The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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.
Thus, wrote WB Yeats at the beginning of the Age of Fascism.
We live in a society that has deified free-speech. Now, the problem with idols, is that we are asked to accept them unquestioningly; later accretions are often given the status of imprimatur. And it is under the watchful gaze of self-appointed censors that agents of systematic abuse infiltrate society, in order to control it.
So, let me explain why passionate engagement is so often, bad for society.
In general, we view democracy as something that has been with us for a long time and will continue to protect us without any need for nurturing it.
But democracy, which is: “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges” is very new to global society – most nations did not experience universal suffrage nor provide equality before the law until after World War 2. Democracy is an organic beast. In a world where change is the one constant that we can rely upon, if we do not continuously re-examine our relationship to the state and towards each other, then that precious commodity we call “Democracy” either atrophies or fails. And it fails because it becomes accessible only to those who will abuse it and through that abuse, create the hierarchical society that places them first and keeps them there, at the expense of anyone with whom they have disagreement.
The State is the guardian of our governing institutions. Those who are zealous or obsessed by society will interpret the indifference of the general population as justifying the license they need to re-fashion society in their own image. Even when that image is against the un-expressed will of the people.
And here is another ‘issue’. There is a reason ‘it’ is called “the Silent Majority”. Most people just want to live a life of peace, calm and security. They do not care about the ‘big’ issues of the day nor do they want to know if it will disturb their calm. It does not mean that we don’t care. There is just so much complication in our lives, we just want to be left alone without some expletive individual spoiling our sense of equilibrium by adding to the already looming (or already present) boiling pot of troubles. Most people do not shout or put their hand up in class, or in their job or in society. Why should they?
They just want peace and quiet.
So, they leave the issues to the passionately engaged – to the politician and the bureaucrat, to the journalist and the professional demagogue for whom ego trumps ethics and there is always a group to attack as a means of attracting followers.
So first: free speech is not an absolute. We may not create a situation that endangers the public, nor are we permitted to incite others towards committing violence or rape or murder. But since Lenny Bruce’s first comedic lines gradually expanded the boundaries of what is permitted those lines have all but disappeared; or worse still, been made conditional, based upon a hierarchy of grievance. Injustice becomes a conditional commodity to be decided, not by the state but by those people, in a position of power, and therefore, most able to leverage public opinion.
By example: If I am viewed as “racially White” then I am judged incapable of empathy or grievance because, at least according to current ethical standards, I am born and bred of privilege. Therefore, unless I wholly embrace the narrative of my crimes and unless I accept the judgement of my superiors (who through their accredited victimhood and their narrative of victimology have rights that must supersede mine) I become an impediment to the fulfilment of social justice.
This is the adoption of racial inequality as a fundamental right, decided upon by people whose motives are inevitably antithetical to human rights.
It means that standards of behaviour that are unacceptable for me, are acceptable if carried out by someone, not “like” me. A crime is only a crime when it cannot be justified by reference to exceptional circumstances. In a conflict between nations, Rights are only Rights if we decide that both sides have a grievance; if not, then genocide or ethnic cleansing are acceptable options to the resolution of conflict.
Witness the behaviour of Jeremy Corbyn, head of the British political opposition. He enjoys the smug, arrogant self-awareness; the knowledge that he and only he knows the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has justified an entire career of embracing bigots, racists, torturers and murderers; those for whom violence is always the first option, and those for whom preaching genocide is a religious virtue.
When the ends justify the means there is no morality and everyone is a target. There are no unintended consequences because the only logic permitted is that all actions that leads to a desirable result are acceptable.
It is the logic of the Fascist.
When our standards of behaviour have deteriorated to the point where significant portions of society assume the right to discard caution in speech; to offend as a means of focusing our attention, then the distance between verbal and physical violence narrows and eventually disappears. The verbal and the physical are just different tools in an arsenal of legitimate expression.
That is also the logic of the Fascist.
The greater the number of characteristics our society shares with Fascism, the closer we come to losing democracy completely, to Fascism.
Populism can be defined as grass-roots Democracy, but it is always characterised by an anti-intellectual thread binding the disparate factions within the movement. It encourages the expression of racism and bigotry against traditional targets in society. It often leads to violence against minorities. It does lead to the election of populist leaders whose Fascist characteristics threatens world stability, whether it be the election of Victor Orban as Prime Minister of Hungary (refugees and migrants), Donald Trump as President of the United States (again, refugees) or the probable election of Jeremy Corbyn as PM of Britain (Jews and ‘Zionists’).
It is people who are most passionately engaged in creating the “new” society that will go to almost any lengths to undermine their opponents and to win power for themselves and their followers; no matter how distasteful the views of those followers may be. Again, the ends justify the means. It is an inevitable concomitant of the Fascist discourse that only one side can be right and therefore the “other” side gets what it deserves. The issue is that no-one straddles the fence in this fascist universe. You are either with us or you are against us.
“We tend to forget that unity is, at best, morally neutral and often a source of irrationality and groupthink.” Jonah Goldberg “Liberal Fascism”
In the 1990’s an author wrote a book titled “Radical Honesty” How to transform your life by telling the truth (Brad Blanton PhD). It became a best seller and its neophytes, members of a new cult. The problem isn’t that we are incapable of telling the truth but rather, that we tell a version of the truth (as many truths are), no matter who we hurt and how much peripheral damage we inflict on others in consequence of our actions. And the problem is that we refuse to listen to any truth that conflicts with our own version.
“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” (Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, 1916). The problem is that it is precisely this contempt for truth, this anti-intellectualism that is used by fascism to gain power.
Freedom is not an absolute right but a benefit that is usually tempered by the exercise of restraint. In contradiction to the current view-point that saying what we think is always the best policy, we do not habitually hurt others in the pursuit of our own goals (at least not in our private lives), nor do usually act in a way that gratuitously deprives others of their freedom. I have the freedom to mow my lawn at mid-night, but it would disturb the families that live in my neighbourhood, so I exercise restraint. When I exercise restraint, I also voluntarily limit my own freedom.
Self-censorship and ethical language are characteristics for a less self-possessed, perhaps mythical age. It is not what we have today.