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 Reconstruction: surviving the trauma of postmodernism

I’ve been mentally composing a version of this essay for a long time. I thought perhaps its relevance might have passed but the explosion in the last few years of postmodern identity politics into the mainstream convinces me that far from being something that happened briefly to one not very happy undergraduate in the early 00s, the mental distress I experienced as a result of exposure to ‘critical theory’ has expanded to encompass much of contemporary discourse. I don’t claim to have a solution to that, but I want to share how I survived.

I went to a moderately eccentric school by ordinary standards, but for the purposes of this essay we can treat it as a classical education, inasmuch as we learned about great civilisations that came before ours and this knowledge was treated as important and still relevant to us and the world and culture today. Built into the form of the curriculum was a tacit teleology, that implied (whether or not it was ever stated) an evolutionary relation of each civilisation to the one that preceded it. It was a narrative that led to where we are now, and the civilisation we currently inhabit.

Imagine my surprise, then, when as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford in around 2000, I discovered postmodernist thought, and its many schools of critical theory.

By ‘critical theory’ I mean the body of thought emanating initially mostly from France, with Saussure and Derrida, then expanding out to include such figures as Paul de Man, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler. Many more names have joined that list since, and taken together I believe it is referred to as ‘cultural studies’ today, or, in the words of the Sokal Squared hoaxsters, ‘grievance studies’. Back in 2002 at Oxford, critical theory was a looming presence at the edge of the arts but seemed most pertinent to the study of literature; it has subsequently, I gather, swallowed most of the humanities and is mounting siege against the sciences as I write.

But I digress. The central insight of this discipline was the destabilising one, and that I think has not changed. To summarise: 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 Jaques 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 centuries of culture since the Enlightenment to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up vested interests, and to conceal the operations of power. 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.

I freely admit that I was a bit loopy anyway when I reached that point on my reading list, for unrelated personal reasons. But this insight hit me like a freight train. I spent most of one Trinity term feeling as though I was in the midst of a psychotic experience. Instead of seeing the ‘dreaming spires’ around me as the accumulation of centuries of carefully-tended tradition, a representation in architecture of the ideal of the university as a custodian of the best that has been thought and said to date, I saw each building as a kind of nightmarish extrusion into physical space of power structures that were indifferent if not hostile to me as a sexual minority and a woman. I felt suffocated: stifled by a kind of blaring architectural triumphalism that declared at every corner, with every church tower, every statue of every great man, ‘YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANY OF THIS, WE WILL ALWAYS WIN’. And stifled again by the nihilistic twist postmodernism places on this reading of the world, and culture, in that it assures us that there is nowhere to stand outside the push and pull of power. There is nothing outside the text. So in trying to challenge these operations of power, we will probably just end up re-inscribing them.

By now you’re probably thinking ‘wow, she sounds nuts’. Well yes, I was a bit at that point, as I said before. But I describe this experience in detail because 1) it was so distressing and 2) the state I spent the next few years in following my fall from the Eden of pre-post-modernism[1] sounded, in my inner monologue, so similar to what I read of the toxic ‘social justice’ debate that rolls around our social media some 15 or so years on that I feel they must be related. What if today’s SJWs are in fact acting out a traumatic state of mind engendered by exposure to ‘cultural studies’ at university? If that is the case, then there may be someone out there who will find some comfort in my story of how I recovered from that experience to the point where I was able to make any decisions at all.

Because make no mistake, the Fall engendered by internalising the idea that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is a horrible place to be. Consider that iconic scene in the Matrix where Neo wakes from the dream he believed to be normal life, in a slime-covered capsule, to discover that he and the rest of the human species are in fact mindless peons farmed by forces beyond their power to change. Then bin the rest of the Matrix franchise, shoot Morpheus and the rest of the resistance, end the film with Neo back in his pod as a human generator, just without his connection to the Matrix. Eyes staring helplessly into the machine-farm abyss. That’s a bit how it feels.

Forget political radicalism. There’s nothing left, this worldview says, but a continuous action of ‘disruption’ from within the system. There is no way to change the world for the better because what even is the better anyway? All you have left available to you is a kind of carping from the sidelines. Calling out particularly brazen efforts by the collective voice of consensus reality to perpetutate itself in its current form and to silence potentially disruptive voices. Maybe trying to widen the range of voices permitted to contribute to the operations of power. Maybe you can see now how this could be a mindset conducive to (for example) the contemporary popularity of ‘call-out culture’ and quixotic obsession of public discourse with ensuring the identity categories of figures in public life and Hollywood films precisely replicate their demographic proportions in the population at large.

