On Parkfield School and Tory individualism

Conservative Muslim parents and LGBT activists continue in open conflict over the teaching of gay and trans rights in Birmingham schools. Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey fanned the flames today by coming down on the side of the protesting parents:

Elsewhere, teenage Tory activist Soutiam Goodarzi, herself of Muslim origin, expressed outrage at McVey’s alignment with the forces of religious conservatism on this most uncomfortable clash of minority rights:

Though it’s tempting to laugh and point at the contortions and cognitive dissonance the left must endure in order to be on the same side as both groups in this clash of rights, it is the conservative predicament which is more acute, in part because it is not out in the open like conservative Muslim homophobia.

McVey here expresses the common conservative viewpoint that holds moral instruction to be the preserve of private families, not of the state. In this worldview, it is simply not the place of government to meddle in the mores parents convey to their children, and in fact schools should concentrate on teaching subjects such as history, science and maths rather than making pronouncements on what is socially acceptable.

Goodarzi expresses the equally common conservative view that religious minorities – especially Muslim ones – should not be permitted to effect a reverse takeover of the public square simply through a mixture of intransigence and leveraged victim politics. To put it another way, Muslims should not be permitted, by virtue of the specially favoured place they hold in the system of diversity (Cobley) to force sweeping changes to what is commonly taught, said or deemed acceptable.

McVey’s stance would leave families – including religious conservative ones – in sole charge of the moral instruction of the young. But Goodarzi’s stance cannot afford to, lest the moral instruction of the young be subject to infiltration and takeover by values alien to a functioning free society.

Goodarzi’s position is more akin to classical liberalism than conservatism proper. In this context, conservative religion – whether Christian or Muslim or something else – is self-evidently an obstacle on the way to individual freedom and self-realisation. Allied to a free-market position that seeks to reduce, remove (or at least disguise) the role of the state in the operation of markets, this is a type of ‘conservatism’ (perhaps more properly called progressive free-market liberalism) typified by George Osborne. Morality, inasmuch as it is discussed at all, is in a sense negative, consisting mainly of strictures designed to maximise individual freedom and self-fulfilment – such as injunctions to eschew homophobic bullying. These, though, may be enforced by the state as it is assumed to be in the best interests of the good society that individual freedom be allowed to flourish as fully as possible.

McVey’s position is a version of this stance, modified by the proviso that some forms of shared morality are desirable. These, however, should be transmitted not by the state, whose role should be limited to activities such as keeping the peace and maintaining roads, but left as the purview of individual families.

The trouble with both these as models for society, though, is that they both depend for their existence on something they also work to undermine: that is, public mores. Moral instruction is, in a sense, both public and private: it concerns our private behaviour, but it also bears on society as a whole. If the moral instruction of children is nonexistent or badly done, those children are less likely to make a positive contribution to society as adults. It is everyone’s business how families educate their children. Our radically individualist society may not like this, but it’s true.

To illustrate.

Some choices parents make impact literally no-one but the parents and child in question. Cosleeping with babies and young children is a good example. It makes zero difference to anyone outside the family whether my toddler sleeps in my bed or her own. Who cares? Potty training, on the other hand, is a different matter. I will annoy no-one outside the family if I wave my hands in a liberal fashion and say airily that my child will sleep in her own bed ‘when she’s ready’. But if I declare that my child ‘refuses to wear a nappy’ and will learn to pee and poo in a potty ‘when she’s ready’ I will quickly incur widespread dislike, hefty dry cleaning bills and a sudden lack of playdate invitations.

Moral instruction is more like potty training than co-sleeping, and this is where McVey’s position falls down. You can say ‘families know best’ when it comes to moral instruction, but would you say that of a parent who was teaching a toddler that it was fine to take a shit on the pavement? Morals are about how we live together as a society; we can’t pretend that they can be atomised to the family level and still work as morals. You have to be confident that all or most families are on the same page about where it’s acceptable to take a crap before you say breezily ‘families know best’. Otherwise you’re just ducking the issue.

But Goodarzi’s conservative-flavoured liberalism doesn’t have much to offer either on the subject of which moral precepts should be adhered to by everyone – except inasmuch as they are enforced by the state. It’s simply assumed that individuals will somehow naturally come to the conclusion that we use the potty. How they get there, it is implied, is not a matter for politics. And if they don’t, we pass a law saying they have to. Anything intermediate is an incursion onto individual liberty.

