Right and wrong

Right and wrong

A few years ago the US TV producer and self-confessed “right-wing nut job” Joel Surnow tried to create a satirical show to counter the influence of the liberal-minded likes of Jon Stewart. It was a miserable flop, raising the interesting question of why the political right seems to be incapable of sharp or incisive comedy.

You could say that the best political comedy has no alignment, and attacks political stupidity in whatever guise. That seems worth asserting as a principle, though in practice satire seems to proceed from a broadly liberal attitude to others and our institutions (this might be because the mainstream of our culture is itself broadly liberal). It’s also true that there are funny and successful satirists who sit openly on the left: Mark Steel comes to mind. I can’t think of any right wing equivalent.

Part of the reason may be that being right wing entails embracing and defending a number of sacred cows, which we could loosely call The Establishment. We need to be loose because any definition of The Establishment is mutable: Thatcher and her friends were arguably quite anti-Establishment, except that they only served a different version of the Establishment, emphasising power whether that was rooted in new money or the old order, rather than having any particular respect for tradition.

“Being right wing” could mean many things: it could mean being economically libertarian, with a near-religious faith in the power of markets to order our affairs; it could mean a conviction that government needs to be as small as possible, and that most societal functions are best managed by private enterprise. Actually being right wing usually entails at least these two beliefs, but it needn’t require any allegiance to the national flag, to military adventurism, to a suspicion of the foreign, to support for a punitive and frequently lethal criminal justice system, to the belief that scientists who argue for the seriousness of climate change are participating in a liberal conspiracy, and so on.

It doesn’t require these allegiances, but it usually has them, and it’s hard not to conclude that this says something about the cast of a right wing mind, a cast of mind which precludes successful satire.

When I was at Cambridge University in the late 70s and early 80s there was a movement to give a better intellectual framework to conservatism. In a way it was a framework that wanted to resist “isms” – or at least it rejected idealism and argued for the pragmatism of the proven. Its leading figure was the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Its spear carriers were Shirley Letwin (mother of Oliver) and Roger Scruton. In a world still dominated by the Cold War some of this seemed worth saying, and indeed you could argue that this outlook should transcend the old battle lines of left and right. The problem was that in the hands of Scruton in particular it quickly descended into an apology for the same old vested interests that have usually characterised a right wing outlook.

Scruton married into wealth and turned his mind to the justification of his new lifestyle. Now he’s just written a piece for the BBC news magazine suggesting that education can’t be left to education professionals. I’m not going to attempt to deal with his primary argument (it’s not worth that much effort) but I did want to pick up on a few points he made along the way, which raise the question of whether to be a conservative you have to be wilfully blinkered about what’s in front of you, and suggest why conservatives (with a small or large “c”) seem to be especially incapable of thinking intelligently about education.

This narrowness is visible in small parts of the Scruton argument. At one point he suggests that attacking private schools by removing their charitable status, far from advancing an egalitarian agenda, will only force the wealthy to create a new educational apartheid through home schooling. But it’s strange that an economic libertarian should want to protect the preservation of a market-distorting privilege. It seems simply sensible to end the abuse of the favourable tax treatment that goes with charitable status for organisations that have no charitable function. It seems the defence of privilege is more important to Scruton than the removal of known abuses.

In talking of an egalitarian ideal, he also mistakes his enemy. He says that people like him from poor backgrounds could never have progressed to the elite heights of a Cambridge education without the ladder upwards offered by grammar schools, and accuses educational reformists of wanting to kick away that ladder.

I know what he means, because my parents had little money, and I too went from grammar school to Cambridge, in the days when doing so incurred no lifetime debt, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity, but Scruton’s argument is tosh. It rests on the demonstrably false assumption that no comprehensive school has been able to achieve any kind of excellence for its academic children (many have not, but many have). It rests on the assumption that grammar schools generally support social mobility, a point rubbished recently by the head of school standards in England and Wales, Sir Michael Wilshaw (hardly a left wing figure). By and large, where they still exist grammar schools simply represent a cheaper alternative to private schools for the middle classes, who have been happily paying for private coaching to ensure their offspring jump successfully through the hoops of the selective system to secure their places.

In any case, the real anti-grammar school argument is neither egalitarian nor particularly idealistic. Egalitarianism implies a monolithic model of what a good education should look like (which everyone should then get an equal shot at), but the problem is exactly with the narrow single model of excellence. An academic education is great for those whose minds work that way, and I’d want to ensure that it was always available for those minds, at whatever point in their personal development it made sense to them. But socially, economically, practically, we need multiple models of success, designed to nurture different types of capability.

These needs are put succinctly in a recent RSA blog, setting the international context for educational best practice. On the eve of launching a new report on the future of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education Amelia Peterson highlights the myopia and selective evidence that underpin Michael Gove’s ideas about the future of the classroom. Click here for the blog.

None of this should be a party political point: Labour’s track record with education is only marginally less depressing than Gove’s. Scruton wants to say that education professionals have not delivered the education system we need and deserve, but it seems truer to observe the baleful influence of ignorant politicians (and indeed parents) is responsible for pushing education in precisely the wrong direction. 

