What do the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ mean?

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I used the terms right wing and left wing during lunch today, and some friends asked me what these terms meant. I started to reply and suddenly realised that I did not really know. But then I knew something. Now how was I to tell them that what I knew was valid although I did not really know.

I said:

I don’t know enough to define these terms exactly; I will find out.
But I can tell you what I do know.
Let’s say I did not know what trees are, and someone pointed those trees to me, and those ones and those as well, and said, “Those are trees.” I would now know that some trees could sway in the wind and appear green in colour on the top.
So let me tell you what I know about left wing and right wing from what I have picked up over time.

Having confused them with my analogy about trees, I proceeded to describle what I had noticed and read about left-wing and right-wing parties in the US, here, and India:

  • Right-wing people tended to believe in God more than left-wing people did. (But then, in the US both party candidates profess faith in God. In New Zealand both main candidates are agnostics)
  • You are more likely to find among left-wing people, those who are on the wrong side of pro-life issues (issues related to abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research), feminists, and those who do not want to stay with the God-given one-man-with-one-woman definition of marriage.
  • Right-wing people would tend to agree and approve that the more hardworking you are, the richer you are likely to be, whereas left-wing people would want wealth distributed evenly among the people by means of welfare schemes. Not only would they tend to control your finances, they would want to exercise control over how you run your family and discipline your children.

But I have since looked up Wikepedia, which gave me these points:

Right-wing politics includes both culturally liberal and conservative movements, making economic policy a more universal difference between the left and the right

The right tends to support a decentralised economy based on economic freedom, and advocates policies such as property rights, free markets, and free trade. The left generally advocates regulatory economics and egalitarianism.

From mid-19th century, ‘left’ would increasingly refer to various forms of socialism and communism. The hard left is more strongly influenced by Marxism, while the soft left had a more gradualist approach to building socialism

The term today has different meanings in different countries. In the United States, left-wing is often used as a synonym for the Democratic Party, which is more socially liberal than the Republican Party.

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5 responses »

  1. That’s a fair description. Left tends to refer to liberal, in politics, religion, etc. Right tends to refer to conservatism.

    I looked in my 2nd Edition Columbia Encyclopedia for some history on the term. It says: “in politics, the more radical wing in any legislative body or party. The designation apparently came from the supposedly accidental grouping of the radicals in the National Assembly in France in 1789 to the left of the presiding officer, but there is some question as to whether this is the true origin of the word. In the British Parliament the more radical members have sat to the left of the speaker since the 18th century.”

    Thanks for the excuse to look something up! I’ve often wondered if it had to do with the left hand being suspicious. The word “sinister” originally means “left-hand”. Left-handed folks were regarded as tricky. (I only know this because I’m left-handed and tend to remember these little left-handed facts.) Also, we know in Scripture that being at the right hand of God is a place of honor. I guess all that is just speculation, since the encyclopedia didn’t know either.

  2. I think your definitions are too US-centric and do not fit the New Zealand experience. Moreover, I think that such definitions obscure more variation than they illuminate which forces the majority of people into an ill defined “centre”.

  3. Dear Logophile,
    May be defining something abstract and vague will always result in the obscuring of some of the variation. But one must begin somewhere or all will be darkness. I would be delighted if you could define these terms from a leftist perspective.
    By the way, is logophile a word? It certainly suits you perfectly. I should probably be logofile (too busy documenting words to love them). Now, have I laid an eggcorn?

  4. I was happy enough with the Wikipedia definition – it was yours that got a little carried away with conflating social and economic views.

    I wouldn’t consider myself particularly “left” leaning though :-b I have voted for your both your parties of choice occasionally (but not this time).

    Of course logophile is a word, it must be!

  5. I’ll have to file away ‘conflating’ now. Just this morning I came across the word ‘syncretise’, which happens to be a synonym.

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