The theme of the second week of advent is peace. On pondering this theme what, perhaps inevitably, came to my mind was the so called ‘culture wars’ that have been so prominent in the media in western democracies during the last four or five years.
These culture wars have had their most dramatic manifestation in America, where the Trump presidency and the recent presidential election have exposed more starkly then ever the widening and possibly unbridgeable gap between the different cultures within the USA. But similar cultural conflicts have been in evidence in Europe and the UK over issues such as Brexit, immigration, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights.
Traditionally – stretching back to the much mythologised student revolutionaries of 1968 – universities and schools have often been a focal point and testing ground of such culture wars. This is inevitable for two reasons: firstly, schools and universities are tasked, among other things, with handing on what could be called ‘cultural capital’ to the next generation and, secondly, they are one of the few places where the old and the young actually work, exchange ideas and debate together.
What is worrying about the current culture wars and the debates surrounding both conservative populism and liberal woke culture is that everything feels so angry at the moment. At its worst, there is a feeling that any sense of consensus and shared worldview is giving way to a society that is little more than a collection of tribes who exist in mutual suspicion and cannot effectively communicate with one another without casing offence.
I am neither qualified nor competent to attempt to struggle with deep questions such as what the causes of this situation are, where it is leading us, or what the solutions are. I am, thankfully, a mere Headmaster, so no-one looks to me for answers to these problems, They do, however, look to me to provide an environment in which the young can learn to debate and disagree in peace. With that in mind, I am going to try to lay down what I think are some useful ground rules for constructive and peaceful debate and disagreement.
These basic ground rules can all really be summed up in Jesus famous teaching, “first get rid of the log in your own eye, then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” The only sense in which I would disagree with Jesus’s admirable teaching is that I suspect it is too optimistic. Perhaps more practical advice is, “always remember that you have an irremovable log in your eye.”
So, here, for what they are worth, are my five golden rules for maintaining peace in an age of passionate debate:
- Recognise that everyone is prejudiced, including me
T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “the human mind cannot bear too much reality” and who would argue with that. Whether we like it or not, it is pretty much a proven fact that human beings rarely use our rationality in order to seriously and dispassionately search for truth. We enter into debates and investigations already convinced of what the right answer is, and we use facts and arguments not to find the truth but to defend what we already believe is correct. This rather depressing point is brilliantly explored by Jonathan Haidt in his bestselling book, The Righteous Mind. Whilst it is a depressing act that none of us can entirely escape this tendency, it is a massive step forward if we can at least recognise that we are never being as rational or dispassionate as we like to pretend we are.
- The young and the old will always misunderstand each other, because they live in different worlds
The young tend to embrace radical ideas and solutions because they haven’t really left home yet. To put it another way, their radicalism is an extension of their innocence, because deep down they believe that home, with its comforts, prejudices and consolations, will always be there for then when their adventures are over. The old tend to want change to slow down or stop, and have a default tendency to leave things undisturbed, because they have left home and have also realised that, to quote Bob Dylan, there is ‘no direction home’, The old can feel the terrible truth that everything really is fragile and that decay, loss and chaos are more natural and much more easily achieved than stability, growth and order. This chasm between the young and the old is absolute and unbridgeable, so don’t get frustrated if your children don’t understand you … they are, thank God, not meant to.
- Let’s stop misusing the word ‘offence’
The thing that worries me the most about our current culture wars is the apparent ease with which people are offended by other people’s beliefs. The quick answer to this problem is ‘get over yourself.’ We have a perfect right to be offended when people are directly rude or threatening to us as individuals. For example, if someone cuts me up when driving and scares me, I rightly feel offended and upset. But if someone thinks my beliefs and my ways of thinking, feeling and living are laughable nonsense, they are not offending me, they are just being different from me. We simply do not have a right to be offended when what other people believe or how they live conflicts with our own deeply held beliefs. If you cannot deal with other people thinking and feeling things that you find incomprehensible, you have no business living in a free society.
- You have a moral duty to be open to the possibility that you might be completely wrong about everything
If you are serious about free speech, open debate and rational enquiry then you must be prepared for the possibility of being completely wrong about your own most deeply held prejudices and beliefs. To put it another way, the price of living in a free capitalist society (with all the material comforts, conveniences and freedoms it gives us) is a constant sense of queasy unease about who you really are and what you really believe. Karl Marx understood this when he wrote of capitalism that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” You can have a free market economy or you can have existential peace of mind, but you can’t have both.
- When in doubt about what to believe, don’t believe in anything
This may sound like strange advice from someone who identifies as a Catholic, but I am not a fan of principles. I view them as dangerous and misleading things. To put it another way, I think that the suspension of all belief and all hope (and, therefore, all prejudice) is what lies at the heart of true prayer and true mystical experience. In Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant film, Black Narcissus, faith and desire are explored as two sides of the same coin. In this film the Hindu holy man who sits atop the mountain does not believe in anything, he has passed beyond belief and beyond desire and, paradoxically, thereby symbolises the deepest human desire of all. This is an image of unattainable holiness, but it at least serves to remind us that the experience of faith really is the very opposite of the experience of a tightly gripped belief. To quote T. S. Eliot yet again, in East Coker he writes:
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing…
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
…Which, unsurprisingly, puts the point much better than I ever could.