On sexed bodies and mind over matter

As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.  

My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.

Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.

Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence.  Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.

This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.

I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.

On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.

Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.

Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.

This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.

Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.

Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.

For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.

How To Find Meaning When Everything Is Power

While we live, we all present different facets of ourselves to different people. Whether in our friendships, work, family or at different times in our lives, we encounter others. All remember us slightly differently, according to their perspective.

While we live, our physical presence holds that multiplicity together. After we die, though, the memories begin to come apart. When my step-grandfather married my grandmother, he already had two children with his first wife. But she had already left him and moved to a different country; he was stepfather to my mother and aunts instead.

He was a big character: an aristocrat of the Greatest Generation, the subject of several films about his war exploits, well-loved farmer, and patriarch to two families. At his funeral, the many facets of his life were already coming apart. Each version of his memory was fiercely defended by the mourner to whom it belonged. Long-standing quarrels, no longer held in check by his living presence, began trickling back into the open. It was not an easy day.

Today, we are all mourners at the funeral of a character on a scale that dwarfs even my roaring, hectoring, pedantic, affectionate, and irascible step-grandfather. We are gathered to mourn teleology itself—the belief that life has objective meaning and direction. What we call the culture war is the aggregate of those quarrels now breaking out between the gathered mourners over their divergent memories of the deceased.

Were we progressing toward universal peace, justice, and equality? Was it the resurrection and the life of the world to come? Perhaps it was the end of history in universal liberal democracy? We cannot agree.

The death of teleology represents a collective cultural trauma that accounts for, among other things, the increasingly unhinged debates around social justice within elite universities, and the reactive phenomenon of the aggressively transgressive online far-right.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Post-structuralism killed teleology, but it did so in error, by taking a wrong turn; it is this wrong turn that has left us so traumatized.

What is commonly referred to as postmodernism is not in fact post-modern but rather represents a last-ditch attempt by modernism to resist the implications of the post-structuralist mindset whose inevitability is now indicated by fields as diverse as physics, ecology, and psychotherapy.

Deconstruction is not the end: reconstruction is possible, indeed essential.

To situate myself a little in this story: I belong to a generation that is marginal, facing two directions, in several ways that are relevant to my argument. Born in 1979, I sit at the tail end of Generation X. I am old enough to remember the days before the internet, but young enough to be more or less a digital native. I got my first cell phone and email address as an undergraduate at Oxford. I researched my undergrad essays sitting in actual libraries reading physical books, but wrote them on a word processor. I can remember life before social media.

I also received, prior to undergraduate life, a recognizably classical education. This was, in the old-fashioned way, designed to deliver a whistle-stop tour of the march of civilizations from Ancient Egypt via the classical era to Western Christendom, with at least a vague grasp of the cultural and historical highlights of each.

The overall impression delivered was of an evolution of societies, consciousnesses, and cultures over a vast sweep of time and different human epochs that nonetheless seemed to have at least some narrative continuity and directionality. Everything else we learned seemed at least to an extent framed by that sense of situatedness within a larger narrative of human cultural evolution, whose direction was a mystery but did at least seem to be headed somewhere.

Then, in my first year as an English Literature undergraduate, I encountered critical theory—and the entire organizing principle for my understanding of reality fell apart.

To summarize: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified.’ That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs—a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.

This insight was developed by Jacques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by millennia of culture to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up entrenched interests, and to conceal the operations of power.

In this view, recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.

For me, the shift from a sense of the world as having some stable narrative trajectory to this perspective, in which meanings were not only networked but fundamentally without foundation, was deeply disturbing. It landed like a psychotic experience. Overnight, the hallowed architecture of Oxford University went from seeming like a benign repository of traditions within which I could find my place, to a hostile incursion into my consciousness of something phallic, domineering, and authoritarian. I remember describing to a friend how, as a woman and sexual minority, I suddenly experienced the ‘dreaming spires’ as ‘barbed penises straining to penetrate the sky.’

