A conversation with John Anderson, former Deputy PM of Australia
Discussing freedom, morality, religion, philosophy, and change
In July 2019, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by John Anderson, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. During the hour-long discussion, they spoke about the concepts of freedom, morality, religion, philosophy, and much more.
John Anderson: Rabbi Sacks, thank you so much for giving us your time. You’re a renowned thinker. I’ve admired your writing for many, many years from the other side of the globe. It’s a great privilege to meet you personally and to be able to draw out some issues that we think are of great importance to contemporary Australia, as they are to Britain and the rest of the West.
Could I begin by saying that you’ve pointed out the English philosopher John Locke’s distinction between liberty and licence. Liberty being the freedom to do the right thing, licence being the freedom to do whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like, without any sense of responsibility. Now, many social commentators, you among them I think, worry that we’re losing sight of true liberty in our individual lives. We’re slipping into licence. Why has it become easy to confuse the difference?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, it’s interesting, you know, there’s a fundamental difference between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. I like the explanation that the American journalist David Brooks gives ‘freedom to’. He says, [for instance], “freedom to play the piano.”
John Anderson: Yes.
Rabbi Sacks: He says, in order to have freedom to play the piano, I basically have to chain myself to the piano. It’s a whole discipline. If I want to have that liberty of playing the piano well, then I have to renounce many other things. I have to make a choice to renounce choices. So liberty is about ‘freedom to’. It’s about all the restraints and the disciplines that you need in order to have a free society. Whereas in the West, I think for the last half century or maybe even more, we’ve put the emphasis on the freedom from. The person who did this most famously was the late Sir Isaiah Berlin and his famous two concepts of liberty, his 1957 lecture where he settled for ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’.
Now, why did he make that choice in 1957? Because he felt that the biggest threat to liberty in the West was totalitarian society, specifically the Soviet Union. I mean, he’d come to Britain as a child fleeing from the Russian Revolution in 1917. so he emphasised the ‘freedom from’, which is all about licence. It’s all about worrying about a totalitarian state that is going to tell you what to do and therefore for you, the most important thing is ‘freedom from’ — I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do.
I thought that made sense in 1957. It doesn’t make any sense today, because the biggest threat to liberty today is the collapse of Western liberal democracy, because we don’t have any moral beliefs and commitments anymore or at least we find it very difficult to say what those are. I think we have to see liberty the way David Brooks sees playing the piano. You actually have to learn disciplines and you have to forego certain things, otherwise you lose liberty.
John Anderson: You’ve, I think, been doing quite a bit of work and have a book coming up on the question of morality. What is it? Where does it come from? So, what is morality? Can you have a society without a standard underpinning of commonly agreed values?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, this is another experiment we have been engaged in since the 1960s. Until 1960, nobody would have believed you could have had a society without a moral consensus on fundamental issues. As we know that consensus was basically dismantled throughout the whole of the West in the 1960s. The whole idea of a sexual ethic, the whole idea of the sanctity of life, whether it be abortion or euthanasia, all of these things came into question. So for the first time ever, people began to think is society is a group of people held together by a market economy on the one hand, a political system on the other, but nothing else. The market gave you freedom to buy or choose whatever you want and the liberal democratic state guaranteed your freedom to live as you like. That meant no shared morality.
Now can you survive like that? Well, the short answer is for a while, but not very long. We are beginning to see now the discontents, we’re beginning to see people really asking, what is it to be British, Australian? What commitment do I have to love my neighbour? I think we’re just at the dangerous end of an experiment that was very radical in its time and we’re beginning to pay a price for it.
John Anderson: The ultimate expression perhaps of those … what have to be seen is deep divisions. David Brooks himself talks about sixty years of narcissism and of ruthless meritocracy living as divided and tribalised and distrustful. Seem to be what we’re seeing here in Britain now with Brexit and the inability for people to hear one another, respect one another, find a way together by negotiated consensus.
Rabbi Sacks: Sure.
John Anderson: And indeed Trump’s America, very deeply divided.
