Monday, 9 June 2008

Identity through politics

In an interesting article on Spiked, Frank Furedi discusses the cultural chasm that separates "liberal" Americans (the vast majority of whom are, of course, backing Obama) from the gun-totin', Bible-quotin', flag-salutin' hicks who put Bush in office; and, in particular, the contempt that the former feel for the latter:


I am always struck by the hectoring language used by otherwise educated and sensitive, sophisticated people when they are denouncing ‘ordinary folk’. Frequently, those who are associated with the so-called religious right are described as ‘simpletons’ and ‘idiots’. What is most striking is the passion and force with which certain individuals are attacked if they take a different position on, say, the right to abortion or the right to bear arms. These passionate denunciations suggest that some people, most notably those in the liberal elite, feel that their very identity – as expressed through their lifestyles – is being called into question by those who dare to disagree on the environment, abortion, immigration or any other issue. Sadly, all too often debates about issues and values can become very personal indeed in America.


Furedi calls this phenomenon "the politicisation of lifestyle", and suggests that this "moral distancing" - a "new, individuated, culture-based divide" - has replaced race as the principal fault-line in US politics. He manages to avoid the word "snobbery", but that is what he is basically describing. He points out that reasoned debate is cut off when the holding of certain opinions becomes a way of defining oneself morally and socially:

Arguments come to represent a statement about the self... When people endow their lifestyles with moral meaning, even relatively minor differences with others can acquire monumental significance. Often, people use statements such as ‘they are not like us’ to affirm their own identity. Criticising other people’s consumption of junk food or adherence to religious values is a way of making a statement about the self; those who advocate different kinds of behaviour and different values come to be seen as a threat to one’s own identity.


This type of "culture war" seems quintessentially American, and explains why US politics has traditionally polarised around such issues as abortion and gun-control rather than economics. But it's easily transferable to a British context. Here, for example, is Jackie Ashley in the Guardian patronising Euro-sceptics:

Ireland is the only European country to be holding a popular vote this time, and until recently a yes verdict had seemed a safe bet. After all, the business community, the media, the mainstream parties and, after some hesitation, the farmers have all declared themselves in favour. But some opinion polls are now casting doubt on the outcome. It seems a combination of scare stories and a fairly well organised campaign against the treaty may be triumphing. There have been endless claims that agreeing to Lisbon will bring in not only abortion (still illegal in Ireland) but also higher taxes.


Human beings are by nature both hierarchical and group-oriented, and thus will always definine their identity by asserting the superiority of the group to which they belong. But with time, the game has become more subtle. To claim superiority for one's race is now completely beyond the pale (unless one happens to belong to a favoured minority group, in which case it sometimes seems OK, or even admirable, for some unclear reason). To look down on others as lower-class is almost as unacceptable, and few would claim in polite company that the rich are better people than the poor or the economically average. But it is possible to feel morally superior by virtue of ideas; so political opinions come to be worn as badges of identity, as assertions of group loyalty. Conforming to the political platitudes of one's tribe, surrounded by others who spout the same opinions, it is easy to feel smugly superior to those whose beliefs are of inferior status. The content of the opinions, their coherence - still less their truth - are of far less significance than their social meaning.

Of course, when faced with someone advocating, say, creationism, it's difficult not to feel a sort of contempt. What is striking about the left-liberal mindset, though, is how narrowly-defined and all-encompassing it is. In many ways it resembles a religion, complete with dogmas, priests, taboos, gods and demons. Though it lacks a supernatural dimension, it does come with an easy-to-follow moral code that like all such codes has its paradoxes and contradictions (Islam - great; gay rights - great; er...). Like most religions it tends to give heretics a bad time. So at a time when religion is being turned, at official behest, from a matter of personal conviction to a source of political identity, it's perhaps not too surprising to find increasing numbers of people finding personal identity in their politics.


P.S. There was a fascinating little snippet buried in Jackie Ashley's article. Commenting on Stuart Wheeler's attempt to persuade a court to enforce Labour's manifesto pledge for a European referendum, she reveals that she was told that "the man in charge of Europe at the Foreign Office has been spending five hours a day preparing the case against Wheeler's challenge". Clearly, as she says, "someone's worried".