No truth, no authority, no meaning, no means of striving for the good without producing more of the same. Just power. For the longest time I couldn’t find a way out of the dragging nihilism engendered by this worldview. Eventually though it occurred to me that I just didn’t have to be absolutist about it. I just had to be a bit more pragmatic. So what if we can never be wholly certain that what we mean to say to someone else is exactly what they hear, because every definition we use in theory needs to be defined in its turn, and so on ad infinitum? If I ask my friend to pass the salt, and he passes the salt, I really don’t need to waste energy mulling over the social forces underlying the particular rituals around eating and table manners that obtain in my current cultural context. I thank my friend and add some salt to my dinner.

This is a tiny example but I decided to try and apply this principle to life in general. If I needed to get on with something, instead of getting bogged down, within every social context and every situation, with the subterranean operations of power, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality etc etc etc, I’d try and bracket all that stuff and act as if things were still as stable as they were before the Fall. I coined the term ‘temporary certainties’ for this state of mind. It took a bit of mental effort (and you probably still think I sound mad) but far less mental effort than inwardly deconstructing every utterance, object and situation I found myself in for signs of Western-colonialist cisheteropatriarchal blahdeblah.

Gradually, the psychosis waned. Now, 10 or so years on from arriving at this solution, it’s still working for me. The world can never be as solid-seeming as it was before my Fall. Truth still seems a bit relative depending on where one is standing. But the important insight is that many categories, many tropes, objects and structures, are stable enough to treat them ‘as if’ they were pre-post-modernist type solid. You don’t need to waste time deconstructing everything; indeed, trying to do so is a fast track to a sense of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage. And trying to build any kind of transformative politics on a foundation of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage is not going to turn out as a net force for good, however radically you relativise the notion of ‘good’.

This doesn’t have to mean buying in wholesale to things as they are and becoming a cheerleader for keeping things unchanged. But to anyone currently struggling to focus in a world that seems hostile and composed entirely of operations of power, I say: pick your battles. Much of the world is still good (for a temporarily certain value of good), many people are kind and well-meaning. Creating new interpersonal dynamics around the anxious effort to avoid the accidental replication in ordinary speech of sociocultural dynamics you find oppressive (aka ‘microaggressions’ may not, in the end, make for a more functional society. It’s possible to treat as a temporary certainty the hypothesis that in asking ‘Where are you from?’ someone is not in fact unconsciously othering you by virtue of your apparent ethnic difference, but simply – from maybe a naïve position in a social background that does not include many ethnic minorities – seeking to know more about you, in order to befriend you.

The beauty of a temporary certainty is that, choosing such a vantage point, we can say of any given cultural phenomenon (the institution of marriage, say) ‘we are where we are’. We are no longer stuck with the Hobson’s choice of either pretending to buy into something as an absolute that we see as contingent and culturally constructed, or else setting ourselves pointlessly in opposition to it, protesting that as it is culturally constructed we should make all efforts to disrupt or transform it into some form that might appear more ‘just’. Instead, we can accept that despite this phenomenon being, strictly speaking, contingent, it remains stable enough that we can and should find a pragmatic relation to it. (In my case, that was to get married. One of the best decisions I ever made.)

You may object that my argument here amounts to a strategy for recouping something for cultural conservatism from the rubble of the post-modernist project. I beg to differ. Rather, what I’m advocating here is more along the lines of a plea to those who see themselves as political radicals to think deeply about what really matters and to focus on that. As it stands, ‘social justice’ social media suggests that thanks to the post-Fall malaise I postulate as infecting most of our young people, radical politics is resiling into a kind of nihilistic shit-slinging incapable of going beyond critiquing the contingency of what it seeks to change in order to advocate for anything better.

[1] I don’t mean modernism, hence the clumsy construction. I mean something more like ‘the popular twentieth century Enlightenment-ish consensus about truth, reason and meaning’

Reading today: Camille Paglia on sex crime

The horrors and atrocities of history have been edited out of primary and secondary education except where they can be blamed on racism, sexism, and imperialism — toxins embedded in oppressive outside structures that must be smashed and remade. But the real problem resides in human nature, which religion as well as great art sees as eternally torn by a war between the forces of darkness and light.

Liberalism lacks a profound sense of evil.

Forget policy: to survive, conservatism must fight for Western civilisation

It is clear that the left is enjoying something of a moment, not just in the UK but across most of the West. It has reduced universities to censorious leftist monocultures, is busy imposing its ever more deranged zombie religion of political correctness in public debate and is so effusively full of confidence in its command of the cultural moment that ‘Acid Corbynism’ has caused quite a stir at this year’s Labour Party conference (fringe). Meanwhile the right-leaning press is full of gloomy arguments discussing the Tories’ oncoming demographic Armageddon and crisis of political confidence.