Rabbi Sacks: Sure. Morality, I think, is the we within the I, the thing that inside my head that tells me to be concerned about other people’s welfare. If we lose that, all we have is the I, and in the end, if we don’t have you and I, a shared set of values, a shared framework of reasoning, then in the end probably we will arrive at the conclusion that the loudest voice wins. That’s when you get very divisive politics, like the politics of Brexit or the 2016 American presidential election, and you begin to realise that people have lost that ability to reason together, which is part of feeling that we’re all members of a single moral community and that we have to deliberate together because we’re in this together.
John Anderson: You made a comment recently which particularly interested me around the disintegration of our moral language. Even the language has changed and words that once guided us, I think I have you writing it here — right, wrong, ought, duty, loyalty, virtue, honour — now sort of have an antiquated, a musty air about them as though they’re from a bygone era.
Rabbi Sacks: Have you heard many of those lately?
John Anderson: No, I haven’t.
Rabbi Sacks: They’re just not in circulation.
John Anderson: No.
Rabbi Sacks: And they’re incredibly, incredibly important. You know, the concept of honour, for instance. There are certain things you do … Let’s say you’re a highly successful business person. There’s certain things that you don’t do because they’re just dishonourable, and that constrains you from certain things that might be very much in your advantage but very much to other people’s disadvantage. To know that you’re dealing with an honourable person who recognises certain codes of what you do and don’t do, that generates trust, lose trust, and you lose everything.
John Anderson: So again, going back to David Brooks, because he’s written a magnificent book and we’ve been talking about it, The Road to Character. I recommend it, people should get ahold of it and read it, but he describes, I think, the sort of drift into narcissism, as being centering on this idea that, “I don’t stop and think about you, it’s all about the big me.” The drift towards The Big Me. So perhaps The Big Me, if it’s all about me, we don’t think we need these sorts of words, we don’t need the concept. But I had a long time in the federal parliament of Australia and it strikes me … struck me then and it strikes me now that we live in an age when we inculcate in our children they’re the centre of their own universe. It’s all about them, The Big Me, as Brooks has put it.
But we loathe that value system when we see it reflected back to us by the people we elect. We say, “They behave as though it’s all about them. Don’t they understand it’s not? They’re there to look after us. They’re there to serve us.” So in a sense, I think we’re actually very conscious that we don’t like where the demos has gone, where we’ve gone.
Rabbi Sacks: That takes me way back to Moses meeting God in the Burning Bush. God tells him, “Go and lead my people to freedom,” and Moses says, “Who am I?” God says, in effect, “It isn’t about you.”
Leadership isn’t about the leader. Leadership is about the people you lead and the cause you lead for. That’s a wonderful antidote to narcissism. In the end, the great leaders, the people who attach themselves to something bigger than themselves and that is what really makes heroes out of people.
I think we have had, once you take morality out of the equation, the we, then you’re only left with the I. So lose a little moral dimension from society, you’re going to encourage narcissism come what may. But one of the real dangers here, and I hope I’m not too down on these social media, is this whole world of Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram – it’s all about the presentation of self. “Here I am, look at me.” It’s a call for attention. It’s a kind of a construction of an image which can sometimes be very narcissistic. So I think the technology and the morality here have created a bit of a perfect storm.
John Anderson: I think it’s a very interesting line just to pursue for a moment. I was trying to explain the other day that I’ve come see this issue of the way social media is being used as turbocharging for our young people the capacity to model the way we now relate to one another. Whether it’s bad behaviour in parliament, whether it’s the modern tendency to cut people off of you, disagree with them and not engage with their ideas but to demonise them, social media has made it possible to turbocharge that to the point where … I think you used the expression, if a young person steps out of line too badly, they can be so ostracised as though they’re cancelled. We know in Australia from some, we have a problem with youth suicide. It can have devastating effects.
Rabbi Sacks: Oh, the problem of teenage suicides is pretty widespread in the West and very, very bad here in Britain. We had a report recently which said that a quarter of fourteen-year-old girls had self-harmed in some way in recent years. These are having devastating effects. Cyber bullying and rejection and this feeling of fear of missing out, FOMO, all these things, they’re really playing havoc with teenagers’ emotions, especially teenage girls.
