language. In an essay published in Meanjin in 2017, In Defence of the Bad, White Working-Class, writer Shannon Burns describes growing up in an Anglo-Greek family in a multicultural, working-class suburb of Adelaide.
There was certainly racism, Burns writes, but people such as his parents who casually used racist terms were also capable of acts of real kindness to people from different groups – “because the language you employed did not define you.” In a place marked by physical violence, in his family and the streets, the idea that speech could be violent would have made people laugh.
As a young person, Burns was ashamed of his parents’ attitudes, but as he joined the lucky few who moved into middle-class society, he came to forgive them. He saw how everything about multiculturalism – Asian food, schools that embraced diversity, new friends of colour who were also “university-educated and English-rich” – enlarged middle-class life. People travelled overseas – his parents never did – and no one had to compete against a migrant for a job.
Growing up, Burns learnt to resist claiming victimhood status. “Whenever I allowed myself to feel like a victim, I fell into paralysis and deep poverty; whenever I took pride in my capacity to work and endure, things got slightly better. One world view worked; the other didn’t.”
But among the university-educated people he met, he saw that some were confident enough to claim victimhood. “Those for whom injury has a use-value will display their injuries; those for whom woundedness is a survival risk, won’t. As a consequence, middle- class grievances now drown out lower class pain.”
Burns stressed he did not endorse his family’s sensibility. “But progressives might benefit from considering lower-class points of view, and the experiences that forge them, at least once in a while.”
These are extraordinary sentences to write about the left, which was once all about the advancement of “lower class” people. Burns is not accusing progressives of a moral failing in focusing on their own interests – all political movements do that. He is saying that education doesn’t teach everything, and that the progressive lens risks being too narrow.
Based on his experience of life in both the middle and working classes, Maziar Lahooti would say the same. Lahooti, 38, is a Perth filmmaker whose debut feature, Below, was released in 2019.
Lahooti was born in Norway, the son of a molecular biologist and an anthropologist who were refugees from Iran. In the 1980s his family were among the first refugees to that country, and he experienced a lot of racism, including beatings in the street. “In some places, if you saw two white guys coming towards you, you would run,” he says.
When he was 16 the family migrated to Perth. Australia was much more diverse and “way less racist” than Norway, Lahooti says. At high school, his friends were “white surfies, Aboriginal kids and ethnic boys – Middle Easterners, East Asians and South Africans.” Most were working-class. There was occasional prejudice, but overall, the fact of diversity was rarely discussed and soon forgotten.
After school Lahooti went to TAFE, then worked as a labourer on film sets, before saving enough money to attend the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney. It was the mid-2000s, the school was much less diverse than it is today, and he was one of only two non-white people in his course. For the first time, “I saw there are two cultures in Australia.”
His new friends and colleagues were “middle and upper-class people,” and he felt that because he was not white, they sometimes treated him with excessive respect. They would disagree with each other, but not with him. None had Indigenous friends. If he used the word, ‘Aboriginal,’ people would look uneasy; the right term was ‘Indigenous’ or ‘First Nations’. Lahooti was confused: his Perth friends had called themselves Aboriginal.
These white people romanticised difference, glamorised poverty, and wanted above all not to be white. He, on the other hand, wanted to fit in and to be treated the same as everyone else.
Lahooti saw the same attitudes when he started work in the film industry: well-meaning people had a concept of race and identity into which he, as a person of colour, was expected to fit. “They don’t tell you to parrot it, but you know that if you lean into it in your work, you’ll get their support,” he says.
For example, a “really nice woman” who was part of a film writers workshop would get uncomfortable and propose a different approach every time Lahooti wanted to round out a Middle Eastern character with some unpleasant qualities. “I remember thinking, that’s not a character, that’s a deity and the only real character I can relate to is the bad guy, the straight white male character.
“It’s like, ‘If we push positive representation of people of colour we are helping you. We want you to represent our idea of what you are.’”
Lahooti draws many lessons from his experience. First, “if you want to be anti-racist, focus less on race. Focussing too much on it creates similar problems to ignoring it.” Second, don’t claim to be a victim without real cause.
“Over the last few years I see a massive culture of trending victimhood,” he says.
“People who think they are victims are going to be open to authoritarian ideas.” That is why Lahooti is troubled by cancel culture. “It’s puritanical. It’s the best gift we can give to anyone who wants to shut down any liberal movement or people who express liberal ideas.”
Lahooti’s words go to questions lurking behind the political landscape in the West. Are the Trump presidency and far-right movements in Europe aberrations or signs of what is to come? Do authoritarian leanings in parts of the left also present a threat, albeit a lesser one, to liberal democracy?
In Australia, these are questions for all main parties, but it is Labor who will be most challenged by the need to balance an agenda focused on diversity with a more class-based politics of redistribution. In a recent preselection for the federal Western Sydney seat of Fowler, opposition home affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally was placed into the seat over local candidate Tu Le, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, in a seat where one in four voters has a Vietnamese background.
The decision exposed the highly monocultural nature of Australia’s Parliament. Figures compiled by Osmond Chiu of the Per Capita think tank show that in Britain, Canada and New Zealand, 10 per cent or more of MPs have non-European backgrounds. By contrast, just nine of 227 Australian federal MPs have non-European backgrounds – compared to 21 per cent of the population – while another seven are Indigenous.
Labor, the Coalition and the Greens all need to do much more to produce a Parliament that better reflects the face of Australia, but Labor was in a difficult position in Fowler. Had Keneally not taken the seat, the party would have lost one of its stronger performers.
On social media, progressive activists accused Labor of having a race problem. But what Labor really has is a faction problem. An inexperienced white candidate would likely also have been discarded for Keneally. Once leader Anthony Albanese decided not to intervene to find another seat for Keneally – perhaps in the Hunter Valley – the opportunity to keep her while gaining a potentially strong local candidate in Fowler was lost.
One federal Labor MP told me he thought his party’s identity politics moment had not yet come. “There’s still a strong class awareness, which hasn’t yet been trumped by race and gender,” he said, citing the Fowler decision and the choice of “non-politically correct blokes” in preselections for the seats of Spence and Hunter. “I reckon all that will be impossible by the following election (in 2025).”
The risk for Labor is that even with massive growth in the university-educated cohort, it still comprises fewer than one in three Australian adults. Even if they all voted left – which is impossible – they alone cannot supply an electoral majority.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, Labor emerged from long periods of defeat in national elections and in Victoria to achieve considerable electoral success. It did so through a coalition of its middle- and working-class supporters. The first group enlarged and modernised the party; the second, often working through unions, kept it real.
The world has changed, but one thing stays the same. Electoral politics is a balance of ideas and material interests. Centre-left parties cannot take power – and therefore educated progressives cannot achieve their biggest goals – without focusing on the lives and aspirations of ordinary working people.
James Button is a member of the ALP.
This is the third instalment of a three-part series on cancel culture.
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