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Left, Right, and Identity

Trey Parker and Matt Stone

During the Three Fork discussions (see this morning’s post, which I didn’t want to be longer than it already was) I began to relate the tension between left and right to the tension between the two parts of our “self” in time, that Paul Ricoeur refers to as the ipse and the idem.

  • The ipse is the “selfhood” – the you that was living in a moment sitting at school listening (or not) to a teacher talk, the you that is living in the moment right now reading these words, and the you that will be in the moment in ten years, twenty years, thirty years on in your future. This is the part of you that is constantly changing, defined by the separation, living in the present within a continuum of time. In accounting terms this might be seen as the Balance Sheet at any single point in time.
  • The idem is the “Sameness” – the part of you that was you at ten, and is still you at sixty. It is the long-term trajectory of one entity in time. In accounting terms it’s the Profit and Loss Statement – observed through it’s changing values during a defined period.
  • Ricoeur posits that the idem and the ipse are joined through narrative.
  • Aspects of narratives communication include:
    • promises (to which an idem works to hold the two separate ipse’s accountable for),
    • convictions (the motivation for working to fulfil a promise),
    • memories (one cannot fulfil a promise that they do not remember making),
    • forgiveness (the ability to promise contains the ability to reverse that promise, and part of life living is the freedom of future idems),
    • and finally the forgetting (the letting go, the moving on, the closure and space for new beginnings).

What the right side is to the left side of the brain, the ipse is to the idem of a personal identity.

Selfhood within Sameness. Separation within Connection. Conflict within Conformity.

Neither side of the brain can operate without the other. Some doses and mixtures of either part can be destructive, while other doses and mixtures of the two can be creative.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone[1]

We face these tensions in our daily life: one ipse’s decides to lose five kilos, yet one’s future ipse may decide to eat a block of chocolate.

The long-term state of a person relies on the short-term decisions that person makes.

Similarly the long-term state of a society relies on the short-term decisions of its citizens.

Peace or violence?

In a way this tension between Right and Left, the tension of the Collective and the Individualist, the tension between “you” and the “you-in-this-moment”, and also relates to the tension between Structure and Agency (that is, the power of the collective institutions and processes Vs the power of individuals who act and react within those systems).

A life led by the right side of the brain = peace in the short-term, bliss in the moment of feeling united and at one; but without the left it leads to self indulgence, vulnerable to the violent side-effects of conformity when it is not matched with some conflict – critical thinking, questioning the context, separation from the norm.

A life led by the left side of the brain = violence in the short term, even simply the act of being separated, standing alone, in fear of death, in a struggle to survive, with violent effects that the pursuit of individual self-interest can cause.

By and large I think the left side is more painful – as it is defined by the separation; and the right side is more blissful – as it is defined by the connection. Yet bliss and pain are temporary states, felt inside a moment. If one wanted only to create peace in the world for a moment, the right side of the brain would be the key.

But if one wants to decrease violence and increase peace in the long-term, looking to the right side for solutions is a waste of time. In the case of Jill Bolte Taylor, had her brain not returned to the left side periodically she wouldn’t have managed to call for help. The right side, the bliss, may have been great – but it wasn’t going to help save her life.

The same can be said about drugs or even meditation – they may bring about states of nirvana and bliss, but these states are temporary and hence must be used in conjunction with what the left side of our brain has to offer.

The Right and Left together can = peace or violence in the long term. It depends on the dialogue and relationship between the two.

Capitalism defines the relationship in economic terms, applying Right (politically) principles of individualism, privatisation, self-ownership as the path to harmonious market-driven futures that are also better for the whole.

Marxism defines a relationship that considers revolution, the Left (politically) undertaking largely violent conflict to take over the Right and force Leftist principles of shared ownership etc onto the world for the better of the whole.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx developed their theories in hope of bettering society, making it more peaceful, yet neither theory seems to get there. The side effects and long term trajectory of both are pretty depressing.

