Saturday, 24 October 2009

Can secular society cope intellectually?

Two recent newspaper articles raise the interesting question of whether modern secularism can really cope with intellectual challenges.
The first, by Antonia Senior in The Times, is titled, ‘A flawed philosophy that bolsters the BNP’. The philosophy to which she refers is what she calls ‘moral relativisim’:
Truth, and moral worth, are entirely relative to a culture or society. I think bacon is divine; you are a vegetarian; he thinks pig meat is an affront to God. Each of these positions is true, because truth is in the eye of the believer.
This viewpoint she describes, with some justification, as “ incoherent, logically flawed and utterly tired.” And in case anyone should think she is exaggerating, she quotes Germaine Greer on the issue of female circumcision:
Germaine Greer famously accused the critics of circumcision as launching attacks on “the cultural identity” of the circumcised. “One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation,” she said.
By contrast, she herself believes,
It’s impossible to be a cultural relativist when faced with daily examples of other cultures getting it wrong. There is no validity in any view of right or wrong expressed by the Taleban. There is no truth in any cultural creed that treats women as inferior, let alone those that mutilate them. There is no cultural excuse for child abuse disguised as exorcism.
And doubtless there are many who would agree with her. However, she continues,
Relativism is in retreat, but there is no coherent moral framework taking its place. It helped us move from the certainties of the imperial age into a more tolerant era, but it’s almost impossible to work out what comes next.
The difficulty, as she acknowledges, is that,
The only way to decide if a proposition is true or not, or if an action is right or wrong, is to test it and debate it. This takes more rigour than a lazy assumption that all views are truth and rightness is relative. It’s also tricky if you are an atheist, as so many of us are.
But such rigorous analysis is needed. Otherwise, “paralysed by our inherited relativism, fearful of seeming racist and adrift in a Godless world, we fall silent just when we should be debating and talking.” And then, “Into this silence strides Nick Griffin”.
It is Nick Griffin who also prompts an article by Matthew Parris, again in The Times, who claims that he has only twice been moved to tears by our political life. The first occasion was when Clause 28 of the Local Government Act was passed by the House of Lords. The second was when surveying what the national press had to say about Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. What he saw in the papers was,
... an entire national intelligentsia, in a time of relative peace and stability, unthreatened by any serious challenge to the values they hold dear, and in the face of no more than a gnat of a man leading no more than a rag-tag party with no more than a dishcloth of a manifesto, flinch — seriously flinch — in its commitment to free speech.
By contrast, he asked,
Was there nobody to restate, with the relaxed confidence that philosophical certitude should bring, the only available position for a modern British liberal: that this is a free country in which a range of highly diverse opinions may be held and, if held, published, subject to the law? Full stop. Yes, full stop; for heaven’s sake, full stop.
But of course the answer is no —we do not have this ‘relaxed confidence’ amongst the intelligentsia, and we especially do not have it amongst those in charge of our institutions of government and mass communication. And the reason for this, I would suggest, is twofold.
The first is that they are products of an educational system which did not teach them to think. It especially did not teach them to think about positions which disagreed with the popular morality of their educators. I remember once in my early years as a University Chaplain, some time in the 1980s, having a conversation with a lecturer about his students’ essays on the subject of abortion.
“What do you teach them about the arguments against abortion?” I asked him.
His answer was, “I would never dream of teaching them the arguments against abortion.”

Clearly he felt this was morally justified. But educationally, of course, it is disastrous. But it is also disastrous tactically, for if we do not know the arguments against our position, how will we cope when we come against someone who does? My suspicion is that at least some of the nervousness about allowing Nick Griffin on television was not that he is a palpable fool but that he might turn out not to be. And judging by Tom Sutcliffe’s report in The Independent (despite its headline), that proved partially to be the case:
The challenge for the panellists was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath – something achieved with only variable success.
The test will be whether Mr Griffin is invited back so that his opponents can finish the job.
But the other reason why our intelligentsia lack confidence is that, thanks to recent government policy, they have come to rely on force, not on argument. Why bother presenting a case when you can just ban someone from speaking, or blockade the arena where they would appear, or —best of all —pass a law which will make it illegal for them to speak in these terms at all.
The justification for this is that we are ‘safeguarding’ society. But the reality is that we are doing nothing of the kind. On the contrary, as Parris writes, there is an argument that,
... free speech will strengthen and sharpen the critical faculties of the whole citizenry, producing a society less susceptible to herd mentality.
Unfortunately, a citizenry susceptible to a herd mentality is not only what we are dangerously close to having, it is what our social and educational policies and practices of the last several decades have tended to produce. We are a society that, like the Question Time audience, cheers and boos to the cues in which it has been coached. And woe betide the person who truly stands out, or goes against the crowd. But sometimes one gets the feeling we are just being set up for the next stage, whatever that might be.
John Richardson
24 October 2009

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  1. Excellent piece, I have shared this one around!