I wish I could say it passed, but it did not. What did happen, though, after I left, was that I found an accommodation with the loss of teleology and objectivity from my frame of reference. I did this by theorizing that if to posit anything at all is an act of power, then it was one I was also entitled to attempt. All cognition, meaning-making, interpretation, and perception is conceptually laden and socially-mediated action. It is impossible to ground even perception in anything but action and thus power. But so be it. We live in a society and participate in the flow of power all the time. I developed the idea of ‘temporary certainties,’ or in other words, the idea that even if meanings are not stable, many of them are stable enough for me to act as if they were solid in the pre-Derridean sense. I did not have to deconstruct every minuscule interaction for the operations of power it encoded.

In an effort to evade the monstrous pervasiveness of systems of domination and submission, I experimented with radically non-hierarchical forms of living, power exchange sexualities, non-binary gender presentation. I tried my own operations of power: I changed my name to Sebastian, to see what it felt like, then settled for a while on Sebastian Mary. I co-founded a startup with friends, in which we tried to avoid having a management hierarchy.

My accommodation kind of worked, for a while. But it did not last. It is all very well to theorize about non-hierarchical forms of organization, but in order to get stuff done you need a chain of accountability. And the worst sort of hierarchies have a habit of emerging, too, especially in social situations where they are intentionally obscured or deprecated. Communes, collaborative projects, and the like all find their leaders and followers, or their tyrants and victims. My increasing bitterness as I learned this, in the course of trying to get somewhere with the startup, made me so obnoxious as a co-worker that eventually I was expelled from the project which was, by then, failing anyway.

With that rupture, I lost my social circle, my best friend, and my entire carefully reassembled working theory for how to navigate the rubble of broken teleologies that was my adult life in the ‘00s. Concurrently, the Great Crash of 2008 destroyed the equally teleological fantasy of global liberal-democratic hegemony under international capitalism that had powered the Iraq invasion along with the triumphalism of the Blair years.

In the wreckage, though, something wonderful happened. Two wonderful things, actually. First, I met the man who I would eventually marry, and by degrees let go of the belief that in order to sustain my integrity as a person I had to reject any form of stable loving relationship to an Other in favor of multiple, overlapping, unstable platonic, sexual, or ambiguous friendships. Second, I decided I needed to learn how to do something more useful than floating around London curating experimental art events and screwing up entrepreneurship, and went back to school to train as a psychotherapist.

In the course of that study, I learned where postmodernism took its wrong turn. Implicit in the post-structuralist theories taught to every young humanities student at university is the idea that because meanings have no singular objectively correct grounding, they are therefore of no value. Also implicit is the idea that because of this, no satisfying, authentic or truthful encounter with the Other is ever possible—only an endless recursive hall of mirrors composed either of our own anguished reflections or the invasive pressure against our psyches of another’s desire.

In studying psychotherapy, though, I came to realize that while the same post-structuralist decentering of the self took place in psychoanalytic theory between Freud and his contemporary descendants, therapists had—because they have to—rejected the idea that we can never encounter the other. While much contemporary analytic theory acknowledges the need to excavate and make space for the operations of overdetermined systems such as race, class, or sex, it does not automatically follow from the presence of those things that intersubjective contact and meaningful connection cannot take place.

Just like post-structuralism decentered the observer, intersubjective psychoanalysis radically decenters the analyst. But an intersubjective understanding of the relational space as co-created by client and therapist does not preclude the possibility of therapeutic work taking place. And this in turn speaks powerfully to a claim that however muddled, muddied and overdetermined our encounters with the other may be, yet they still contain the potential to be not just benign but real, true, and transformative.

I suppose I could deconstruct that claim in turn. But I have experienced its truth both as client and also, in the course of my work, as therapist. Through intersubjective encounters in the consulting room, I have been transformed, and have transformed in turn. From this vantage point, the claim of post-structuralism to render meaningless all semiotic systems, and reveal as brute operations of power all encounters with the other, seems not just mistaken but (in the Kleinian sense) paranoid-schizoid. It is the tantrum of a child who, on realizing they cannot have exactly what they want, refuses to have even the next best thing and dismisses everything and everyone as evil.