What’s the solution? I have no idea except to say I think there’s something worthy in continuing the process of seeking it. Do you?

[1] From the YouTube clip with audio of Alan Watts and South Park animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

“Three Fork”: conversation beyond the norm

Last Wednesday was the pilot launch of “Three Fork”, a cafe/bar that aims to stimulate “Free Thought”, conversation beyond the norm.

The plan: Three D’s

  • Drinks 730pm
  • Dinner 8pm (& TED Talk)
  • Discussion 830pm

The night couldn’t have been more successful.

Over Drinks the nine people who were selectively and spontaneously invited about an hour before the event, informal introduced themselves standing/sitting around the bar.

Next everyone was encouraged to help themselves to the slow cooked lamb hotpot and take a seat to watch A Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor – a TV/TED Dinner:


Then started the best bit of the night: Discussions.

It started as a group – one person making a comment, then another adding to their thoughts. Sometimes in agreeance, sometimes in conflict, either way we bounced off each other to challenge and develop ideas.

A major theme was the tension between the left and the right sides of the brain, and the pattern of tension that one can see in politics, economics, spirituality, career and personality. Let me try to map out these patterns:

LEFT side of body/politics (right side of brain)

RIGHT side of body/politics (left side of brain)
















Past and Future

Peace in ST; Violence in LT

Violence in ST; Peace in LT



As Jill described:

  • the right side of the brain (controlling the left side of your body), sees everything as energy and connected
  • the left side of the brain on the other hand (controlling the right side of your body), sees your body as a being made of matter that is separate from the entities and environment around it

I find it easier to think of the right side of the brain as Left and the left side as Right because of the pattern that I see in society:

  • the right-brain-dominant people are often the artists, Collectivist, the Left of politics, seeing the connections, the spirituality of life itself, and the need to care for others and the planet;
  • the left-brain-dominant are often the MBA’s running the world, Individualist, is the Right of politics, preferring religions that are about rules and books, seeing things as separate, different, numbers to be counted.

Today there seems to be a big disconnection between the Right and the Left, especially in the political sense. The Left in politics sees the Right as violent, materialistic, individualists to the cost of the wider society and environment. And the Right in politics sees the Left as hippy comms who are self-indulgent and without long term visions for security and realistic futures.

Of course this is terribly generalistic and simplified to the extreme, but a useful continuum of left to right, collectivist to individualist, goo to prickles, from which we can map the tensions and dynamics.


Alan Watts describes two personality types:

  • the “Prickles” as those who see atoms, differences, and conflicts.
  • the “Goo” as those who see waves, similarities and conformity.

While we may have a tendency toward being Gooey or Prickly, most of us are Prickly Goo and Gooey Prickles.

Another theme that I picked up on at Three Fork was a sense of the internal struggle between conformity and conflict that many of us seemed to share:

  • a struggle to conform to material society, to be part of that culture which we have been born into and hence is a nature desire;
  • the care for social justice and relationship to the environment which involves a certain amount of conflict, putting yourself on a ledge, sticking up for the good guy, standing up to the norm.

Many feel a disjunction between our cultural values and our humanitarian and environmental ones. Our concerns for our individual self, and our care for the collective other. I could hear a subtext loud and clear: a deep sense of knowing that some of the “Western” nation’s “wealth” has involved destructive material consequences for people of the “East” and people “Indigenous” to “our” lands.

I relate this disjunction to the Left and Right – the conformity being a tendency of over-emphasise on the collective (the right-brained / left-politics), and the conflict coming from over emphasis on the individual (the left-brained / right-politics).

Both the conflict seen by the left-side of the brain, and the conformity seen by the right-side, can cause violence or peace.

Future Three Forks:

  • To occur once a month
  • Starting time could come forward an hour
  • Request $10 donations p.p. for food, and $2-3 per drink
  • Record the audio so it can be shared as a podcast