But the truth is that both these viewpoints take a set of shared moral references so profoundly for granted they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Everyone just knows we don’t shit on the floor; that’s why (McVey) we can trust families to convey that and don’t need to teach it at school or else (Goodarzi) all we need to do is stamp out regressive viewpoints that might limit our freedom to come naturally to the right conclusion about where we take a crap. But that set of shared values is precisely the target of Goodarzi’s individualism. It is the regressive swamp of benighted reactionary muck from which individual freedom is painstakingly extricated. And once this broad framing of our moral past and present is in place, we can’t really trust families to convey the right stuff either.

Goodarzi’s position is more honest than McVey’s, in that it acknowledges more or less explicitly that if we’re accepting radical individualism as a basic social good, then the state needs to step in as coercive arbiter of some moral matters, in order to prevent wholesale anarchy (and shitty pavements). In the terms of my metaphor, Goodarzi’s position suggests that everyone can do as they like but allows for some kind of authority which is empowered to ensure people teach their toddlers to crap in the potty. It at least has a stance on some moral matters, and accepts the need to enforce them.

McVey’s ‘families know best’, on the other hand, avoids making any moral pronouncements about the social good and simply implies that ‘families’ will come up with the right answers about moral instruction on their own. It assumes a shared value set that might once, in a monocultural society, have existed, but which in our post-religious, post-imperial, multicultural, radically-individualist Britain simply cannot be taken for granted. If ‘best’ is taken to mean ‘fitting most harmoniously and beneficially into society as a whole’, it is not at all obvious any more that families do know best. But McVey cannot define ‘best’, any more than Goodarzi can, because both have accepted the basic liberal-individualist premise that even in matters that explicitly concern society as a whole rather than us as individuals or even as families, no-one has any right to tell anyone else what to do.

Left unmodified, these two stances point at two possible futures. Goodarzi’s future is one in which we are all free individuals, and the only agent with a right to tell us what to do is the state, which exists as a kind of medium in which radically unencumbered individuals interact and which intervenes only to maximise individual freedom. McVey’s future is one in which shared values still exist, but not at the level of the nation state – only at the level of individual families or ‘communities’. These ‘communities’ are, in a fashion similar to Goodarzi’s future, the subjects of a total state which exists as the sole arbiter of clashing freedoms and community ‘rights’. In this future, moral values are outsourced to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities and (to a lesser extent) individual families, administrated by an explicitly amoral state whose remit is to hold and defuse tensions between moral standpoints or in extremis to rule in favour of one or another position in an irreconcilable clash.

In neither of these futures is there much to conserve, which leaves conservatism in something of a bind. Its modern proponents have, in different ways, accepted the broad premise that the pursuit of individualism and markets is the highest public good. This in turn means individual freedom should at every turn be prioritised over a shared cultural and moral framework, which is depicted as the dark force of the past and enemy of progress. After some 50 years of this process, we are left with not a great deal except individuals (or, as McVey would have it, individuals and families). Even those pockets of reactionaries who protest are like US Marines stuck in the jungle still fighting the Korean War: it’s over, the pieces are being swept up, we are where we are. Conservatives now face a difficult choice between agreeing that, absent shared mores, the state needs to take a role as moral arbiter, or else watching as a national community disintegrates into ever more balkanised ‘communities’, whose moral frameworks compete and, as at Parkview School, clash irreconcilably. Or (and this is so difficult to imagine in practice as to be very unlikely) conservatives need to consider whether there are shared values worth fighting for as a society, rather than legislating as a government or clutching to our bosoms as individuals and atomised families.

Can societies survive without blasphemy laws?

So today I was mulling gloomily over the way hate crime laws seem to have taken seamlessly over the function of blasphemy laws in the UK. I decided to look up when blasphemy was abolished as an offence in the country, thinking it might be sometime in the 1970s. Wrong – blasphemy was abolished as an offence in 2008. The acts governing hate crime (the Crime and Disorder Act and the Criminal Justice Act) were added to the statute book in 1998 and and 2003 respectively.