This isn’t idealistic, because the system at the moment is stupid, wasteful, and not fit for purpose. Gove and Scruton would probably agree, but their idea of what might be better is so impoverished, so trapped in a non-existent past, that it’s hard to know where to begin when debunking it.

I’d like to believe in the possibility of an intelligent conservatism, would like to be able to find that respect for people whose views differed so much from my own, but recycling old misconceptions as if they were neglected truths won’t cut it. Where they exist conservatism’s intellectual frameworks seem more like smokescreens for a kind of moral failure, and a pragmatic one too. Finding yourself not-conservative need not imply any belief about the ownership of the means of production, or any other of the left’s alternative sacred cows: it means looking at the world we have with good will, not being satisfied with institutionalised ill-will, and intervening where we can to make things better.

We live in an age of unprecedented rapid change, driven by new technologies with the power to transform almost every aspect of our lives. While it’s understandable that some might seek refuge from the storm by clinging to what once seemed tenable, conservatism is not up to the challenges of dealing with that change. This is all too clear from the current mess of our education system, and the grim determination of our political leaders to make it worse.


Spiritual but not religious?

Spiritual but not religious?

I’m just back from the first public discussion of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project for the RSA. I want to reflect on what was said because it amplifies and extends some of the points I made in my last blog entry and will lead naturally to other things I want to think about in these pages.

The RSA session illustrated very obviously the danger for the project of using the word “spirituality”, because the discussion turned almost entirely around the possible value of faith (and, more or less, “faith based traditions” also known as religion). This would be fine if the enquiry was about the possible value of this kind of faith in societies that have largely lost it, but I think this enquiry is more interesting than that.

Jonathan Rowson’s own definition of what he means by spirituality is broader than a faith-based definition, even if it courts the metaphysical when he suggests it’s about feeling we’re part of something bigger. I accept that the latter is a common apprehension, a mark of a yearning that most of us will have felt and many will have thought important, but what’s really interesting is whether it’s possible to understand this yearning in terms that don’t commit us to metaphysical propositions (I’ll come back to “propositions” in a minute), and which go further than the usual language of ethical humanism (a point touched on by Robert Rowland Smith in the discussion). I think it’s about our need to make sense of what we have, both in terms of articulated “meaning” and an embodied understanding of how we are. (I understand the next session will go further into what embodiment might mean and look forward to it – it’s particularly important when neuroscience is forcing us to revise what we could mean by “mind” as an embodied phenomenon, and that’s to say nothing about the way deep-rooted notions of identity and self are unravelling in front of us).

The project offers the potential to understand this context, to explore how our ideas of self, meaning and even truth may be better understood as part of our socialised existence, with direct consequences for how we see the political sphere.

Faith traditions have a necessary interest in all this, and Elizabeth Oldfield expressed that interest eloquently and sympathetically. But I can’t help thinking this interest is something for those traditions to work on themselves, or at least that it’s secondary to this enquiry, and as we saw tonight it drags the centre of gravity away from where it needs to be. In this light I agree with Madeleine Bunting that the S word (spirituality) is unhelpful at this stage, though perhaps for different reasons from hers: I was with her until she started agreeing with Jonathan Rowson that faith/belief is not about a rational assent to a proposition, but more a commitment to a way of being. Well, John Henry Newman traced similar ground in A Grammar of Assent, but it won’t do. I understand that an assent to a religious proposition may not be like accepting the evidence for human involvement in climate change, and I accept that such belief can feel like an immediate aspect of consciousness (in the same way that it makes no sense to say “I believe I’m holding a spoon” rather than “I’m holding a spoon”, but this “faith commitment” still rests on propositions about how things are, and if those propositions are contradicted by other things, it is not stupid to doubt them, or to doubt the wisdom of those who continue to cling to their commitment.

But here am I falling myself into an argument about the special nature of religious faith (or its ordinary nature) and that’s to lose focus, illustrating yet again the danger of trying to think about these things even from the “perspective” (as someone put it) of spirituality.

A final thought (for the moment): someone in the audience asked whether or not “intellect” might be a hindrance in this discussion. Here’s another lurking false opposition. I suppose we could try to define intellect as something narrow, something distinct from other ways of knowing, but the danger here is we underestimate what we are doing when we intellectualise. Intellect itself is embodied, shaped by our emotions and feelings. I seem to remember Iain McGilchrist talking about the problematic opposition of intellect and feeling, and I think ironically it probably belongs to a religious tradition which this enquiry should be trying to leave behind.

To return to the starting point, about what we might mean when we speak of being “spiritual but not religious”, we should not get sidetracked by the quite different question of what hold “religious” still has on us; not if what we really want to understand is whether the idea of “spirituality” has any meaning outside or without religion. In order to do this it might be tactically necessary to drop the word “spirituality” and concentrate on developing a more useful set of terms.

