Death of The Question: Are We Becoming More Socially and Intellectually Conservative in Britain?

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Flux: St Paul’s Occupy London protest ended with indignation by the church at the public space disrupting its revenues. Meantime the Arab Spring found a keenness for building institutions which, eventually, will have the same righteous indignation as our authorities who oppose noisy anti- injustice protests. Question, but do it quietly. Credit: Urban75

IS Britain becoming socially and intellectually conservative? It’s a confusing picture. David Swartz suggests that in the 60s and 70s you could be on the religious right in America but be ‘anti-war, internationalist and pro-government intervention on poverty’. Such a careful and then commonly nuanced position has now been swept up into a more hard-line dichotomy of left and right politically, socially and ethically.

Polarisation of this kind does seem the present mood in Britain. It’s too exhausting to explain a worldview that is a mélange of contradictions and only fits ‘Other’ in a government checklist. Our distinctives can’t be indistinct. Fewer spaces deny the clock or Chairperson who demands you ‘get to the point’ and position yourself neatly nor um and er your way to any nugget of wisdom in your bowels. Swartz reminds of Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square’s exclusion of language from the ‘civic sphere’. Then it was religion, now, maybe intellectualism?

The most populace public sphere, social networks, don’t do ‘vague or fragile’ well either? A Boris-Johnson-Paroxysm of contempt and scowling at the non-strident makes Facebook-Debate an oxymoron. A colleague recently pointed out that the further East you go Facebook interlocutors spar for intellectual supremacy whereas here someone suggested Facebook is the new Toilet Door for the Internet Generation.

Taysir Nashif writes, maybe with a disappointing lack of irony: “Intellectual conservatism is a uniform line of thinking… less compatible with creativity and open-mindedness”. Is this though the fruit of institutionalised Britain. Nashif adds: “Institutions… restrict intellectual freedom.” Under the EU, UK, BBC, Tesco, UN and NATO we’ve settled into a risk-averse stream that rejects all major change. Maybe a complex society is best left to what Karl Popper called ‘piecemeal social engineering’. Or what Kieron O’Hara terms “dogmatic rationalism of the free market” (remembering a certain woman PM).

Michael Williams writes: “We have to accept the irreducible contingency of our investigations and argumentative resources”. Whoa! Sorry about that. You may not have the same positive reaction to this paraphrase of writer Richard Rorty. Basically: ‘You’re stuck with your supermarket basket of bread and milk and can’t fit in anymore’. But if you’re guffawing at the sheer blinding obviousness of ‘our brains our finite’ then just hold on. No-one says this in education. Well, not to me. And I don’t say it to students really. Generally I keep piling on.

Rorty terms this ‘coming-to-terms’ as ethnocentric: our worldview is likely shaped far more by our journey than we’d maybe wish to admit. This maybe axiomatic but it’s worth re-iterating because I’d argue there is a fairly violent reaction to this assertion. It should matter to scholars as as a modern society I think it’s yet another big elephant in the room. It is the big block to a questioning culture. In fact I’d go as far to say that modern conservative Britain as we know it is increasingly horrified by The Question as questions point to our limitation or unwillingness to stand outside ‘our journey’.

Williams quotes Hume saying: “[scepticism is] a malady, which can never be cured” possibly meaning many now won’t go near carriers of the questioning disease. So, a mini-thesis: a modern world built on scepticism is increasingly resistant to questions because it challenges our worldviews. We are increasingly anxious creatures so scepticism is the enemy to peace.

Is this the real reason Britain is a  more socially conservative society? From Rorty we get our support via pragmatism, and in my unhumble view, it appears to support, maybe unwittingly, an End of Inquiry. Hume, suggests Williams, puts sceptics on the naughty step because of their lack of common sense. But a common sense obsessed community isn’t overly challenging is it?

Williams: “Every aspect of common life works against taking scepticism seriously” and the lonely sceptic misses the benefits of common life’s friends: “social, practical, perceptually responsive and emotionally engaged”. Basically ask questions pal and we’re off.  No leader in an institution then wants a hand up on the back row.

I like these links. You may not! But it does answer why we are a divided society. The quest for peace, and keeping your mates, is stopping questioning some might say. But Nashif warns: “Many social institutions cause growth of bias, partiality, prejudice, bigotry, narrow mindedness and attention to trivialities.”  These biases maybe the root of ‘corruption’. And he adds omens on the consequences for social justice and loss of self in these rational structures.

I recall a colleague who worked for the local government planning office who enigmatically mentioned he wrote the Minutes of all meetings before the meeting itself. Good pragmatism, common sense, rationalist? Or socially and intellectually conservative? And where does this leave leadership?

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