The alternative to this paranoid-schizoid repudiation of meaning is not to reject meaning as dead or hopelessly suborned by power, but to accept that we are enmeshed, shaped and in turn helping to shape networks of meaning as part of a dynamic dialogue. We are nodes in the social and semiotic system. As such, even the act of contemplating those systems of meaning will have some tiny effect on them. When Derrida said ‘Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte’—”there is no outside-text,” though commonly mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”—I took it to mean meaning itself was hopelessly corrupted, and objectivity a bust. Today, I see it more as a radical decentering of my selfhood that opens up new, vibrant possibilities of connectedness.

If we read ‘text’ in the biosemiotic sense as fractal, multi-dimensional, and interconnected systems of signification, both of human culture and the natural world (inasmuch as those things can even be separated), then indeed there is nothing outside the text. But that does not mean the text is wholly illegible, or that it does not exist—simply that in reading, we affect what it says, and in return it changes us. We are unavoidably caught up in perspectival context, without truly objective ground to stand on. But objectivity was always an implicit abdication and obscuration of power and the necessity of choice. It was the idea that we could calculate what to do from objective factors that we didn’t have to take responsibility for. We do have to take responsibility, but that can mean a proactive positive acceptance. We can step up to the challenge of power and perspective, rather than reject it out of guilt and trauma.

Seen thus, a living post-structuralism is a philosophy not of radical alienation but radical interconnection. It is not the death of stable meaning, but the moment a system we thought rigid, immovable, and observable from the outside stirred and opened its eyes to return our gaze. It is also increasingly supported by contemporary studies in—for example—ecology and theoretical physics. If even the hardest of hard sciences now advances a theory of reality that embrace radical uncertainty and the implication of the observer in what is observed, then surely the humanities can do so as well without giving up on meaning altogether?

The great insight of postmodernism is that meaning is unstable, and mediated in infinite complexity by systems of power in which we are decentered but implicated. But the response to this insight from the humanities has been a furious rearguard action by the ideology of fixed meanings that postmodernism itself displaced. Enlightenment rationalism is to postmodernism as Newtonian physics is to general relativity, and it is in the ‘social justice’ ideologies now increasingly hegemonic in elite institutions that Enlightenment rationalism is seeking to make its last stand against the new philosophy of radical interconnection.

If postmodernism claimed that all meanings are unstable, socially constructed, and held in place by operations of power, the defining characteristic of the anti-postmodernism that masquerades as contemporary postmodern thought is its determination to apply that analysis to everything except its own categories and hierarchies. In effect, this system of thought seeks to recoup semiotic stability by replacing the old ‘bad’ hierarchies of Western, patriarchal, heterosexual, etc. dominance with new ‘good’ ones.

All activities, goes the claim, are tainted by the toxic operations of overdetermined systems of oppressive social meaning which speak through us and over us regardless of what little agency we might imagine ourselves to have. So in the political framework of anti-postmodernism, fixed immutable characteristics such as race assign their bearers a position on a rigid hierarchy of ‘marginalization’ which in turn influences their status within the system. The legitimacy of the new, fixed hierarchies of marginalization-as-status rests, we are told, in how they correct for, deconstruct, and overcome previously imposed power inequalities. The chief form of political action is a wholesale effort to dismantle these former inequalities, wherever they may be found.

But in practice, the demand that all historically imposed power relations be deconstructed unwinds the legitimacy of any possible social relationship or institution. All meanings necessitate the exclusion of what-is-not-meant. Making absolute inclusion a central political demand is thus in effect a call for the abolition of meaning. We are never told what form the good life might take, should this project of semiocide ever be completed. But one thing is clear: it can have no social or intersubjective dimension, for that would imply shared meanings, and with shared meanings the operations of power—exclusion, definition, the imposition of significations not wholly self-chosen—inescapably return, as do hierarchies. In this sense, the push for semiocide in the name of social justice is a project whose ultimate aim is an individuation so total it precludes any form of encounter with the Other, except in a multidirectional contest for domination that none can be permitted to win.

