In an exchange at FrontPage Magazine between David Horowitz and history professor Timothy Burke, the latter complains that Horowitz's Discover The Network data bank unfairly categorizes various people as leftists without sufficient definitions and evidence, ignoring the many differences among people whom the data bank places on the left. Horowitz retorts, first, that leftists don't hesitate to lump together all conservatives as right-wingers despite the many differences among conservatives; second, that it is perfectly reasonable to classify people politically according to their general associations and loyalties; and, third, that leftists simply can't stand being identified and exposed as what they are.
Apart from the left's understandable desire not to be pinned down, it seems to me that there is a deeper issue at work here, which is that liberals and leftists disdain categories and classifications as such. Why? For one thing, if classifications are real, then it is not possible to re-mold human beings and institutions into any shape the left wants in its attempt to create the perfect egalitarian society. For example, if the categories "male" and "female" are real and fundamentally distinct from each other in a way that matters socially (beyond the fundamental similarities of men and women as human beings), then any social engineering scheme based on the total interchangeability of men and women must fail.
For another thing, leftists and liberals feel that any larger classification inhibits individual freedom. If categories such as "father," "mother," "child," and "citizen" have certain natural and/or established social meanings, then any particular father, mother, child, or citizen is not totally free to be or do whatever he wants. His true freedom, as it were, is found through participation in an order larger than himself, not simply through the fulfillment of his personal desires.
Beyond these explanations, however, liberals and leftists have yet a further motive for rejecting categories. If we belong to some naturally or socially defined category, as man or woman, or as Jew or Catholic, or as housewife or soldier, then, insofar as we belong to that category, our purpose, our telos, is to fulfill the potentiality and meaning of that category. While this limits our freedom, as already pointed out, it does something more. It creates a distance between ourselves as we are and ourselves as we ought to be. It establishes a standard, according to which we can be judged, and according to which we are not perfect. It even says that we are inherently imperfect and cannot be perfected, since our full nature, represented by the category or class to which we belong, represents an ideal, a set of potentialities, which as individuals we can never entirely realize but can only strive to approximate. To most normal people, this inherent human imperfection or inadequacy, this gap between the actual and the ideal, is simply a fact of life and does not represent any special problem. But to liberals and leftists it is deeply threatening, because they insist on human perfection (namely their own) and refuse to accept the idea that people are not readily perfectible.
Of course, there are exceptions to the left's rejection of larger categories and the standards derived from them. The left insists on larger categories when it says that Republicans are evil, or when it invokes the collective guilt of white Americans, or when it demands collective preferences for women or racial minorities, or when it insists that American Indians or Arabs have some special mode of being and relationship that is closed to whites. However, the left posits such categories and standards, not in order to represent the truth of nature and social tradition, but in order to overturn the categories and standards derived from nature and tradition and replace them with the left's categories and standards. An example is the notion that whites are a historically guilty race and therefore have no right to criticize or resist the demands of nonwhites.
The above is not to say that non-liberals are happy with, or must automatically subscribe to, all traditionally and naturally defined roles. As Western human beings, we always experience a certain tension between the promptings of our individual self and society's expectations of us, and there is no final set boundary between the two. As individuals, non-liberals may fail, sometimes disastrously, in fulfilling the potentialities of the various classifications to which they may belong. What distinguishes people on the left, however, is their radical rejection of the very idea of larger natural or social classifications.
Lawrence Auster is the author of Erasing America: The Politics of the Borderless Nation. He offers a traditionalist conservative perspective at View from the Right.