John Anderson: I think you’ve done quite a bit of travelling, haven’t you? You’ve been around sitting down with young people, talking with them sympathetically, out of a concern for their well-being, very honourable motives. What have you learnt? You’ve just touched on some of it, but where are they at? How do they make moral decisions? If we’ve said the very language of relationship and of commitment to one another’s become antiquated and musty through lack of use, what sort of frameworks are they using to make …
Rabbi Sacks: I’ll tell you what frameworks they use. Some of them find it at home, some of them find it among teachers, some of them find it among role models. Very interesting role models, you know — journalist, sports stars, people who have done things that they regard as brave or a courageous or honourable. I find that although they lack any of the kind of formal curriculum or the doctrines that we used to have, they do recognise good role models when they see them.
John Anderson: I’m sure that’s right. I once saw a leader talking to a group of young people and he asked them in their groups to discuss who they most admired. Then he pulled the whole group together and each group had to explain who they’d most admired. When they’d finished he said, do you notice almost none, well, none of them actually, they were not people who are highly wealthy or extremely glamorous. They’re all people who had about them qualities of the spirit, if you like, and of decency and humanity. They’re the people we really admire.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah.
John Anderson: So that’s who young people are looking for?
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah.
John Anderson: I still think we probably need to do more though to return to a consensus around which we can give them a better framework on how to confront the moral issues that they’re going to live with throughout their lives.
Rabbi Sacks: Well, I had this extraordinary privilege of doing a five-part series for the BBC on morality with some of the world’s greatest experts. People like David Brooks and Jordan Peterson and you know, Steven Pinker the neuroscientist, and Mike Sandel the Harvard political philosopher, a lot of these people. On these programmes, on each programme, we had an interactive session in which young people, seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds reflected on what they heard from the interviewees. It was the verdict of everyone who heard the series that the young people were the stars of the show.
Now, stars of the show in which the other voices were the world’s greatest experts on these various fields of sociology, psychology, politics, economics. So I am tremendously impressed by young people today. I think we went through a bad period, the me generation, the epidemic of narcissism, we went through a very bad period.
People tell me that iGen or Generation Z or whatever you call it, the kids born 1995 or onward, have a much more realistic approach to things. They know that life is going to be hard. They don’t have the sense of entitlement that maybe kids of a generation earlier had. I found them to be engaging, altruistic, realistic, streetwise, but in no way cynical or disillusioned. So one of the biggest surprises for me was just how hopeful I came away from this encounter with young people today.
John Anderson: It’s reassuring because they’re going to face some enormous challenges.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah, I think they know that.
John Anderson: Economic as much as anything else. This comes back to the point that you made, really. You’ve got the market economy; you’ve got government, the state; and then you’ve got a civic society. What I find interesting in many ways about what’s now become becoming known as the Peterson moment, is that young people are keen to hear from him what is effectively a pretty tough message. I watched him in front of young people in Sydney, sell-out crowds, particularly young men, and it wasn’t as if he was just a motivational speaker telling them they were wonderful and the world was wonderful if they just did this, that, and the other. Everything would be all right. Far from it. He was saying redemption will not be through the political process, it will be at the level of the individual. You need, every one of you, we all need to examine ourselves long and hard and be honest about our failings and our shortcomings. Go back to our bedrooms, tidy ourselves up, then go out and be noble. So I think that fits with what you’re saying about their realism and desire to rise to the occasion.
Rabbi Sacks: Jordan Peterson is our generation’s Mr. Tough Love.
John Anderson: Yes.
Rabbi Sacks: And that is the voice that has been missing. You know, instead we’ve had what the late Phillip Rieff called the triumph of the therapeutic. It’s all about your feelings. Or we had the whole 1980s movement of self-esteem. Jordan Peterson is cutting through the whole lot of that and saying, “No, it isn’t.” As he said on our programme. The world needs you to get your act together. He’s saying, “Get on with it, stop worrying about feelings and start actually make your own bed.” A whole series of books by US Navy Seals have been best sellers in the States, essentially delivering the same message. I think that is a voice that had been missing, and it’s an interesting voice. I’d call it the Victorian virtues voice, which is, get up and get on with it. And it’s a mark of how systematically that had been removed from our culture, that a Jordan Peterson emerges as an inspirational figure. Because actually he is just a figure out of time.
