Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Christianity and the 'values of the left'

George Monbiot is not usually a writer I enjoy, but a phrase in the headline to his latest contribution to The Guardian caught my eye: “the left has to start asserting its own values.” Always curious to know what values there are on the left (and where, exactly does ‘left’ start?), I found myself reading an article with which I felt a great deal of agreement.
Monbiot is clearly frustrated by what he sees as the passive acceptance, not only by left-wing activists but those whom they support, of policies which undermine their aims. We are seeing the “punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides” and yet “apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.”
What can be the cause, he wonders? And the answer is found in an aspect of human psychology identified in a paper written for the World Wildlife Fund by Tom Crompton. Apparently, he problem lies in “progressives” (Monbiot is prone to such polarizations of humankind) holding to what Crompton calls an enlightenment model of human behaviour, according to which people build their lives around rational decisions based on facts.
In reality, however, people actually live on the basis of a social identity and its accompanying values. Presenting people with ‘facts’ intended to produce change may actually have the opposite effect.
The key to addressing this, then, is to understand the difference between ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ values. Monbiot summarizes thus:
Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs that transcend their self-interest.
Unsurprisingly, given that this is an article about the values of ‘the left’, it turns out that left-wing people are more ‘intrinsic’, with a strong sense of self-acceptance, and hence “have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment.”
Right-wing, ‘extrinsic’, people, on the other hand, “strongly value financial success ... have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment.”
However, people are not ‘intrinsically’ intrinsic or extrinsic:
We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the social environment. By changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable, politics alters our minds as much as our circumstances.
And what is true for politics is true also for social policy, advertising and the media. The latter have a particular impact:
Their fascination with power politics, their rich lists, their catalogues of the 100 most powerful, influential, intelligent or beautiful people, their obsessive promotion of celebrity, fashion, fast cars, expensive holidays: all inculcate extrinsic values.
Apparently though, according to Crompton’s paper, the answer is simple. The left should,
... stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish.
Enter (stage left) Ed Miliband. Monbiot quotes him as telling the Labour conference that he “‘wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work’ and ‘wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances’”. Above all, “‘We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line’”.
But there’s a problem. Politicians, Monbiot notes, must be driven by ambition. Hence:
Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values.
As a result, Monbiot concludes, change must be driven from elsewhere:
People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel.
“In asserting our values,” Monbiot concludes, “we become the change we want to see.”
Now it would be easy — very easy — to mock, beginning with the notion that the secret to the human future has been revealed in a paper written for an environmentalist group. It would also be easy to take issue with Monbiot’s division of the world into ‘left-good, right-bad’ people, or indeed morality into ‘intrinsic-good, extrinsic-bad’ values. It is a curiously black and white world that Monbiot inhabits, despite his recognition that “Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic.”
There is, moreover, the question of whether Monbiot is really taking on board his own recognition that people are driven by a mixture of rational and non-rational impulses. Surely if the enlightenment assumption has failed, the way to save both our race and our plaent is not by explaining things to people but (as Monbiot asserts the ‘right’ have been doing with increasing success) by manipulating them at the level of their irrationality.
Yet there is a point at which Christians would entirely agree with much of what Monbiot says. Leaving aside his left-right, intrinsic-extrinsic polarizations, for example, we would surely recognize the presence of good and bad impulses in human nature. We would also recognize the tension between our natural desire for outward blessings and the importance of inward contentment.
And though we would take issue with the idea that the more ‘inward focussed’ someone is, the better a person they will become, we would also acknowledge the need to be free from a desire for wealth, fame, possessions and so on.
Again, Christians would endorse the values of concern for others, especially the most needy.
Moreover, there is surely something to applaud in critiquing a political message that, in the end, is mere materialism, whether dressed up as free-market economics or state-provided comforts for all.
Monbiot’s ‘polarizing’ glasses may prevent him seeing this, but in the end politicians of both left and right tend to offer the same thing. Christians would agree with Miliband when he says there is “more to life than the bottom line”. But there is also more to to life than the free-market benefits of the right or the state-provided benefits of the left.
Above all, we would agree with Monbiot that real social change can come from those who hold true values being unembarrassed by them and arguing openly for them in the public forum, promoting the good and opposing the evil.
In fact, Monbiot’s programme for change is exactly what Christians have, in the best of times, also pursued. And we could surely argue that sauce for the secularist goose is sauce for the Christian gander — in other words, that we should be just a free, and willing, to push and promote our values as anyone else.
The real difference between Monbiot’s agenda and the Christian agenda, of course, comes down what is to be valued and why. The Christian would again agree with Monbiot’s suspicion of the enlightenment approach. But it is this approach which, increasingly unfettered by other considerations, has done most to devalue humanity, even whilst advocating what many would call ‘humanism’.
We cannot really know what human beings ought to think, or how they ought to behave, much less what they ought to sacrifice their own lives for, until we know what human beings are. In the end, Monbiot and the most right wing of extrinsic secularists will agree at this point: that we are chance conglomerations of atoms, aware, for a brief moment, of our own existence before disappearing into nothingness.
It is that faith which is now predominant in Western cultures. What Monbiot sees as an increasing triumph of the ‘right’ is arguable simply the triumph of a common sense response to that viewpoint: “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!” (Isa 22:13).
Tell people why that should not be so, and you may give them another way to live.
John Richardson
12 October 2010
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1 comment:

  1. To paraphrase an old hymn, In Christ there is no left or right.

    The right is often given unchristian stereotypes, but both political wings often are simply presenting two different solutions to the same old problems of mankind.

    In Christ there is no East or West,
    In Him no South or North;
    But one great fellowship of love
    Throughout the whole wide earth.

    William A. Dunkerley, 1908