The Balance of Rage

November 22, 2010

Since the election, two interrelated phenomena have been simultaneously rising and falling. They’re two sides of the same coin, if it were possible to forge a coin out of undistilled rage and loathing. They’re the relative levels of anger on both the left and the right at the course the country is taking.

The anger of the Right appears to be abating. This was noted by the Guardian, who cleverly spotted that the anger of Mr Eugenides had come to a halt, amongst similar outbreaks of calm by other libertarian and/or right-wing bloggers. Even the original swearblogger, the Devil himself, has shut up shop, at least temporarily.

Guido, of course, endures, in much the same way that the Sun and the Mirror are now features of our national landscape. But Guido has always been less political than the adult version of the irksome pupil who runs to tell teacher that the big boys are smoking behind the bicycle sheds.

At the same time as the rage of the Right subsides, that of the Left is on the rise. Not necessarily in the terribly formal collective left-wing blogs, of course, but rather in comments on CiF and in a thousand and one personal blogs across the internet. CiF’s comments are an interesting case; there, the difference was clear almost immediately after the election. To take a random example, look at the comments on these two Jackie Ashley articles, and compare the relative rage. For me, I normally interpret the relative anger of the person writing the post by the level of hyperbole they choose to incorporate within it. This is a strong indication that the person felt so strongly about the subject that they felt no desire to check their facts, and that their urge to say something outweighed their concern for how they would look saying it.

That charge could be levelled at the old libertarian blogosphere, which often appeared more concerned with being angry over dreadful lefties infringing their property rights than anything approaching reality. Similarly, the Left now appears enraged by the Right’s besmirching of their moral code too, resulting in some ridiculous paranoia (witness the comments thread on this post on this blog in which the lefty claims that the Coalition will dismantle the welfare state. Really. I stopped responding after that).

We can therefore witness an interesting seesaw of rage that determines the scope and the borderlines of British political discourse. This rage typically has a strong moral quality; the enraged typically accuse their opponents of being immoral, giving that as just cause for their anger. It is very clearly directed at what is perceived as the transgressions of the governing party (or parties), which is interesting in itself – in a democracy, the source of power is the electorate – i.e. other people. But you’ll very rarely hear anyone actually attack the majority of the electorate if they’re on the losing side – rather, they’ll go straight for their representatives.

This implies that the angry don’t want to believe that the majority could possibly disagree with them, and instead focus their anger on politicians instead. Given that our two main political parties have traditionally focused on economic identity as constitutive of their core vote, research which indicates that people tend to see themselves as economically average would point to this being a question of cognitive dissonance. If people believe themselves to be an average earner – i.e. representative of the majority of the population – information that indicates otherwise would dispute this interpretation. It’s difficult to imagine a more brutal example of why you’re not average if the party that represents your economic interest group is voted down.

Poor people will blame the Tories for cuts to benefits, rather than the middle-class people who voted for them. It’s almost as though voting is taken as a somehow morally blameless exercise in which you’re not accountable for your choices – only the people who you voted in are. This is completely irrational, and can only be explained if there’s a strong irrational driver pushing the other way. The above self-perception phenomenon would appear to cover that.

I therefore make the claim that our political discourse is driven in part by this irrational reaction to majoritarianism. People feel angry as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises from believing themselves to be average while in an economic minority. They therefore seek out reasons why they’re right and their opponents wrong, to aid in restructuring the world in such a way as to make it clear that their worldview is correct. They then promote those reasons as the truth, to avoid dealing with reality. This sort of post-hoc justification is familiar to anyone who’s ever encountered NIMBYs, creationists, climate sceptics/hawks, old-style communists, religious literalists, libertarians, racists – indeed, practically any form of belief. The only check against it is what one could call intellectual integrity, or constantly re-examining one’s beliefs in the light of new evidence. In this sense, the post-hoccers provide a useful function: they are the ones who feverishly uncover new facts to suit their agenda, and while those facts may or may not be accurate they must be engaged with every single time to ensure that one’s own ideas are correct.

