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Artillery Row

Against mere negativity

Politics needs a vision of the Good

When diagnosing the great curse of the 20th century, Malcolm Muggeridge identified “thinking in categories, rather than thinking”. 

An exquisite example of this occurred last week. Neil O’Brien, a Conservative MP, criticised an academic article from a PhD student from the University of Manchester. An “anthropologist” in his late 30s, with a questionable history of promoting paedophilic content of pre-pubescent boys, he had written an article detailing his experience masturbating to cartoon images of children. 

Perhaps surprisingly, several prominent academics rushed to the student’s defence. Dr Fern Riddell, an historian of sex and Victorian culture, identified the intervention as part of the culture war, with the “end game” being the “absolute policing and repression of sex”. Dr Riddell rescinded her comment once she realised the paedophilic content of the article, but the fact remained that she had sought to defend something sight unseen — simply because a Tory MP criticised it. This is a prime example of the shackles of “thinking in categories”. 

Peterson’s positive vision of the world became reactionary

The most egregious example of this phenomenon was Steven Fielding, a Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham. Initially defending the paper with the rhetorical flourish “Do none of your constituents masturbate?”, he then accused Neil O’Brien of wanting to “shut down the humanities” for daring to criticise the paper — and later claimed that he was himself “not qualified to judge” it. If Professor Fielding thinks he is unqualified to cast judgement on masturbating to images of little boys, then I presume he doesn’t feel qualified to pass judgement on anything.

The instinctive urge to defend the indefensible is not an accident. It is the consequence of occupying a primarily “negative” philosophy. For these academics, it was sufficient to know that the paper was being criticised by a Tory MP. They know that Tories are bad, so anything criticised by a Tory is worthy of defence. This pit of amoralism is what happens when a worldview becomes detached and deracinated from any view of the good life.

Another example of this phenomenon is Jordan Peterson, who emerged into public prominence several years ago with two key messages: that young men ought to take responsibility for themselves; and the Jungian view that the stories of the Bible and other ancient literature manifest archetypal truths about human nature and social responsibility. He was able to effectively communicate this vision to huge numbers of young men, who in the value-free world of late-liberalism had only ever been told that they were victims, and that their situation was the responsibility of others to fix. His hostility to what is now crudely called “wokeness” was a necessary element of this broader vision. Yet within a few years he — and others — allowed “anti-wokeness” to emerge as a purely negative philosophy of its own. Reduced to complaining about how unattractive he finds plus-sized models, his previously positive vision of the world became reactionary and unprincipled. 

It is increasingly apparent that negative philosophies become simple vehicles for grift. Dave Rubin — the dullest of all grifters — had a realisation in 2015 that a great deal of the contemporary left is censorious and intolerant. He subsequently managed to build a brand and a career out of saying little else, and incoherently allying himself with all manner of disreputable figures so long as they shared his animosity to the woke left. Is this the best the Right can offer?

We did not randomly designate a specific regime as evil

All healthy worldviews promote some positive vision of the Good, around which a political, moral and economic framework can be built. This operates at the level of fundamental metaphysics: if you believe in the ultimate dignity of Man, then murder, rape, violence and harassment are clearly wrong. This also operates at a lower-order of policy. Our efforts to pour more money into education fail because we ourselves fail to have a clear idea of what a good education looks like. Is it a focus on classical literature and history, on the modern sciences, on drama and sport, through learning by rote or via Montessori methods — or ensuring that schoolchildren don’t spontaneously combust on buses because they’ve fallen through the gaps of the Prevent strategy?

The instinct underlying “negative philosophies” is undoubtedly a sound one. Certain things are evil, or even simply bad, and ought therefore to be opposed. Godwin’s law — that the longer an internet discussion of politics lasts, the nearer the probability of Hitler being invoked approaches certainty — is much parodied. Yet the reason Hitlerian references are so potent is because the Third Reich was such an unambiguously extreme example of clear and unmistakable evil. Any philosophy which isn’t in some manner “anti-Nazi” is clearly defective. 

Yet the characteristic of what I am describing as “negative philosophy” is that it puts the effect before the cause. The reason Nazism is regarded as uniquely disgusting is because of what it did. The mass murder of racial groups, of the disabled, and of political enemies; the waging of aggressive wars of conquest; the totalitarian suppression of freedom and conscience. We did not randomly designate a specific regime as evil, and then decide to oppose whatever attributes it happened to have. 

A coherent opposition to a particular movement or ideology must be rooted in a positive vision of a healthy one, or else remain rudderless and void of principle. This is clearly exhibited in self-described anti-fascists, who use whatever violence or social coercion they can in the furtherance of their politics, or in pseudo-egalitarian Social Democratic countries of northern Europe and Scandinavia where a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is an almost inevitable death sentence for the unborn.

The narrativization of morality is one of the consequences of this phenomenon. When confronted with an issue, the question for certain academics is not “what is right?”, but “how does this fit into the cultural movement I support?”. In the absence of a positive vision of the good, we are left with a society filled with fundamentally unmoored charlatans, dragged unreflectively into defending outright evil by the currents of debate.

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