John Anderson: Yes, that’s right. 12 Rules For Living, for people fifty years ago, they would’ve said, “What’s the fuss? Yeah sure. It’s obvious.” And one of the interesting things he said, I heard him say this, I didn’t realise the full significance until I stopped to think about it, he said, “Don’t think an empathy culture can sort out your life for you.” Because that’s the message that we get too much now, I think, from some of the cultural elites who want to say, “Well, you’re all victims unless you’re a victim maker.”
Rabbi Sacks: That is really what drew me to Jordan Peterson, his absolute refusal to endorse a victim culture. My moral tutors, the most powerful moral tutors I’ve ever had in my life have been Holocaust survivors. Now these people really were victims. Their lives were full of victims. And yet these were some of the most life affirming people I ever met, who simply refused to look back, refused to define themselves as victims. Said, “Okay, I’m going to have to begin life again in a new country without my family. So my fellow survivors will become my family.” And what did they do? They built careers. They had jobs. They built marriages, they had children. And then fifty years later, but not before, they started telling their grandchildren what had happened to them. They became the most non-victim people I ever met.
There’s a remarkable book now. It became a best seller in the States and here, called The Choice by Edith Eger. Edith Eger was like the late Viktor Frankl who went through Auschwitz. Edith Eger went through Auschwitz, survived, survived the death march, eventually moved to America, became a psychoanalyst, used all the pain in her life to heal the pain of others, and then wrote her first book at the age of ninety. And it became a bestseller. It’s a life-affirming book. And that is the meaning of the name of the book, The Choice; will you or won’t you see yourself as a victim?
So everything that I had learned from the Holocaust survivors chimed with everything I was reading about Jordan Peterson, especially his daughter Mikhaila, who had this terrible illness. And Jordan was explaining to me in our interview about how they had agreed very early on, she had agreed never to see herself as a victim.
John Anderson: That’s incredibly powerful, what you’ve just said ought to be something that every young person who’s been tempted to paint themselves as a victim should hear because it’s actually a terrible entrapment. It’s not a release. It’s not an answer to the problem.
Rabbi Sacks: To see yourself as a victim essentially means to see yourself as powerless. You’ve placed yourself at the hands of the victimiser, the oppressor. Now, you can’t do that. You’re giving away your life.
John Anderson: It’s also, it strikes me, a situation where you start to fail to examine your own conscience. It’s not your fault, it’s everybody else’s fault. And that always seems to me to be a bad place for a person to go. Peterson again tells each one of us, go and face the reality, that the dividing lines between good and bad, that we draw around the place don’t run between you and me, or between me and somebody in another part of Australia or different sex or whatever. It’s somewhere across here for every one of us. We need to understand that. Freedom in a way depends upon us being honest.
Rabbi Sacks: Freedom means accepting responsibility, and that’s a big leap.
John Anderson: Rabbi Sacks, the Petersen moment, people’s response to it seems to me to again point to the fact that we all need meaning and purpose. We need to know who we are, why we’re here, is there any sense to be made of it all? Does it open the way again for people to start to reengage with faith, do you think, in the West which has become almost ridiculously secular?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, I have tried to formulate a distinction that I think is important between science and religion, and I formulated in this way, science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean. So religion is about the pursuit of meaning. That is its fundamental role in life. It is not a pseudoscience or an alternative to science. It is about meaning.
I think the more that we become scientifically sophisticated, the more we will begin to realise that science cannot deliver that. From a strictly scientific point of view, there is no meaning, the universe just happened, we just happened, and it was all a massive accident. There’s no purpose to it. There’s no logic to it. It’s a mere random happenstance. And that is because science is always looking for causes, and causes are always before the events they cause. So science is always looking for something in the past.
But you and I, whenever we get up and do anything, we are facing the future, whether it’s pouring ourselves a cup of coffee or making a major business decision, we are going trying to bring about some future state of events that hasn’t happened yet. And that is what meaning is all about. It’s all about, what is this big story of which I’m a part, and where is it tending to?