From other vantage points within the culture war, the reaction to this doctrine is often mockery, for the doctrine’s self-absorption, incoherence or preoccupation with language and ‘luxury beliefs.’ This is mistaken. Its adherents are motivated by compassionate idealism, but have been misled by a destructive falsehood and are in many cases deeply unhappy. The decentering of the Enlightenment subject brings with it an invitation to a more fluid experience of selfhood as radically inseparable from and in a process of co-creation with all of reality, and yes, with the power structures of the society in which we live. But the contemporary critical theory I am calling anti-postmodernism shows young people this vision of beauty, only to dismiss it as a pack of tendentious, self-interested lies.

It is no wonder today’s young people fling themselves miserably against the bars of whatever structures of meaning are still standing in an effort to knock them down—or perhaps to prop themselves up. Whether it is the SJWs, the frog memers, or the ‘failson’ ironists, they can smell the fresh breeze of meaning, less linear than the rationalists would like but nonetheless real, and yet they have been told they cannot have it, because it is not there, or else comprises only violence and hostility. So, they fight over the broken rubble of the Enlightenment, or with each other, or their ancestors, and starve in the midst of a banquet.

To recap, then: what gets called ‘postmodernism’ today is not postmodernism but the last spasm of the worldview displaced by postmodernism, that saw meanings as fixed, knowable and amenable to human mastery. This anti-postmodernism diverts young people from the astonishing richness of a systems-based, decentered engagement with the world’s semiotic complexity by seeking the only remaining form of mastery it can imagine: a defensive assault on meaning itself.

Instead of embracing the fluidity of systems of meaning, and each subject’s situatedness within that system, young people are taught that the only legitimate foundation for political action—or indeed any kind of social participation—is atomized selfhood, constructed from within and defended with narcissistic brittleness. They are taught to see themselves as solely responsible for discovering, curating, optimizing and presenting this supposedly ‘authentic’ self as their central marketable asset. But they also learn that it is continually under assault by hostile forces of oppressive social meaning whose aim is to keep them—or others like them, or someone anyway—marginalized, abject and on the back foot.

Within this system, it follows that the central locus of political activism must be to disrupt these oppressive forces that marginalize unfavored groups, so as to advance the project of collective liberation to ‘be our authentic selves.’ This is not just a political project but an existential one, for along with marginalizing unfavored groups these forces impose unlooked-for and oppressively overdetermined social meanings on each of us, undermining each young person’s quest for authentic selfhood. Individuals caught up in this worldview genuinely believe they are agitating not just for the liberation of the oppressed but for their very existence.

The fixation of today’s elite graduates on ‘validation’ of ‘identities’ may seem frivolous to older generations. But within a worldview that frames all forms of social meaning as oppressive by definition, the very gaze of the Other is an unacceptable attack on the pristine territory of the self. If we reject the genuinely postmodern ethic of radical semiotic interconnection, and our interwovenness with structures of meaning in society and the natural world, then the movement of these structures in, on and within our individual identities comes to be experienced as violence.

This perspective exists in tormented symbiosis with an Other it can neither tolerate, nor yet wholly dispense with. For the paradox is that the invasive gaze of the Other, laden with unwanted and oppressive shared meanings, is simultaneously the source of suffering and salvation. The gaze of the Other is experienced as a hostile and violent invasion, forever imposing unlooked-for social meanings that constrain the liberty of each sacred self. But it is also the only source of the ‘validation’ that will reassure each individual that their self-creation project is real, true and accepted.

The solution, within this worldview, is an (again paranoid-schizoid in the Kleinian sense) ever more desperate effort to control the thoughts of the Other. We see this in politicized campaigns to control speech in the service of identities. But as any psychotherapist (or parent) will tell you, trying to control the inner life of another is a project that in normal circumstances seems achievable (or indeed desirable) only to young children or the mentally disturbed. That it should become a central political desideratum for a generation of elite young people does not bode well for the future health of public life.