Faith and openness

Faith and openness

I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Rowson’s latest enquiry within the RSA’s Social Brain project, asking what it is that people mean when they say they are “spiritual but not religious”. It’s a good question, and Rowson argues that the answer (or at least the enquiry) should help us understand better what’s going on around us in these troubled times.

In this light I found myself watching the Wachowski siblings’ film of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which plays around Buddhist-like (but unspecific) notions of rebirth and the possibly transcendental significance of our individual actions (I’d say the film is by turns entertaining and irritatingly pretentious, but that’s not my main focus here).

I’ve also just finished reading Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, a much more playful (and generally funnier) piece of work. It’s ostensibly about religious faith, but more about the way reality keeps crashing in on our schemes of things, urging us to a kind of acceptance which is not transcendental in its claims: it is a celebration of diversity and absurdity, a comedy that’s the polar opposite of satire.

Satire divides and deliberately demeans. It highlights absurdities which we would do better to remove from our lives. Hoeg’s comedy, which works in the tradition of gentle humorists like James Thurber and Flann O’Brien (albeit with a higher octane level of caricature), asks us to embrace and enjoy that absurdity in each other, to accept the hopelessness of our dreams of a higher state, while understanding that those dreams are an important part of what we are. It is virtuously inclusive and life-affirming in the process.

Religion at its best promotes that same openness towards others and to life, usually expressed through some developed notions of love and compassion. This may be one of the core elements shared by all major faiths. It may be part of what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not specifically religious.

Religion at its worst does the opposite, dividing the saved from the doomed (usually with pretty clear rules setting out how you qualify for each category) and encouraging its followers to look away from the pleasures and pains of this life to some kind of further significance after death. It’s the latter baggage that the spiritual-but-not-religious usually want to reject.

Rowson’s starting point is a little more anthropological, suggesting that faith might be a commitment to certain cultural norms rather than matters of belief (such faith he suggests doesn’t need to equate with a series of propositions about how the world is). The trouble is that this is probably not how most believers would see their own faith. Or at least it seems more like a description of how the vaguely religious treat the procession of births, marriages and deaths in their lives, a vagueness that the Church of England in particular has been very tolerant of, though from personal experiences I’d say Catholicism is far more demanding and I’d imagine that those drawn to more evangelical faiths feel the same way (I am not denigrating earnest or committed Anglicanism in this, but observing the way mainstream faith has worked at least in England, though it’s interesting to note that this is less true in other parts of the UK).

None of this makes Rowson’s question any less interesting, but rather it suggests that the focus should not be on those with formal faith, but on those who can’t embrace such formality, and still want to reach in some way for the metaphysical, especially if this is how the majority of the European population would describe itself.

I’d probably place myself somewhere in that very broad… er, church. Religious statements about life after death seem to me ridiculous, not because the idea itself is ridiculous, but because there is nothing sensible any of us can say about it, and that includes any notion drawn from superficially attractive Eastern traditions of rebirth (which seem to dance like a reflection off water through Cloud Atlas). At the same time a rigorously materialist view of our existence, while in a sense irrefutable, doesn’t seem quite adequate. It’s like explaining music in terms of mathematical relationships: you can do this, and it’s often interesting, but it won’t help you hear the music for what it actually is.

We have a pretty fundamental need to make sense of whatever is going on around us, which often enough will entail making sense of the senseless, or of trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Conventional religion addresses this need by offering a different frame of reference (“God works in mysterious ways” ). This other frame of reference seems to me as random as the things it’s trying to explain, but this shouldn’t lead us to ignore the important presence of our imaginations in how we experience the world. It may be that those imaginations are a product of routine brain function, but again this doesn’t tell us anything about what’s going on in and around our heads. As the younger Wittgenstein put it, it is not how the world exists that is mysterious, but that it exists.

I’d guess that those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are articulating the feeling that there is something more to life than the clash of atoms. In doing so they will often reach for a barely-articulated sense of the connectivity of things (hence the irritating platitudes of the Cloud Atlas film). I agree with Jonathan Rowson that we need to understand this sense and work with the grain of it in any ambitions we might have to make our lives or societies better. We need to understand better what it might mean if only because the current government’s notions of a happiness index, which I suspect are trying to get at the same thing, are themselves too crude to tell us very much.

Perhaps we need to be working to help the people who say they are spiritual but not religious to understand better what they mean, to help us all get beyond the platitudes. It may even help the religious if we can all move away from untenable notions of certainty. Rowson touches on this when he suggests that ethics may be better understood as a social disposition than something intrinsically rational. This doesn’t mean that everything is optional in what we believe. It is to accept that our beliefs, like our consciousness, are embodied, whether literally in our bodies or in our social and cultural institutions. The ramifications of this are pretty big, and I guess that’s why Rowson is pushing the Social Brain project down this particular road. It’s a journey we need to make though it’s fraught with difficulty, not least in how we balance an apparently attractive openness with the knowledge that some beliefs really are crazy, and many are pernicious. I want to think more about how we can respect beliefs we judge to be wrong in future entries.

You can find Jonathan Rowson’s blog on the subject at