So science is always looking backwards and finding explanations. Religion is always looking forwards and finding meanings. And I feel this very, very strongly as a Jew, you know, one of the things that makes Jews Jewish is that when somebody asks us, “Has the Messiah come?” We always say, “Not yet.” We’re always looking forward. So I think the more we realise that science is not going to substitute for religion, it’s not going to give us a story, a narrative, a plot, the more we will turn back the way Jordan Peterson does, and looks at the great classic matter narratives, the great stories that have framed our expectations and hopes.
John Anderson: We won’t look back as people tritely do today and say, “Well, Genesis disproves God.” You said some quite powerful things about the triteness of the way in which we say, “Well, it didn’t happen in seven days, therefore Genesis is a fairytale.”
Rabbi Sacks: I cannot get over how uninterested the Bible is, I mean, he gives it 34 verses for the entire creation from beginning to end. And what’s it telling us? It isn’t trying to tell us the how of big bang. It is trying to tell us some really rather fundamental things. Namely number one, a very controversial proposition historically that God looked at the universe and saw that it was good. This universe really is good. It isn’t just an accident. It is good. Number two, that he created every one of us in his image. We would not get Western justice, democracy, liberty without that idea.
John Anderson: And the loss of that idea is that are these what’s been undermining those freedoms. We’ve lost the capacity to see the spark of the divine or recognise it in one another. The idea that a higher authority says, “I may disagree, I’m free to disagree with you, but I’m not free to therefore trash you or disrespect you.”
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. I mean, you know, separation of church and state in America, but they still have on the dollar bill, or do they still have? In God we trust?
John Anderson: I think they do.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah, I think so. So the fact is that without trust in something bigger than you, you are not going to get a stable democracy. And I think you can see this very simply in two famous sentences, two historic sentences, both of them taking place towards the end of the 18th century. You’ve got the American declaration of independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is a religious sentence. It says all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator. That’s a religious sentence.
1789, the French revolutionary assembly, all men are born and remain equal in rights. A completely secular sentence. And within months, within years, revolutionary terror and the complete breakdown of liberty.
John Anderson: That’s a profoundly important point. One revolution resulted in freedom, because of its understanding of our true condition. The other, a manmade and ultimately quite evil proposition, sounds attractive, produced bloodshed, mayhem, and a mess. In fact, I think you summed it up beautifully recently, one doesn’t need to compromise to bring unity, but one does need to recognise the integrity of one another’s opponents. However that that might be understood in the context of Brexit and a divided America.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah. I think we’ve lost this wonderful thing. Probably the single most distinctive feature of Judaism, the art of argument. We never stop arguing. I mean, Abraham argues with God, so does Moses, so does Jeremiah, so does Job. All the rabbis in the Talmud spend their time arguing with one another. Why? Because that is how you arrive at truth, through the collaborative pursuit, through respectful listening to your opponents. And I think truth emerges from that process. And once you lose faith in reasoned argument, which is losing respect for your opponents really, I’m right, you’re wrong. How did Bernard Lewis once put it? “I’m right. You’re wrong. Go to hell.”
John Anderson: Yep, sums it up.
Rabbi Sacks: You lose that respect for argument. Then you lose your respect for your opponents and you have pure division, not just pure division, you did see, I think, in the American presidential election, real demonisation. I mean, families broke up over this. People lost friends because they could not speak respectfully to one another.
John Anderson: And Americans march under banners saying, “Not my President.” In other words, my fellow Americans can’t be trusted with democracy. They should be, or their political capacity to be involved should be cancelled. That’s a terrible thing to say.
Rabbi Sacks: Democracy means abiding by the rules even if you lose. And we’re forgetting that.
John Anderson: Someone said to me the other day, “If I disagree with you, it doesn’t mean I hate you. It may mean I love you.” I’d love to get back then to universities, and you and I were younger once, and in the late ’60s you headed off to Cambridge to study philosophy, and you talk about that quite a bit. One of the things that you’ve said is that your professors taught you that morality was no more than the expression of emotion or subjective feeling and it was within limits, whatever I chose it to be. You went on to say, “To me, this seemed less like civilisation than the breakdown of civilisation.” What’s happening in our universities? It was obviously starting then and it seems to have continued. We look to them to provide the skills, the education, the capacity to discern truth, to arrive at informed decisions. And no one seems to feel they’re doing as good a job as they could at the moment.