  2. Well said.

    Do you ever wonder whether there are any subjects about which you were never taught to think critically?

  3. I don't agree about the conclusions you draw in this piece. All citizenry's are susceptible to herd mentality and I don't believe ours to be any more so. The education system is always going to transfer the social norms and traditions of a nation as that is esentially it's job in all societies. I agree that a relaxed defense of our values steming from a true understanding of them should be expected and is always a shame when its replaced by catcalling or dismissal. This is not however the sign of an intellectually weak people angry that someone dare break the mold. Instead I think it is a genuine anger at someone who's public persona simply hides a more hidious agenda which cannot be reasoned against whilst it is concealed. The greatest failing of the panel wasn't in their inability to engage or defend their values but to unroot and reveal Nick Griffin's.

  4. LC, an important question is whether the social norms and national traditions inculcated by the educational system are true 'values' or merely different outlooks that we call 'values'.

    The word 'Taleban' means 'Students' - Students of an educational system which has inculcated social values. Yet is it enough simply to have been a 'student' who has absorbed a set of values - whether "our values" or someone else's?

    Part of what Griffin is saying is that some values are wrong values. In this, I suspect you may agree with him, rather than the (quoted) views of Germaine Greer.

    The problem, as Antonia Senior observes, is that Griffin is doing the critiquing that our society ought to be, but is not, because its underlying philosophy inhibits such a critique: "If he is the only one talking about immigration, or the role of women in Islam or the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement felt, rightly or wrongly, by some white Britons, then his voice will be amplified. He is shouting while we whisper. If his voice is heard above ours, we have only ourselves to blame."

  5. But religious outlooks have exactly the same effect as one simply ends up with competing absolutes.

    In a society where most people believe the same things - small scale, homogenous - it is reasonably easy to impose norms. Far less so when there are diverse views and values.

    Not all secularists are relativists - or soggy liberals! I'm very clear, for example, that conservative religionist views on gay and lesbian sexuality are wrong and should be restrained outside the private sphere. But others would disagree.

  6. Merseymike, what if I were to say (leaving religion out of it), that given that we do not know the causes of sexual orientation, but given that it appears for some people to go through a 'variable' phase, and given that a same-sex orientation is going to have limiting effects on some aspects of sexuality - for example the possibility of bringing up one's own children within a biological family - therefore the exposure of children to same-sex concepts should be 'restrained' in their early years, how would you respond? I'd just be curious to know.

  7. Thank you for this post. Cogent and insightful. I'm going to direct all ten of my readers in your direction. :)

  8. Well, what a great post! It's already been fanned out to colleagues and friends.

    The subject of the inherent inconsistency in secularists' approach to morality is dealt with really well in Keller's 'The Reason for God'. Secularists need to be pressed because as you say they have a case to answer in the light of the BNP and cross-cultural norms.

    Your post does seem to suggest that if only the secularists managed to approach the matter with intellectual rigour they would have an answer. My view is that the arguments for moral relativism will always 'eat themselves' - as in 'I can't tolerate intolerance', for example. Ultimately, people need to recognise that we are not the objects of our own universe, but subjects of God.

  9. " pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath"
    Doubtless there is (some) muscle there, but was this an intentional pun or a lapsus attentionis?
    Anyone who has followed the saga of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant in their battle against Canada's "hate speech" censorship laws (doing battle with the jihadis) could reasonably fear that freedom of speech and open debate are disappearing from the west, as the Committee for Public Safety redivivus stalks the lands.
    Merseymike's desire to censor unacceptable (to him) views on homosexuality is already a reality in Canada.

    Mark B.

  10. Ah, I see Merseymike's thoughtcrime police force are already at work in the UK:

    Mark B.

  11. "Unfortunately, a citizenry susceptible to a herd mentality..."

    How is the CofE "flock" doing these days???

    Surely your are only arguing because the intelligentsia have replaced the frocked? The "unherded" secularists are much more likely to have a diverse viewpoint than an inculcated religious group.