6 comments:

Edwin said...

Hm. I'm reminded of the great Paris Review interview with Larkin, in which Larkin says he was advised if he went to America to stick to the coasts as in between was a 'desert of bigots' [insert own exclamation marks].

Larkin said he quite liked the idea of a culture in which, if you helped a girl decorate a Xmas tree, the father would start oiling a shogun. A 'version of pastoral'.

As for 'culture wars' between 'us' and 'them' - have you ever watched British middle-class mums score points off each other and subtly indicate that so and so is not quite the thing? Fabulous!

Edwin said...

Damn - oiling a 'shotgun' rather than a 'shogun' of course. That's quite anothjr sort of cultural issue.

valdemar said...

Doh, I was already in the process of oiling my neighbour's new Kamikaze Shogun 4x4 in his drive when I realised that error.

But H, you're right about the basic tendency in all groups, classes or whatever to get off on contempt, snobbery, and an unearned sense of superiority. But you didn't mention the classic British one - the 'we're a persecuted minority' game that anyone can play. Christians are persecuted because they don't get a free ride when they spout drivel or bigotry. Muslims are persecuted when they're told they're not supposed to murder their daughters. Jews are persecuted when anyone disagrees with American foreign policy. 'Ordinary decent people' are persecuted when they are fined for speeding.
Indeed, I must be one of the few unpersecuted people in Britain. I just get annoyed by things - traffic, litter, noise - without actually feeling I'm the victim of a conspiracy. In fact, I'm starting to feel a bit paranoid about my lack of persecution...

valdemar said...

Now hang on a minute - I was so busy nursing my pet peeve (Eric) that I overlooked a blatant howler!
Of course it's acceptable to look down on lower-class people. Among what used to be called the respectable working class, it is commonplace to look down on chavs.
Or, as they're called on Tyneside, charvas. (The word is of Romany origin, and it seems to be the original of chav. Very un-PC.)
Everything once said about 'the blacks', the Irish, or any other group can now be said about chavs, who are almost all of pure Anglo-Saxon descent. Therefore middle class people can join in the fun with a clear conscience. But it's those of us who live among chavs who feel the most ire, righteous or otherwise.
As I type this the window is open - it's very hot - and I can hear the wind playing with the lager cans the charvalings leave around the back lane. Occasionally a wheelie bin is torched. Screaming rows involving the usual threats to kill are often overheard - I live near a bus stop. I'm glad I live in an upstairs flat. You get the picture.
Now is this simply class prejudice, or at least in part the legitimate fear of a chaotic, violent underclass which flourished under Thatcherism (look up the figures on soaring benefit claims in the Eighties) and reinforced by the box-ticking vacuity of Blairism?

The Heresiarch said...

Very good point about the chavs. Indeed, it's the precise parallel to what Furedi identified in the US: elitist metropolitanites looking down on rednecks. What is happening is that two categories of "underling" are being conflated: the "white trash", underclass, "non-respectable" working class, who have always been looked down on (in Victorian times they were the undeserving poor), and the much larger numbers of ordinary "hard-working families" who may have "unfashionable" opinions about immigration, Europe, fuel duty and so on. In the mindset of the left-liberal aristocracy, perhaps unconsciously, these people too are to be pitied and despised.

valdemar said...

The odd thing is that, as someone from a white working class background, I find I am quite closely related to chavs - a fact that becomes apparent when you a. have an unusual surname and b. read crime reports in the local press. This makes for greater confusion on my part. There is really no clear dividing line between chavs and the rest of us.
Your point about unfashionable views is well-taken. My mother (in her seventies) is contemptuous of Muslims because of their attitudes to women and their (to her) generally uncivlized tendencies. She is very positive about Polish migrants, however, seeing them as hardworking and 'normal'. Yet she is not racist, being very positive towards an Asian couple (Hindu, I think) who run the local newsagent.
Like most of us, she is 'conflicted' about a society where most individuals feel powerless to effect change for the better, while the worst elements seem to enjoy too much freedom.