Rabbi Sacks: Philosophy in the 1960s throughout the West, I think reached a very bad point, and a very significantly bad point, when they came up with the theory known as emotivism, which is morality is just the expression of my feelings. Now, if morality is just the expression of my feelings, there’s no argument about feelings.
John Anderson: For the argument.
Rabbi Sacks: I know you like tea, I like coffee. You like ice-cream, I prefer whatever. There’s no argument about this. So you have made moral argument impossible. Once you’ve made moral argument impossible, you have kind of disbanded the basis, the intellectual basis of the university, at least the university philosophy department. And I think that that was when something began of which we are really seeing the consequences today of, since morality’s only a matter of my feelings and since my feelings matter to me, if you distress my feelings, then I don’t want you talking to me. And then we get into this whole situation which has affected universities, certainly in the States and Britain, and Australia, I gather, of no-platforming, of safe spaces, trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, all these things, which are there for very reasonable reason to protect students’ feelings. But there’s something beyond students’ feelings, which is reasoning through to what is a justifiable feeling and what is an unwarranted feeling. That there’s something that makes certain emotions rational or appropriate and others irrational and inappropriate.
That was always the job of philosophy from the days of Aristotle, am I feeling too much or too little? This is the whole enterprise of Aristotle’s ethics. What emotion is appropriate to the circumstances? Am I being cowardly, courageous or foolhardy? So somehow or other, this abandonment of Aristotelian reason and this emphasis on emotion, which happened really between the 1930s and the 1960s laid the foundation for what I see as a dangerous situation in today’s universities, which is that the views that students don’t agree with are simply hounded out. And Jordan Peterson himself has suffered from this, being debarred from having a research fellowship in Cambridge this summer. A number of philosophers, a teacher of mine, Sir Roger Scruton, being accused of all sorts of things and removed from a government appointment on the basis of an interview in a journal, which is widely acknowledged to have been a misrepresentation of his views.
John Anderson: Can I just say on that point, I’ve watched that closely, because it’s very obvious that he was tried, judged, and executed before the facts were on the table.
Rabbi Sacks: The New Statesmen were in the end, forced to publish the full text of the interview and it became very clear that his views had been misrepresented. I think people like Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson fall outside of the consensus. But that is what a university is about, to give space to those people who fall outside the consensus. Otherwise, we are back at the situation in fourth century BCE Greece, where the citizens of Athens sentence Socrates to death for corrupting the young. Well, I don’t think they’d sentence anyone to death nowadays, but social deaths, yes.
John Anderson: Social death. Social ostracisation. Being cancelled. We were talking about that earlier. To tease this out a bit, for want of a better term, the empathy culture. You dare not offend somebody. You got to wrap them in cotton wool. I don’t mean to say that we should be cruel, but you know what I mean by that, so that they’re not offended. Your courses are designed around not offending students as a priority, rather than challenging them, stretching them, exposing them to different thinking. That seems to be very much against young people’s interests. That’s the first point.
The second point though, that strikes me as remarkable about the so-called empathy culture, is the point you’ve just made. If you dare to disagree with it, politeness goes right out the door. They don’t seem to matter how badly they hurt you or break you or damage you. How do we understand this desire on one hand to mollycoddle people and wrap them in cotton wool so that they’re not challenged, but to absolutely excoriate anybody else who dares to adopt a different position in the field of ideas?
Rabbi Sacks: There is a very deep and beautiful idea. It’s a very religious idea, common to Judaism and Christianity. Hate the sin, love the sinner. And this belongs to a particular view of morality, which says that I am one thing and my acts are another, that I can criticise somebody’s acts without devaluing the person. And we’re losing that distinction and we’re losing a similar distinction between me the person, and the views I happen to espouse, or the life choices that I’ve.
When I was a student at Cambridge, my postgraduate tutor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was Britain’s most distinguished atheist. He was the most distinguished philosopher of his generation, but he was an absolute genius, a lapsed Catholic. An incredibly brilliant man. And I, by that time, had become quite religious, and we could not have been more different. There was an abyss between us in terms of our beliefs, but he never belittled my beliefs. He never let me feel humiliated or rejected or in any shape or form. He was respectful the whole time. The only thing he insisted was that I was lucid, that I was cogent, that he understood what I was saying, that it made sense. And so I felt very, very respected, even though my views were very challenged.