Engagement in this sense is engagement in good faith; not pre-judging the outcome of any given argument. I have frequently found that post-hoccers do come up with facts that challenge one’s beliefs – for example, I have accepted that wind turbines do have an impact on bats (although not birds) as a consequence of skirmishes with NIMBYs. Rage, therefore, while describing the outer edges of our discourse nonetheless has a crucial role in holding power to account.

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So, ‘aggressive atheists’ are spoiling all the Pope’s fun, the media are terrifying small girls in the name of paedophilia, and Mr Benedict doesn’t know that Hitler was a Roman Catholic. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was a Papacyphobe fest. If you did know better, you’d know that the reaction to his visit has all the signs of a Britain that’s always found excessive seriousness hilarious and delights in poking holes in speeches at the smallest slip of the tongue; I would like to believe Oscar Wilde would be proud of our reaction to the visit of the second-to-last pope.

But beneath the general comedy, there’s a serious charge to be answered:

“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.”

One could attribute this to many things, from the closure of Catholic adoption agencies that would not comply with equal-rights legislation, or more flippantly the lack of tolerance shown by law enforcement agencies to priests who dabble in terrorism. However, what I would argue ‘cultural expressions’ should have referred to is not what you might call the ‘collision’ issues of abortion and homosexuality, but rather the displacement of cultural roles for the church by the secular state, and more broadly by civil society.

The power of the church – and any organised religion – is not derived from its interpretation of divine revelation or its ability to intercede with the deity, but rather its function as society’s gatekeeper. Up until 1837, marriage in England & Wales was extremely difficult without the approval of the Church. Birth certificates – or rather, registrations of baptism – were performed by the Church until the same year, when state birth certification was mandated. Until then, the legal rights associated with marriage and being a registered citizen were entirely in the hands of the Church. In practice, this implies that anyone known to be unChristian would have great difficulty in getting married (Gretna Green notwithstanding), and would have children with no official status. The moral requirements of Christianity were a necessity for those seeking to access legal rights. Regardless of the reality of your faith, church attendance and observation of morals would’ve been a practical necessity. This is reflected in the contemporary practice of young parents attending church in order to get their children into a faith school, irrespective of their actual beliefs.

Quite apart from legal rights, rejection of Christianity had strong social consequences – and not simply the obvious one of ostracisation. A significant portion of discourse relies on a shared cultural background in order to foster a sense of shared identity. It’s difficult to imagine the impact of access to multiple types of metaphor and symbolism on a society in which the key source of metaphor was the Bible; one can get a sense of how it must’ve been by visiting fundamentalist Christian forums. The power of Satan assumes a place that paedophilia has in the editorial narrative of tabloid newspapers. Shared totems and symbols have a vital place in human discourse; at the most obvious level these are in-jokes amongst groups of friends, but at the broader level they encompass shared modes of explanation and understanding, as well as signifiers of identity.

To take a pop-cultural example: we went to see the Scott Pilgrim movie last week, largely as a result of my girlfriend’s affection for Michael Sera. Its director, Edgar Wright, has a deep and abiding love of squeezing as many geek references into his work as possible; the result being nearly impenetrable to the uninformed. If you weren’t familiar with video games, you’d have little understanding why statistics referring to Scott’s power level keep flashing up on screen.

Now transfer that to a society in which the prime source of totems and metaphor is the Church and the Bible, and you’ll begin to see the impossibility of functioning in that society without a strong understanding of its cultural expressions. Those signifiers are controlled by the Church, and they imply certain types of morality.

The true threat to the Catholic Church comes not from homosexuality or atheism per se, but rather the proliferation of cultural expressions and social ceremonies that Europe has witnessed since the Enlightenment. People within my social circle have variously opted for Welcoming Ceremonies, Birth Days – and baptisms – as ways of introducing their children to the community. The moral authority the Church used to have was derived from their social & symbolic monopoly on Western thought and deed, and that has been shattered. We live in what to me is a glorious liberal society in which one is free to celebrate and mark the events of one’s life in whichever way one chooses. The Church can be a part of that; it is just reduced to one choice amongst many. It must compete in the marketplace of social choice if it wishes to regain its former authority – something that this Pope has failed to recognise.