On Bracketing: Pugilistic Lessons for the Left

I have long decried the fact that the right wants power while the left wants approval. This was never more evident that in the months up to and including the last election when the Tories and Libdems bent truth and law to breaking point, while Labour bent over backwards to prove they play fair. This manifests itself most infuriatingly in debates. The right knows it’s not about truth and proceeds to dictate the terms of the argument. The left knows it’s not about truth either but proceeds as if it is. In the process they submit to whatever terms the right offers them. In the discursive iteration of this aphorism — the right wants to win, the left wants to be right.

It can be useful in these situations to apply lessons from sport. There is a technique in martial arts, often referred to as ‘bracketing’. It’s where you deliberately throw a shot long — not to hit your opponent, but to manipulate their position. Those new to martial arts will generally fail to recognise the significance of these shots — seizing upon the inaccuracy of the attack or worse, exaggerate the skill of the opponent’s defence. The optics of the fight seem to favour the opponent — they are landing with more accuracy and regularity — that is until they get knocked out. Similar strategies to bracketing include punching in flurries (known in other sports as the ‘hurry up offense’). If the first and second doesn’t land the third and fourth might.

Apply this metaphor to political debates. Many of the ‘hot takes’ of the centrist and conservative commentariat are effectively bracketing shots. They may be wildly off the mark, but their pressure and ferocity forces the left to give ground. We might think we are getting the better of the exchanges. After all our shots are landing, theirs aren’t. In focusing narrowly on accuracy we underestimate the implications of their attacks. We think we are winning. We are not. What is being waged here is a war of position.

Two examples.

The right flood the media with outrageous smears about the Venezuelan government — about how it is a dictatorship, it fixes elections, it threatens imprisons and kills political opponents, it threatens neighbouring Colombia and so on. All of this is not just wildly untrue but the precise reverse of reality. Venezuela, by most metrics, is the most democratic country in the hemisphere. The Chavez and now Maduro governments have been extremely conciliatory towards its opponents, often in the face of extraordinary provocation. It is Colombia that has routinely threatened Venezuela. And yet the associations of Venezuela are so negative that left-wing commentators are pressured into caveats — “I am no apologist for Maduro” or “I don’t condone such repressive measures but…” Such concessions actually concede the argument. It has been sealed in the minds of the audience that Venezuela is a regime we should not support. The next time a scandal is whipped up the same left-wing commentators are cornered.

Another ploy is to pick on an individual leftist. Ken Livingstone, Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Moshe Machover, Chris Williamson, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Maybe they have said something untenable, maybe they haven’t. More probably they have said something clumsy on a topic that requires more care. At any rate no time or space is given to litigate the accusation. The right piles onto them and everyone associated with them. In the frenzy that follows the left is panicked into a response. Suspend, sack, condemn. Henceforth an important area of discussion is hitherto out of bounds. The next time the subject arises again the same left-wing commentators are bound by the same panicked reaction.

In both examples ground was conceded unnecessarily. Let’s return to the metaphor. Some of the most effective fighters in history (Hopkins, Mayweather, Leonard, the young Ali) refused to engage their opponents in positions unfavourable to them. If they found themselves in positions where they might get caught, they clinched up or circled out. Most importantly they didn’t very much worry about the short-term optics of doing so. They were more concerned with success than approval. The left could do with learning this lesson. There isn’t always a pressing reason to react to each and every one of the right’s provocations and slurs. Engage when it suits us, not them.