Wanted: A National Culture

October 20, 2007
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Extracted from The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society

Published in The Times on 20th October 2007

Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on. It was a fine, even noble idea in its time. It was designed to make ethnic and religious minorities feel more at home, more appreciated and respected, and therefore better able to mesh with the larger society. It affirmed their culture. It gave dignity to difference. And in many ways it achieved its aims. Britain is a more open, diverse, energising, cosmopolitan environment than it was when I was growing up.

But there has been a price to pay, and it grows year by year. Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation. It has allowed groups to live separately, with no incentive to integrate and every incentive not to. It was intended to promote tolerance. Instead the result has been, in countries where it has been tried, societies more abrasive, fractured and intolerant than they once were.

Liberal democracy is in danger. Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk, non-political institutions are becoming politicised, and a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society. Religious groups are becoming pressure groups. Boycotts and political campaigns are infecting professional bodies. Culture is fragmenting into systems of belief in which civil discourse ends and reasoned argument becomes impossible. The political process is in danger of being abandoned in favour of the media-attention-grabbing gesture. The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear.

Multiculturalism emerged, more as a fact than a value, in the 1970s in the wake of mass migration from nonWestern to Western nations. It found a supportive environment in the intellectual mood of the time. The idea of one nation, one culture had come to seem dangerous and wrong.

But there was something else happening at the same time, of great consequence: the slow demise of morality itself, conceived as the moral bond linking individuals in the shared project of society.

In 1961, suicide ceased to be a crime. This might seem a minor and obviously humane measure, but it was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country; that is, one in which Christian ethics was reflected in law. It was a prelude to other and more significant reforms. In 1967 abortion was legalised, as was homosexual behaviour.

Collectively these changes represented a decisive move away from the idea that society had, or was entitled to have, a moral code at its base, covering many areas of life that might otherwise be regarded as private. Society was no longer conceived of in terms of a moral consensus. The law would intervene only to prevent individuals from harming one another.

What happens when we lose moral consensus? Morality is reduced to taste. “Good” and “bad” become like yum and yugh: I like this; I don’t like that. Imagine two people, one of whom says: “I like ice cream”; the other: “I don’t”. They are not arguing. Each is simply declaring his or her taste.

We have lost the basis of morality as a shared set of values holding society together. We are living “after virtue”; that is to say, in an age in which people no longer have roles and duties within a stable social structure. When that happens, morality becomes a mere façade. Arguments become interminable and intolerable. The only adequate answer to an opposing viewpoint is: “Says who?” In a debate in which there are no shared standards, the loudest voice wins. The only way to defeat opponents is to ridicule them.

If there is no agreed moral truth, we cannot reason together. All truth becomes subjective or relative, no more than a construction, a narrative, one way among many of telling the story. Each represents a point of view, and each point of view is the expression of a group. On this account, Western civilisation is not truth but the hegemony of the ruling elite. Therefore, it must be exposed and opposed. Western civilisation becomes the rule of dead white males. There are other truths: Marxist, feminist, homosexual, African-American, and so on. Which prevails will depend not on reason but on power. Force must be met by force. Lacking a shared language, we attack the arguer, not the argument.

This is done by ruling certain opinions out of order, not because they are untrue – there is no moral truth – but because they represent an assault on the dignity of those who believe otherwise. So: Christians are homophobic. People on the Right are fascist. Those who believe in the right of Jews to a state are racist. Those who believe in traditional marriage are heterosexist. Political correctness, created to avoid stigmatising speech, becomes the supreme example of stigmatising speech.

One example: in 1957 the Wolfenden committee, then the cutting-edge of liberalism, declared that homosexual behaviour was a sin, but should not be a crime. In 2004, Rocco Buttiglione, a minister in the Italian Government, was chosen by the President of the European Commission, Jos? Manuel Barroso, to be its justice commissioner. During questioning, he acknowledged that, as a Catholic, he believed that homosexual behaviour is a sin but should not be a crime. He was then disqualified from taking up office as his private moral convictions were “in direct contradiction of European law”. He described this as the “new totalitarianism”.

Right or wrong, one thing is clear: the new tolerance is far less permissive than the old intolerance.

So a series of events that began in the 1960s fundamentally changed the terms of society and moral debate. Until recently, serious thinkers argued that society depends on moral consensus. Without that, there is no such thing as society, merely the clamour of competing voices and the clash of conflicting wills. This view began to crumble with the rise of individualism. People began to see morality in terms of personal autonomy, existential choice or the will to power. If morality is private, there is no logic in imposing it on society by legislation.

But if there is no moral truth, there is only victory. The pursuit of truth mutates into the will to power. Instead of being refuted by rational argument, dissenting views are stigmatised as guilty of postmodernism’s cardinal sin: racism in any of its myriad, multiplying variants. So moral consensus disappears and moral conversation dies. Opponents are demonised. Ever-new “isms” are invented to exclude ever more opinions. New forms of intimidation begin to appear: protests, threats of violence, sometimes actual violence. For when there are no shared standards, there can be no conversation, and where conversation ends, violence begins.

The divides that had driven politics hitherto, especially class and wealth, became less salient after the 1960s. Other, more “lifestyle” issues took their place. At first these were construed in terms of the individual, but eventually they came to be framed in terms of groups: first Jews, then African-Americans, then women, then gays. It was not merely that these groups sought equal rights. The real change was that they defined themselves as oppressed. This was a seismic shift.

Identity politics is deeply and inexorably divisive. If the withholding of recognition is a form of oppression, then one way of achieving recognition is to show that I have been oppressed. The logic is as follows: the group to which I belong is a victim; it has been wronged; therefore we are entitled to special treatment. This gives rise to an endlessly proliferating list of the aggrieved. Each of their claims is surely true, but you cannot build a free society on the basis of these truths, just as you cannot heal trauma by endlessly attending to your wounds. A culture of victimhood sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation, is greater than that of others.

Ours is a transitional age, as revolutionary as the move from agriculture to industry. The growth of computing, the internet and satellite television will change life as much as any epoch-making development in the past.

With the new technologies the idea of an autonomous national culture disintegrates. Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse. Until the early 1950s a politician could quote the Bible and expect people to know what he was alluding to. No longer.

As long as there were newspapers and a small number of radio and television news networks, people were exposed to a variety of views. Today we attend to only those media we choose; we focus only on the stories that interest us. If we see the world one way we will watch al-Jazeera; if another, we will watch Fox. We can filter out the voices with which we disagree. We are exposed to a selectively edited version of reality.

This is massively amplified by the phenomenon of blogs, which often present the news in highly tendentious ways. The result is that our prejudices are confirmed, and need never be disturbed.

The new technologies, by uniting people globally, divide people locally. They strengthen nonnational affiliations. They can make people feel more Hindu or Muslim or Jewish than British. They turn ethnic minorities into “diasporas”, people whose home and heart is elsewhere.

The nation state was brought into being by one form of communications technology – printing. It is today endangered by another. Whether the media, or politicians, or we, will recognise the danger in time, no one can be sure. Without a national culture, there is no nation. There are merely people-in-proximity. Whether this is sufficient to generate loyalty, belonging and a sense of the common good is an open question. National cultures make nations. Global cultures may yet break them.