When I started my undergraduate degree 20 years ago, critical theory was one epistemology among several, which we learned about as it were ‘from the outside’ rather than as a framework for understanding other philosophies. Though it affected me severely, in ways I have already described, most of my contemporaries simply learned about the ideas and were largely unaffected. Today, though, this epistemology has eaten and digested the humanities and begun to nibble on science and even mathematics. As a result, for today’s young people, it is increasingly difficult to find a vantage point outside its political ontology from which to evaluate its operations.

We should not be surprised, then, that mental health issues have skyrocketed in elite college-age populations. They are being taught to believe, as a foundational framework for understanding the world, that acceptance in the gaze of the Other is key to validating a selfhood they alone are responsible for creating, curating and optimizing. But they are also being taught that all shared meanings—in other words, anything conferred by the gaze of the Other—represents a hostile act of violence. How is any young adult meant to navigate this catch-22?

It is a mistake to dismiss this as narcissistic—or, at least, to ignore the suffering of those trapped in this bind. To be ‘defined’ by something other than our own desire is in this system to be injured, parts of our authentic self mauled or amputated, whether by social meanings we did not choose or the givens of our embodied existence. This is a phenomenally cruel thing to teach young people, as it leaves them feeling perpetually oppressed by the givens of existence itself.

This analysis also sheds light on the crisis of elite purpose and leadership Natalia Dashan described in her Palladium piece last year. If shared meanings are not only unavailable but actively hostile, how is any young person meant to formulate a legitimate rationale for stepping up? No wonder so many elite graduates dismiss even the possibility of public service in favor either of pecuniary self-interest in finance or tech, or else joining the ranks of activist-bureaucrats seeking to advance the destruction of shared meanings in the name of total inclusion.

But as societies around the globe struggle to get to grips with coronavirus, we no longer have the luxury of sitting about like Shakespeare’s Richard II, mourning a broken model of meaning as the world disintegrates around us. Facing the deaths perhaps of loved ones, and certainly of everything we thought of as ‘normal’ until a few weeks ago, destroying what is left of our structures of social meaning in the name of liberation politics or frog-meme irony is an indulgence we cannot afford. The project of reconstruction is urgent. This project is both an inner and an outer one: reconstruction of an inner life capable of navigating social meanings without experiencing them as violence, and also of our willingness to participate in the external, political analogue of those social meanings, namely institutions, political structures and—yes—hierarchies.

This is not to say that we should shrug at unjust systems of domination. The ‘social justice’ excavation of ‘implicit bias’ is not wholly without merit. It is on all of us to make sincere efforts to meet the Other to the best of our abilities as we find it, and not simply reduce the world out there to our preconceptions. But this effort cannot be so all-encompassing as to destroy what systems of shared meaning we have left. Nor can we afford to see it grind common endeavor to a standstill.

No one knows yet what the world will look like as we emerge from the political and economic convulsions engendered by this global pandemic. One thing is clear, though: the ethic of radically individualist atomization implicit in ‘social justice’ campaigns for the destruction of all shared meaning is woefully inadequate to the challenges we now face. Through its lethal spread and infectiousness, coronavirus has demonstrated vividly how our fates remain bound to one another in infinitely complex ways, however loudly we may assert our right to self-authorship. Faced with the persistence of our social, biological, semiotic, economic, and ecological interconnectedness, we would do well to embrace and make a virtue of it, to salvage those shared meanings that remain to us, and begin the process of building new ones that will sustain us into the future.

This article was originally published at Palladium magazine.

The Irreligious Right

Today’s hottest property: young fogeys. Blue Labour hailed Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory as a rebellion by the country’s ‘culturally conservative’ silent majority. A new conservative magazine seems to appear every week. We have even seen a youth movement for the revival of socially conservative values popping up in that bastion of modern double liberalism, the Conservative Party.

What do they all want? At the more wonkish end of the debate, the argument is broadly that the political push throughout the twentieth century for ever greater social and economic freedom has brought many benefits, but that these have been unevenly distributed and are now reaching the point of diminishing returns.