And I think we lose that, and today we have to get back to that situation of seeing that the university is really fulfilling its role in preparing us for the public conversation, preparing us for meeting people who are not like us, by teaching us to listen respectfully to those with whom we disagree, in the sure knowledge that they will listen respectfully to our views. And that’s what universities should be modelling.
John Anderson: That’s a sort of ‘do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’, isn’t it? It often requires, it sees love is not always just a feeling. It’s a doing thing. It’s a willingness through gritted teeth to say, “I disagree with what this person is saying so strongly that I’m tempted to give and take offence.” But the minute we do that, we’re both going to be diminished, and we’ll get a suboptimal outcome. I mean, I had to learn this in politics. You’ve got to rise above it and seek to engage with the idea, but that’s not what we’re doing at the moment. There’s something that follows on. In our judgementalism, we seem to be finding it very hard to forgive.
Rabbi Sacks: Well, I feel very strongly about this. The Americans, after Pearl Harbour, did something extremely interesting. One of the most interesting things I ever came across a government doing. They realised that they were going to have to wage war against a country they didn’t understand. And so they asked an anthropologist by the name of Ruth Benedict, and basically they said, “Ruth, explain the Japanese to us,” and she did. And it was later published as a book called The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. And she explained the difference between a shame culture and a guilt culture. Shame and honour. Guilt and righteous. Very, very different cultures. America is a guilt culture. Japan was a shame culture.
Now, in a guilt culture, there is that separation between the sinner and the sin, so that even though the person sinned, nonetheless they remain intact and you can forgive. A guilt culture is a culture of forgiveness, because the person remains pure, whatever. A shame culture is unforgiving. If you have been shamed, then you go off quietly and commit suicide.
Now the West, being a Christian guilt culture, always had space for forgiveness. But today, the West is no longer a Christian culture. It’s a media-driven culture. And we are in one of the supreme shame cultures of all time. That’s what viral social media do to you. You get it wrong. That’s it. You are shamed for life. And shame cultures don’t have space for forgiveness, and that’s why we’ve lost forgiveness in public life.
John Anderson: It’s very dangerous.
Rabbi Sacks: It is unbelievably dangerous. I mean, forgiveness essentially tells us that we are not held captive by the past.
John Anderson: It also tells us, I think, does it not, that we are loved and respected.
Rabbi Sacks: Yeah.
John Anderson: I do think that in the way that we have abandoned so much understanding of our own history and our own culture, the loss of an understanding of the importance of forgiveness. After all, the founder of Christianity asked a question, “How many times should we forgive? ‘Seven times?’ No, seven times seventy.” In other words, as we’ve been given much, much might be demanded of us. I do wonder how we rebuild harmony without a willingness to properly recognise that others will stumble as we stumble, and have to be given the opportunity to get back up again. The waste, at the very least, is terrible. The human carnage of a lack of forgiveness seems dreadful.
Rabbi Sacks: I remember in 1999 when the NATO operation in Kosovo… Do you remember that?
John Anderson: Yes.
Rabbi Sacks: And I was making a film for the BBC, each year I would make a film just before the Jewish New Year. And we decided let’s do it from Kosovo, which had not yet got back to normal. The NATO troops were still guarding everywhere, but the 300,000 refugees of the Kosovo and Albanians, the Muslims, were coming back. I stood in the middle of Pristina, I mean, all the bomb rubble, and I said, “This is where you see the power of one word to change the world.” The word forgive. If the Kosovans and the Albanians and the Serbs and the Croats can forgive one another, then they have a future. But if they can’t, they are destined to replay the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 till the end of time. All peace agreements between nations and between individuals depend on a capacity to forgive.
John Anderson: That’s a profound insight.
Rabbi Sacks: So I don’t think we can let go of it. I mean, if Christianity, if Judaism, had given humanity nothing but this, it would have been sufficient.
John Anderson: I think I’d throw out a gentle challenge. I often do this to the postmodernists. What’s your substitute, given the place you’ve taken us to? What is your substitute?
Rabbi Sacks: What is the substitute for forgiveness?
John Anderson: It’s a rhetorical question, so to speak.