The CPS’ own website states that

The police and the CPS have agreed the following definition for identifying and flagging hate crimes: “Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on a person’s disability or perceived disability; race or perceived race; or religion or perceived religion; or sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or transgender identity or perceived transgender identity.”

These laws have been used in recent times for such diverse purposes as fining a man who taught his girlfriend’s dog to make a Nazi salute and arresting a woman for calling a transgender woman a man.

The common feature of both the blasphemy laws of yore and the hate crime laws of today is that both prohibit speech considered harmful to society’s morals. That society’s morals are no longer situated in a common belief system (such as Christianity) but an atomised, individualistic inner space (as expressed by the definition of hate crime as anything which is perceived by an individual as being such) is neither here nor there. Certain tenets cannot be challenged lest doing so harms the fabric of society.

It’s also neither here nor there that some of those moral tenets are unprovable or unfalsifiable in any objective sense: the Resurrection of Christ, say, or the existence of some magical inner ‘gender identity’. Indeed the more outlandish a protected belief the better, because the function of blasphemy laws is to compel moral obedience, and what better sign of moral obedience than to see people dutifully repeating something that is in no sense objectively true (such as that men can become women) on pain of being punished if they don’t comply?

My argument here isn’t that we should abolish hate crime laws as we did their predecessors, the laws of blasphemy. I don’t want to rant, Spiked-style, about the threat from blasphemy and hate crime laws to free speech so much I want to ask: have we ever really had free speech? It seems no sooner did we get rid of one set of rules about what you can’t say than we replaced them with another. There was, perhaps, a couple of decades where blasphemy was effectively defunct despite the statute remaining in existence and before hate crime came to be. But the collapse of controls on speech for religious reasons is nigh-simultaneous with the rise of controls on speech for social justice/equality reasons. The Human Rights Act 1998 forced blasphemy law to be restrained by the right to free speech; the same year, the Crime and Disorder Act made hateful behaviour toward a victim based on membership (or presumed membership) in a racial or religious group an aggravating factor in sentencing. (Insert chin-stroking emoji here.)

This leads me to suspect that human societies cannot, in fact, survive very long without laws of some kind governing speech. I’d love to see a counter-example. But I’ll be astonished if anyone can point me to a state that has abolished religious blasphemy without replacing it with controls on speech for other reasons, whether (under supposedly atheistic Communism) to forbid speaking against the Dictator, or (under supposedly individualistic, pluralistic liberalism) to forbid speaking against individuals’ notional right to self-define without reference to the collective.

Much as every human represses some aspects of their personality in order to function, every society does so too; it is a foolish or short-lived society that makes no effort to clamp down on behaviours or opinions that pose a threat to what that society considers the good or virtuous life. If that’s the case, is there even any value in trying to fight what feels like a rising tide of authoritarian busybodying keen to tell me what I can and can’t say? Or should I just pile in and make my bid to be on the team who’s in charge of deciding what should or shouldn’t be banned?

Right now, the two groups jostling most energetically for that position in the UK are the proponents of ‘intersectionality’ and the radical Islamists. If Nassim Taleb is correct, and social mores are disproportionately set by tiny ideological minorities purely based on the strength of their conviction, then whether we end up punishing those who assert that men cannot become women or those who draw cartoons of Mohammed will be a straight fight between which of those groups is more determined to blow shit up if they don’t get their way.

I don’t really like the way this argument is going. If I’m right, then social mores in a few decades will bear few resemblances to those of today And whether they’re structured with reference to authoritarian liberalism or radical Islam I don’t think I will particularly like their shape. But there’s nothing I can do about it – the moral majority in the country is firmly post-Christian and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a society that can’t be arsed to defend its moral traditions is guaranteed to see them supplanted by ideologies with more committed adherents. And indeed, the kind of Christianity that did once upon a time get out of bed to defend its moral tenets by any means necessary would probably, in practice, be as repugnant to me as either of the likely moral futures toward which our society is heading.


On community, communities and identity politics

Today I drove half an hour to a hospital, with my toddler, to visit a dying woman I barely knew personally, just because she is a member of the church I attend. I don’t want a medal or anything; I mention the incident because it left me mulling over the different ways our culture uses the word ‘community’, and what they mean in practice in different contexts.

