Slouching towards Bethlehem?

As Charlie noted here yesterday, lots of people are having a grand old time fulminating about the Gwyn Prins / Robert Salisbury article in the new RUSI Journal on risk, threat and security in the UK.  It’s not hard to see why their piece has aroused such passions:

The United Kingdom presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity. That fragmentation is worsened by the firm self-image of those elements within it who refuse to integrate. This is a problem worsened by the lack of leadership from the majority which in mis-placed deference to ‘multiculturalism’ failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities, thus undercutting those within them trying to fight extremism. The country’s lack of self-confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist terrorist enemy, within and without.

Media comment on the Prins / Salisbury story – which was extensive – was cast along predictable lines.  The Daily Mail covered the story as “Multiculturalism is making Britain ‘a soft touch for terrorists'”; the Telegraph splashed it on the front of the paper too.  Equally predictably, a comment piece in the Guardian derided the RUSI article as “a glaring example of just how wrongheaded Britain’s political thinking has become” – and its authors as “ranting old colonels”.

It’s tempting, when watching one of these tedious set pieces, to mutter “a plague on both your houses” and retreat back to to blogging about more interesting subjects (like sputniks).  But then again, isn’t that what Yeats seems to warn against in The Second Coming?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

Admittedly, Yeats’s own idea of “the centre” was not far from from that of Gwyn Prins and Robert Salisbury.  (The “best”, for Yeats, refers to the values of Europe’s ruling class in 1919: God, King, and country.  The “worst”, on the other hand, were Germans and Russians, plus French and Irish revolutionaries.  Were Yeats alive today, he’d doubtless be with Prins & Co. on the subject of multiculturalists.) 

But today, you can read Yeats’s poem differently: as a warning against culture wars where each side lurches progressively further towards extreme positions, motivated by outrage that the other side is doing the same thing. 

Perhaps the most vivid example of this was the ‘positive feedback loop’ seen in debate over Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 (now in the process of reigniting again): fundamentalists on both the religious and the secular side of the fence fanned the flames of the dispute, leading to polarisation of more centrist parts of the debate and an exponential amplification of the debate’s ‘shrillness quotient’. 

So – can we break out of the cycle?  Or are we doomed to ‘mere anarchy being loosed upon the world’?

What this conundrum comes down to is whether communities, nations and indeed the whole global village can develop a shared story.  Just because globalisation has mixed us all up geographically doesn’t mean that our identities, values and cultural stories have kept pace.  On the contrary, the sheer speed of globalisation, with all its stresses and friction, can all too easily militate in the opposite direction. For when we find ourselves alienated in larger polities like cities or nations, we tend to fall back on primary loyalties like family, clan, tribe or ethnicity, as John Robb sets out in an excellent discussion of fourth generation warfare back in 2005.

Beneath these primary loyalties, at a still more fundamental level, are three contrasting ‘macro-narratives’ about who we are, why we’re here, and the nature of the world we inhabit. 

  • One, a kind of deferential universalism, emphasises the duties of individuals to an all-powerful Other or Order: perhaps God, perhaps King or country, perhaps some combination of all three.  (Think Daily Mail.)

  • The second, a rational universalism, agrees that there is one objective truth – but that it is scientific truth rather than God or patria.  (Think The Economist.)

  • The third, finally, is a pluralistic relativism, which is egalitarian, anti-hierarchy, and emphatic about diversity and multiculturalism.  (Think The Guardian.)

Where these three stories encounter each other, there is the potential for culture wars – and never more so than in the cluster of debates about rights, responsibilities, culture, identity, migration and belonging.  Think of Danish cartoons; think of the response to Rowan Williams’ comments on sharia; think of inflammatory Sunday Times headlines about “inbred Muslims” (more on that in another post very shortly); think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and so on.  In each case, we see either a clash between two incompatible universalisms, or a clash between a universalism on one hand, and on the other a relativism that disputes the idea of universalisms in the first place.

And yet there’s nothing inevitable about culture wars being the result when one or more of these worldviews comes together.  The problems begin, rather, when any one of the three worldviews discussed here starts dealing in absolutes

It’s obvious, for example, that religious fundamentalism will always be threatening when it starts to makes claims about how non-adherents should behave.  But by the same token, secularism too can have its fundamentalisms – insistences on the absolute nature of freedom, for example – which can seem profoundly threatening to religious believers.  Karen Armstrong makes this point in her outstanding The Battle for God: fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which she notes that religious fundamentalists

…fear annihiliation, and try to fortify their beleagured identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past.  To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream society to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers… Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly sceptical world.