The pursuit of ever greater freedom and individualism, this strand of thought argues, has delivered rising wealth while hollowing out working-class communities; liberated some women while forcing others to work a double shift and abandon the young and old in substandard care, and provided an infinitude of consumer choice but at the cost of mounting ecological damage. Under the sign of radical individualism, the new communitarians argue, we are all becoming more solitary and self-absorbed. Even charitable giving seems to be in unstoppable decline.

But what, in practice, are the new social conservatives seeking to conserve? Calls for a revival of cultural conservatism, many in the name of Christian values, seem often on closer examination oddly insubstantial. In 2017, UKIP’s leader-for-that-week Stephen Crowther said that the UK is a Christian country, “and we intend to stay that way.” But for Crowther, being a Christian country does not seem to impose any obligation to actually be Christian: 

including Christian in our list [of principles] does not imply any requirement for individual faith, but it reflects the Judeo-Christian classical and enlightenment origins on which our laws, our social systems and our cultural norms have been built over two millennia.

Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn describes his brand of authoritarian, identity-oriented politics as ‘Christian democracy’. Only a minority of Hungarians go to church every week – 56% of the country identifies as Catholic, though only 12% attends church regularly – but the identifier ‘Christian’ has nonetheless become central to Orbàn’s politics.

Much as Crowther did, the Orban-supporting Bishop of Szeged, László Kiss-Rigó, bridges this gap with a vague, cultural definition of what actually constitutes a ‘Christian’: “In Europe, even an atheist is a Christian”, he said. It turns out that being ‘Christian’ is less about prayer or doctrine than ‘values’: “We are very happy that there are a few politicians like Orbán and Trump who really represent those values which we Christians believe to be important.”

What exactly are these values, then? Attendees at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany carry crosses and sing carols. Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini punctuates anti-immigration rhetoric by brandishing a rosary, drawing criticism from the very Catholic faith whose symbols he invokes. Try to pin down any actual values this form of Christianity might require of its adherents, and matters are much less clear.

Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life:

Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends. 

Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban halal slaughter – a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And  when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock ‘the otherworldliness of these Men of God’. Instead of insisting on ‘out of touch’ doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.

In this view of faith, theological positions do not reflect any kind of truth-claim but should be emergent properties of the aggregate ethical positions held by the members of that church. Less ‘Christian democracy’ than ‘democratic Christianity’: whatever the congregants believe becomes the doctrine of the church.

From a religious perspective this makes no sense. To the believer, doctrine is handed down from God Himself. The thought of God’s word being subject to plebiscite is absurd, if not outright blasphemous.

This debate reveals the missing piece in today’s would-be conservative revival. Where do our values come from? What is the proper source of political authority? Progressives gesture at natural rights or an imagined future utopia, but for anyone who remains unconvinced that we are all on a journey somewhere wonderful, some other authority is required.

Edmund Burke suggested the answer lay in a blend of deference to tradition and God’s grand design, tempered by carefully constrained democratic institutions; his Savoyard contemporary, Joseph de Maistre, argued that the only proper form of authority lay in God’s will, delivered via the Pope and an absolute monarch.

The history of modernity has unfolded in the tensions between these competing understandings of political authority. ‘The will of God’, the will of ‘the People’, and the grand designs of various utopias have variously been used to justify all manner of enterprises, with outcomes from the magnificent to the horrific. But our present political difficulties may be in part down to a growing popular discomfort with accepting the legitimacy of any of the above.

Since the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU, there has been a low but persistent rumble from our moral betters that democracy should maybe have its wings clipped a little, to stop stupid proles making bad decisions. A degree of wing-clipping has in fact long since taken place: John Gray has discussed recently in these pages the way the language and legal mechanism of ‘rights’ is used to shift entire areas of public life from democratic debate to the dry realm of unelected lawyers and judges. But if authority does not reside in the will of the people, nor does it reside with God: it is difficult to imagine a mainstream British politician claiming moral authority on the basis of divine will without being roundly pilloried

Progress and human rights, then? Every young person who passes through a modern university is taught in no uncertain terms that totalising metanarratives are suspect. At best, they are power moves. Whenever you find one you should ask cui bono? In the case of universal human rights, the answer is probably: lawyers.