In the context of a church, ‘community’ means shared values. In that context, people go the extra mile to care for one another in ways that are shaped by the church’s shared value system. Specifically, visiting a dying woman, that might mean reading her a prayer or sharing with her thoughts and prayers sent by other members of the community. It might mean being willing to hold the hand of a near stranger, knowing she is part of my community and that enough of what remained unspoken between us could be taken for granted for her to find my presence comforting, and to allow me to be present.

In the context of identity politics, where nowadays we more often hear the word ‘community’, what does it in fact mean? It means you share your ‘identity’ with other members of your ‘community’, and membership of that community confers some kind of victim points, which can be leveraged for political amplification, or simply to win an argument with someone who possesses fewer protected characteristics than you. It is no guarantor of shared values, obligations, narratives or really anything much. And the more ‘inclusive’ each ‘community’ gets, the less able any community is to argue a coherent political case for anything. The LGB community is a case in point: when it focused on advocacy for people who sometimes or always engage in same-sex relationships it was pretty straightforward, but now it’s supposed to be an umbrella for everyone except the most vanilla heterosexual sex-role-stereotype-embodying people it’s hard to see what it can actually advocate for. (I wrote about how inclusivity kills politics here.)

This postmodern sense of ‘community’ can’t be relied on to come sit by your deathbed, turn up with food when someone else in the community has a baby, visit you when you’re ill or give you a lift to the station if you’re stuck at home. For that, you need shared values. It’s here I think we start to get a clue as to why the revolutionary vanguard of identity politics sounds increasingly religious with every passing day, complete with catechisms (‘trans women are women’), a theodicy (‘privilege’) and an Inquisition (outsourced to Twitter). It’s because, having left a smoking crater where Christianity once sat, the left-liberal vanguard has (unconsciously perhaps) begun to realise how many babies (and dying old people) have been thrown out with the bathwater.

Worried about the spread of Islam in the UK? Don’t go to EDL rallies – go to church

In which I try and piss off Muslims, liberals, Christians, atheists and people who share Britain First memes

The voice of Islam has grown in strength in my lifetime, even as that of Christianity has waned. Far more halal meat is now produced in this country than there are Muslims to eat it. At the same time, people have felt increasingly free to speak derogatorily about Christians and Christian ideas, to the point where Thought For The Day speakers write in the Guardian about the BBC’s ‘sniggering’ attitude to Christianity. In contrast, as criticism of and sniggering about Christianity has become such easy sport, it has become steadily less acceptable to voice criticisms about Islamic ideology.

Ahis shifting balance of power has not gone unnoticed. At the ‘deplorable’ end of social media, one sees a great deal of hostility toward what is experienced as a steady encroachment of Islam. Look up the #islamification hashtag if you want a taster. This example is typical.

The officially sanctioned response to this kind of sentiment is to dismiss it as bigotry and then censure, censor and move on. But consider for a few moments what it is expressing. Fear, hostility, concern about the encroachment of a way of life that is ‘not how we do things’. Is it justified? Well, the actual proportion of Muslims to the general population within the United Kingdom is pretty small (around 5%). So why the perception that there are so many?

In a chapter of Skin In The Game, Nassim Taleb outlines the means by which small but highly intransigent minorities can end up dictating dietary and even moral codes for a more flexible majority.

Roman pagans were initially tolerant of Christians, as the tradition was to share gods with other members of the empire. But they wondered why these Nazarenes didn’t want to give and take gods and offer that Jesus fellow to the Roman pantheon in exchange for some other gods. What, our gods aren’t good enough for them? But Christians were intolerant of Roman paganism. The “persecutions” of the Christians had vastly more to do with the intolerance of the Christians for the pantheon and local gods, than the reverse.

Today, some seventy percent of New Zealand lamb is slaughtered using halal methods, because while non-Muslims will for the most part tolerate halal slaughter, a high proportion of Muslims will not tolerate non-halal. Thus, by simple commercial expedience, the less tolerant minority ends up disproportionately influencing the available food choices for the majority.