The point at which competing worldviews start dealing in absolutes is where we find that “the centre cannot hold”.  Each side – fearful that its most cherished beliefs, its very identity, risks being overrun by the ‘Other’ – pulls further and further back, leading directly to a positive feedback loop of conflict and misunderstanding.

Nor is pluralistic relativism immune from the temptation of absolutes.  As the philosopher Ken Wilber notes, pluralistic relativism “cannot easily abide excellence and value rankings, big pictures, hierarchies, or anything that appears authoritarian” – and so it can react strongly against the other two worldviews.  He continues,

…one of its defining characteristics is its strong subjectivism.  This means that its sanctions for truth and goodness are established largely by individual preferences (as long as the individual is not harming others).  What is true for you is not necessarily true for me; what is right is simply what individuals or cultures happen to agree on at any given moment; there are no universal claims for knowledge or truth; each person is free to find his or her own values, which are not binding on anybody else.

The danger of this approach, he concludes, is that it can lead to a “flatland” in which everything is valid except value judgements.  At that point, a worldview that began as a sensitive attempt to embrace difference can instead become an insensitive denial of any possibility of a shared narrative.  Multiculturalism, too, has its absolutist variant.

Yet all three of these worldviews can also – at their best – offer a vision of tolerance and coexistence.  If multiculturalism is obviously concerned with diversity and tolerance, then the same is true of rational universalism when we stop to consider how central liberalism has always been to its project.  (What, after all, is the motto of that fundamentally modern state, America, but e pluribus unum – out of the many, one?)

Religious universalism, too, is entirely capable of embracing difference.  Instead of lamenting what they see as a “fragmenting, post-Christian society”, Prins and Salisbury might have pointed out that early Christians were very much interested in syntheses of unity and diversity, as 1 Corinthians 12 shows:

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.

By the same token, they might have reflected upon the Islamic doctrine of ikhtilaf; or on the Sura in the Qur’an which reads:

To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute.  (al-Ma’idah 5:48).

Nothing in any of the three worldviews means that culture wars are inevitable.  We create the problem, when fear of the ‘Other’ leads to intolerance – when, in other words, “the centre cannot hold”. 

But this still leaves unanswered the big question: can a society as diverse as today’s global village possibly agree on a shared narrative?  Can we coexist if we all disagree about the nature of “the Truth” (or indeed on the question of whether there’s just one truth, or instead 6 billion of them)?

I think the answer, in both cases, is: of course we can. 

Part of the reason why is that when you stop and listen hard to adherents of each of the three great macro-narratives, you find that none of them actually claims to have the whole truth.  They might claim that only their path can get you to the truth; but they also generally admit that they’re not actually there yet.  (After all, if mystics and scientists agree on one axiom, it’s that we’re operating in conditions of uncertainty, and that our knowledge is so far incomplete.)

And if we’re all engaged in a process of discovery, then the possibility exists that one day we might all come to acknowledge that while yes, there is a mountain-top, there are nonetheless still 6 billion (and counting) routes to it.  And this being so, all of us have a stake in maintaining a shared capacity to have civilised conversations – which is in itself a universalism that we can all agree to.  What else, in the end, is there to civilisation but this? 

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas understood this when, as part of his attempt to salvage the best of Enlightenment universalism from its critics, he developed the idea of discourse ethics; Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks got it too when he wrote The Dignity of DifferenceRather than indulging an absolutist vision in which someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong, they hold out the hope that we might instead move to a different story: one of everyone having a piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

What I worry about in Prins and Salisbury’s article is how much it projects the problem – from “us” on to “them”.  It’s emphatic about the “implacability of [the] Islamist terrorist enemy” – but seems to overlook its own role, through language like “refuse to integrate” or “lay down the line to immigrant communities”, in amplifying the culture war that produced the problem in the first place.  Whatever the merits of their essay, starting from the position of putting yourself in the shoes of the ‘Other’ is not one of them.

If we start with fear of the ‘Other’, and proceed directly from there to a ‘tough’ security policy, then what we do is to escalate.  Increasingly, when you read the writings of security theorists about terrorism, or scarcity, you detect a kind of determinism: a sense that we’re heading into troubled waters, and that since “they” hate “us”, we’d better start getting tooled up. 

Well, maybe.  The alternative – less glamorous, less edgy, but probably in the end better for all concerned – needs to start from looking at ourselves through the eyes of the ‘Other’, whoever the other may be.  Rather than worrying about their values, we’d do better to check our own behaviour against our values – paying particular attention to cases where our rhetoric and our practice seem to be at odds, as with (dare one say it) Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, control orders, Abu Ghraib, detention without trial for 42 days, and so on and so forth.  As those who fret about “post-Christian society” ought to be the first to point out: it’s all there in Matthew 7:1-5