Mulling this over, it strikes me as strange that conservatives should feel thus on the back foot, when there is so much to preserve, so much to care for and pass on to the next generation. The whole of Western civilisation, in fact. Why, then, are conservatives so embarrassed about wishing to conserve?

The doctrine of postmodernism, which advances a wedge of dilettante erudition ahead of its jackhammer of angry philistinism, has used its assault on the concept of canon to leave the best part of three decades’ worth of Western university graduates with barely a piecemeal grasp of their cultural heritage. Even this is filtered for them by their tutors through a lens of guilty identity politics, that reduces everything it touches, no matter how sublime or beautiful, to an ugly scrum for power under ‘cisheteropatriarchy’.

The result is three decades of graduates that simply do not see anything worth conserving. Where conservatism sees our culture as a collective endeavour worth contributing to and continuing, a flame that we all help to carry, the graduates of postmodernism see it as a monolithic engine of marginalisation. A pervasive, miasmic, indestructible force for perpetuating in-groups and injustice, to which the only legitimate reaction is resistance and subversion, and the amplification of voices deemed marginalised. It is in this fundamental perception that much of the ‘snowflake’ stereotype resides, for today’s university students naturally wish to align themselves with the marginalised rather than their imaginary plutocratic oppressors. This leads in turn to the strange phenomenon of Ivy League students, arguably some of the most privileged young people on the planet, throwing public tantrums when their pain and oppression is not validated.

But I digress. My argument is that conservatism’s crisis of confidence lies in the fact that even conservatives have been infected with postmodernism’s anxiety about whether Western civilisation really is worth saving. How could it be otherwise, when we study at the same universities, participate in (to an extent) the same public discourse, live and work with those who would take a hammer to our past? And if it isn’t worth saving, what are are conservatives but a bunch of intransigent junk-hoarders? Or perhaps conservatives just really dig the cisheteropatriarchy? Perhaps they just get off on shitting on marginalised groups and exploiting the poor?

You can see where the current leftist narrative about conservatism originates, and perhaps you begin to see why conservatives struggle to articulate counter-narrative. Because a counter-narrative to this nihilistic, pomo 21st-century mutation of leftism would require saying: I reject your basic premise. Western civilisation is a remarkable collective achievement of some five thousand years and deserves our humble appreciation and positive contribution, not this childish window-smashing. Everything I believe in stems from this premise, while you seem to believe progress can only come about when we tear it all down: the statues, the literature, the music, the architecture, the very notion of high culture itself. And as long as conservatives have even the shadow of a fear that the pomo nihilists might have a point, there is nothing to defend. Nothing to conserve. And if that is true, conservatism really does degrade merely to cheerleading for free-market capitalism or else embittered white nationalism, frothing on Twitter about Islam.

There is something worth conserving. We must say it. Own it. What is Acid Corbynism to the Parthenon, to Rilke, to the sweep of English literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land? To Beethoven’s Ninth? Chartres cathedral? We must fight for our heritage, speak proudly of it, put effort into knowing and sharing it. Don’t let it be destroyed by petty, envious philistinism disguised as radical egalitarianism. In embracing and loving our cultural heritage, and arguing without shame for its continuation, we anchor conservatism in something greater than market capitalism or nativism: in the astonishing sweep of many thousands of years of cultural achievement. A flame worth our helping to carry it on.

notes: it’s not enough to mither on about tolerance in the face of terrorism

What are British values

Freedom, tolerance, gender equality?

Compared to the power of a theocratic Game of Thrones drama, it’s laughably weak

But the Euro elites’ response to each Islamist atrocity is the same – no passion or pride for country because that’s just what the enemy wants.

Obsessive clinging to a bloodless ideal of what Europe is, underpinned by a generalised fear of nationalism and pervasive guilt about our past deeds and present wealth; everyone wants to come here, but we ourselves are forbidden to be proud of it.

Americans recite the oath of allegiance, salute the flag, hang flags everywhere. In Britain the same level of patriotism would be seen as incitement to racism, a foible of the working classes to be tolerated with a shudder.

No wonder radicalism is able to flourish here: the intelligentsia of the country of Shakespeare, Austen and Wordsworth, Watson and Crick, Darwin, Sir Christopher Wren and indeed Sir Norman Foster is ashamed of its past and culture.