One can extend this insight beyond halal slaughter. A recent YouGov poll illustrates this: most Brits think only six of the Ten Commandments are still important. The commandments that have fallen by the wayside are: worshiping false idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, worshiping anything other than God and keeping the Sabbath. In other words, the commandments that relate to active piety specific to religious adherence. The rest deal with theft, murder, adultery and the like; things which are clearly bad whatever you think of God. But edicts against blasphemy and the proliferation of gods, and for loyalty to the faith? Those are the rules that sustain the identity of a religion, and the cohesion of a group that follows it. That these are the edicts we have abandoned, in the UK, tells us everything we need to know about the level of religious intransigence in the general population. The commandments that gatekeep a faith, head off any dalliance with other faiths, in a word keep the faith intolerant enough to be influential have all faded to meaninglessness for the majority of Brits. This is not, in the main, a population willing to dig its heels in for the sake of religious beliefs. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that more than half the UK population do not feel themselves to have a religion.

In the midst of this sea of secular laissez-faire, Muslims are the only faith group present in the UK in any number who take their faith seriously enough to make sacrifices for it. This makes them very visible, and – in a tolerant, pluralistic society – makes Islam disproportionately powerful. British Muslims care about stuff the majority isn’t that bothered about, like saying prayers in slaughterhouses, so their secular fellow countrymen shrug and go along with it because what’s the problem? Those that are bothered, the angry traditionalists tweeting about ‘islamification’, are concerned because they sense, instinctively, the asymmetric influence of an intransigent minority and rightly fear for their own cultural norms.

But the populist reaction – hostility to Muslims and Islam – is misguided. Sharing memes on Twitter decrying the intolerant minority won’t lessen its influence and just makes the meme-sharers look nasty. If those complaining about Islamification are themselves secular, atheist or otherwise indifferent to serious, practising Christianity, they are helping to create the conditions for the Islamification they so detest.

It is no good saying the Muslims should be more tolerant. That’s not how religions work. No: the only force that can counter religious intransigence is religious intransigence. Anyone who is seriously concerned about Islam becoming the dominant religion in the United Kingdom should stop sharing Britain First memes and start going to church. And making sure their family does the same.

I can hear serious Christians protesting that running cultural interference is not a proper reason to attend church and indeed might itself qualify as worshiping graven idols. But is religious oractice not always as much about tribe and belonging and sociocultural norms as a mystical connection with the divine? Meanwhile atheists might protest that their problem is with religions as such, so embracing one imaginary sky fairy in order to see off another imaginary sky fairy is no solution at all. But newsflash, Mr Atheist: your rationalist medicine is weak. People die for religions: no-one would burn at the stake for Richard Dawkins. In the medium to long term, the prognosis does not look good for your freedom to be an atheist unless you pick a sky fairy with a reasonable track record of tolerating dissent. (Spoiler: that’s probably not Islam.)

As for the EDL meme sharers, if you can’t be arsed to educate yourself on your country’s religion, and get yourself out to church once a week, and take it seriously, then you are contributing to a dissolution of your culture that you are unjustly blaming on Muslims, and deserve to see its norms replaced by those of a religion whose adherents can.

Elsewhere I can hear Muslims protesting that this is nasty conspiracy-nutter #islamification clash of civilisations stuff and that I’m a bigot. Joining the chorus, I hear liberal secularists protesting that religion has been responsible for most of the wrongs in human civilisation and having moved mostly away from it in this country it’s barbarous to suggest resiling back into intolerance, especially if one is doing so out of intolerance towards a newer faith. But I am not a bigot. There isn’t a plot to Islamify the UK. There is just Islam, which is a confident faith whose adherents have plenty of intransigence about blasphemy, false gods et cetera, and it is influential because there is nothing substantial in its way. Secularism just doesn’t have the guns to stand against a strongly asserted faith.

In this country we have forgotten the power of faith to move mountains, and thus we do not yet take seriously the potential of a newly arrived faith to move – and replace – the entire post-Christian secular humanist edifice. The greatest error of our secular, pluralistic society has been to assume that the advantages of secular pluralism are both self-evident and historically inevitable (there’s a trace of religiosity right there: it’s all around, if you’re looking). But this is not at all self-evident to me. It seems far more likely to me, considering other civilisations that have gone before, that it is an anomaly and will be succeeded by the advent of a new religious age. We should stop trying to convince ourselves that our much-vaunted secular pluralism is anything but a transitional state for the culture of these islands, and ask ourselves what religion we would like that to be.