This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left?  Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.

Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.

Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.

And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.

Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.

But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.

Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.

This article first appeared at Unherd

Motherhood put and end to my liberalism

I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.

Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.

For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.

Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.

Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.

This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.

Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.

This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.

A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)

Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.

This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.

By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.

Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.

I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.

I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.

Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.

Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.

The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.

This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.

Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.

While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworkedguilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.

First published at Unherd

The Somewheres are beginning to organise

Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.

With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.

The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.

Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.

The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?

For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.

But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.

Weekend long read: in defence of being an arsehole

On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.

Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:

For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:

It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.

This piece first appeared in Unherd.

Social justice rent-seeking: Labour Conference edition

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler has used the Labour Party conference to renew her call for British banks and businesses to pay ‘massive’ reparations for slavery.

The money should be used, she explains, to support the work of the ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’ launched by Labour in October last year. This trust would use education to encourage ‘a deeper understanding of British history’, especially empire and colonialism, with the aim of telling a new national story that would help stem the rise of the far right.

Butler quotes Glasgow University’s decision to make available £20m in reparations to atone for its historic connection to slavery. (Though this money is for scholarships and grants, not Labour’s education initiative.) She asserts that ‘other banks and businesses must follow’. Labour, she says, will encourage this process via ‘consultation hubs’ in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. It is Butler’s view that this is especially urgent at present because ‘for the first time in our country’s history we have a Prime Minister who the far right regard as their leader’.

A few days ago, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote of his concerns with rent-seeking in capitalism, and its corrosive effects on liberal democracy. Rent-seeking is any behaviour that involves seeking to increase an actor’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking tactics include using a dominant market position to control prices or prevent new entrants to the market, or converting economic to political power in order to shape public policy in line with business interests.

We can draw a parallel here with Butler’s proposal, which is in effect a form of social justice rent-seeking. She wishes to use political power (the Labour Party) to convert an increasingly dominant ideology (critical race and post-colonial theories) into a share of existing wealth. Butler is full of conviction as she argues for the vital role her trust will play in combating the far right. But there is some slippage between ‘reparations’ – a satisfyingly just-sounding idea considering the horrific history of slavery – and the question ‘to whom should reparations be paid?’. After all, the victims of slavery are long dead. Which of their descendants should benefit?

By way of parallel, consider who benefits from Amazon, and how. The general population enjoys the convenience of one-day delivery via Amazon Prime, while Bezos and his shareholders reap the rewards of Amazon’s hegemonic market position, manipulating the company’s tax obligations and hammering salaries and employee productivity in grim distribution centres. In much the same way, Butler’s social rent-seeking proposes to provide, as a general social good, more people who share her values and view of history. Meanwhile, the Trust she has founded will benefit directly from reparation payments, which will presumably fund well-remunerated positions dedicated to perpetuating the worldview that justifies the next round of fundraising.

This article was first published in Unherd

Weekend long read pick: the real problem at Yale is not free speech

If you’re looking for something long-form this weekend, and are tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’.

Wokeness, she suggests, is really a convoluted and guilt-ridden form of class signalling that serves both to police the boundaries of an elite in-group while also deflecting any genuine responsibility for leadership that membership of a franker and more self-confident elite might entail. As it is not rooted in any clear objectives or shared political interests, the psychodrama of wokeness also relentlessly devours itself, creating a negative elite feedback loop in the process:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

She asks: who benefits? In her view, those who wish to duck responsibility, to obscure their class status, or to build power bases in the chaos it creates. The price of this evasion of leadership is no less than  ‘the standards of reality itself’, alongside a cumulative decay of institutions whose purpose would once have been to channel the idealism and noblesse oblige of a young elite into public service.

And this matters, because what is now well-established at Yale will trickle down not just across America but across the world:

And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.

As to what that ‘new vision’ looks like? The author has less to offer here. But the piece is a persuasive first-hand analysis by someone in a position – by virtue of her background – to reflect critically not just on the content but also the social form of the contemporary US campus wars.

This piece was first published at Unherd

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:

https://twitter.com/Soutiam21/status/1134053887680360448

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.