Rabbi Sacks: The substitute for it is forgetfulness. And that’s how you do it, if you don’t have forgiveness. The trouble is that now anything recorded on the internet is there forever.
John Anderson: And it’s not forgotten.
Rabbi Sacks: We have abandoned forgetfulness. So we jolly well better get back forgiveness.
John Anderson: Now you told a remarkably powerful story about victims of the Holocaust effectively forgiving, not playing the ‘victim card’. What is it though that is now seeing that graciousness, if I can put it that way, repudiated by a rise of anti-Semitism in many Western countries?
Rabbi Sacks: Well, here we come to a subject, which is very much Jordan Peterson’s as well, which is victimhood. When bad things happen to a country or a culture, they can ask one of two questions, and the whole fate of that culture will depend on which of the two they ask. They can ask what did we do wrong, or they can ask who did this to us. If they ask what did we do wrong, then they go through the necessary business of repentance, remorse, whatever it is, putting things right again, and then they go on and they recover.
But when they ask who did this to us, they define themselves as a victim, and any victim must have a victimiser, an oppressor. And when any culture has suffered some kind of major confusion or humiliation, and they say, who did this to us, they are looking for a scapegoat to blame. And historically that turned out to be the Jews. We were the most significant non-Christian minority in a Christian Europe. Israel today is the most significant non-Muslim country in a largely Muslim Middle East. One way or another, if people are looking for someone to blame, they will use the Jews.
There’s usually no substance to it. Anti-Semitism is 99.9% pure myth. But myth has this power, that it takes away the pain of asking what did we do wrong. Ah, we can blame somebody else. And right now the turbulence in Europe is providing that kind of fruitful ground for three tributaries in this new river of the new anti-Semitism. Some of it is coming from Islam in the Middle East, and some of it is coming from the old far right and far left that still exist in some form or other throughout Europe. It’s a shattering thing to think that this could happen within living memory of the Holocaust, but it has.
John Anderson: It is indeed a shattering thing. So in conclusion then, and on that rather sombre note, can I again say that your work in pulling people together and encouraging them to think calmly and rationally and reasonably, and in a spirit of cooperation and forgiveness, is remarkable. Can we, at this point in the life cycle of Western societies, rebuild sufficient virtue and civic glue, to use the words of our foremost political editor in Australia, so in order to, if you like, regroup, rebuild harmony and even prosperity?
Rabbi Sacks: There is a Harvard neuroscientist called Steven Pinker. Very interesting man. Wrote a book many years ago called The Language Instinct, in which he tells a fascinating story that I really didn’t understand. There’s something called a pidgin, you know, pidgin English, which is a language that slave-owners used to slaves. It has a vocabulary but no grammar. It’s just commands and basic things. It turns out that second-generation speakers of pidgin, the children of slaves basically, develop something called a creole. And a creole is a pidgin plus grammar.
These children, without any formal instructions, have created their own language out of the very fragmentary language that their parents had. Because we have within us something called the language instinct. So even though you think that slaves have lost their language, their children recreate a language on the basis of those fragments that their parents have given them. I think the same applies to morality. We’re in a kind of pidgin situation. We’ve lost the grammar of morality. We still have a few of the words, but we’ve lost the whole grammar of it. But I tell you, the next generation, the generation growing up now, will turn that into creole. Because not only do we have a language instinct, we have a moral instinct as well.
And those young people that I meet are just so impressive. They really are. They know how dangerous the world has become. They know perfectly well how hard they are going to have to work, just to make a living, but certainly to make a life.
John Anderson: One of the problems they’ve got is that we’re handing them a financial mess.
Rabbi Sacks: We are handing them a financial mess, yes. And that is something that I feel very, very bad about.
John Anderson: So do I.
Rabbi Sacks: But I do have faith in them, because they’re going to bring back some of the morality that’s been missing for the last fifty or sixty years. I pretty strongly think that they’re going to learn forgiveness as well. I can’t tell you whether they’re going to become more religious or less. I think some will go one way, some will go another. But I do think they have a moral instinct, and I do think they’re going to build a world of which we can be proud.
John Anderson: Thank you very much indeed.
Rabbi Sacks: Thank you.