The UK media and blogosphere is currently convulsing over the BBC’s decision to let the odious head of the racist and xenophobic British National Party onto its leading political TV show, Question Time. I am going to spare myself the need to hold forth on whether the decision by the Beeb was appropriate, and will also refrain from commenting on the performance (for let’s not pretend that all the participants were not putting on a show for the eight million viewers who tuned in) on Question Time. I have been following both right & left wing commentators with some interest, if only because as an expatriate of non-Caucasian origin in the UK, the rise of the BNP within UK domestic and international politics has a direct impact on my decision to continue living in London and paying UK taxes.
In general, the tone of the comments have varied from anguished handwringing over how the BBC’s decision to provide a platform for the BNP was to legitimise its opprobrium in the national discourse, while others have focused on how the BNP is only becoming a force majeure through the inability of mainstream political parties to tackle “sensitive” issues like immigration. Occasionally, there are slightly more obtuse debates over why parties like the BNP have been able to take on a significant share of votes, focusing less on specific issues and more on conceptual frameworks.
Into this final space fearlessly strides Times journalist and commentator Antonia Senior. In a piece on Friday, 23rd October 2009, she claims that the reason that far right politics and views have gained traction is through a persistent and pernicious application of “moral relativism”, and an unwillingness on the part of contemporary (read white) Britons to take an absolute position on any issue (“I’m right, and you’re wrong”). She argues that this is primarily predicated on three factors: an unwillingness to be painted racist in a post-colonial world, where any promulgation of the virtues of a Western cultural standpoint smacks of racial and cultural imperialism, a sense of being “shackled” by the moral relativism inherited by contemporary British commentators, and due to a decline in faith across Western societies; it is much easier to adopt absolute views when you have a little faith – look at the US evangelicals so furiously arguing against gay marriage.
Before I get further into the details of her arguments, let me first preface my own comments by saying that in the entire maelstrom of comments that this 1 hour TV show have triggered in UK politics, Senior’s is one of the few that, by choosing to focus less on specific (and perhaps therefore limiting) issues, and more about public discourse and wider narratives, as well as the underlying philosophical and moral frameworks that underlie them, provides an interesting analysis of UK debate and the mores that underpin it, both in mainstream and virtual media.
Unfortunately, merely undertaking some form of intelligent discourse analysis is not sufficient, especially when the conclusions that are reached are as flawed as Senior’s. She argues that contemporary debate is heavily tinged by moral relativism, a framework that, according to her, is intellectually bankrupt within philosophy itself, and that it is “incoherent, logically flawed and utterly tired.” The only reason it has any currency today in wider debate is because it prevents the awkwardness that is triggered by taking on moral / ethical absolutism. How very British indeed – let’s adopt a philosophy that helps avoid embarrassing moments over afternoon tea.
The problems with her article are so numerous that it is difficult for me to find a single space to begin. Perhaps her entire premise is exposed in the single sentence, “The relativist’s position is that all cultural views are equally valid, unless your culture is that of a white, male racist.”
Actually, NO. Relativism, when applied properly, and FULLY, turns around and says that all cultural views are equally valid, but – and this is where Senior misses the point – within their OWN frames of reference. Therefore, if you want to be a bigoted white racist, that is your issue, provided you apply it to YOUR framework. So if you DON’T want to hang out with black or brown people – don’t. That does NOT mean you stop them from entering your local pub, since that local pub may be a part of your framework, but it is not exclusively of your framework. So if you don’t want to sit next to a darkie, then don’t go to the pub; stay at home, which is (hopefully) exclusively part of your framework. If, however, your adult daughter decides to start dating a black man, that again becomes a problem, and your home may also no longer be an exclusive part of your framework. The point is this - moral relativism does not define the rules of engagement between differing world views, does not say that violently disparate opinions must mutually coexist, or that “everyone must get along”. Moral relativism merely states that all opinions and perspectives must be viewed within the prism of their individual circumstances. So in our example, moral relativism doesn’t tell you how to get along with your daughter’s black boyfriend. It does turn around, however, and say that within your world, if you want to hate a black person, that’s your issue. Don’t make it your daughter’s.
Yet another problem with Senior’s article is that she manages to confuse moral relativism, as propounded by thinkers like Sartre, with moral nihilism, which seems to assume the absence of an objective (universal?) morality. So very few cultures, if any, seem to suggest that theft is acceptable; is this an example of multiple cultural moralities co-existing, or is it the case that there is perhaps a “meta-morality” that pervades across all cultures? In either case, Senior seems to argue for abandoning what it has taken decades of philosophical and intellectual effort to achieve – the ability to adopt non-ethnocentric frameworks when assessing different cultures, and to be able to move away from imperialised racist constructs when approaching anthropological and cultural studies – to adopt the classical 18th and 19th century white European approach which looked at all non-European cultures as those of “noble savages”, that placed the burden of a civilisational mandate on the white man (a.k.a. the white man’s burden) and to speak of rights and wrongs.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly for someone who advocates the abandonment of moral relativism, is that Senior then goes on to commit the even greater crime of essentialism; the idea that a complex, multifaceted concept like “culture” can be reduced down to a single practice, on the basis of which it can be judged as being superior or inferior to another culture. She does this through her use of the example of female genital mutilation in Middle Eastern and African cultures. Senior’s rationale is that the prevalence of a moral relativistic framework within the UK prevents feminists from taking on a practice that is harmful to millions of women. It can only be shoddy scholarship that lets Senior take a massive leap here with the statement,
“Take female genital mutilation. I think it is an abhorrent, evil crime. Yet the woman slicing out the clitoris of a child with a rusty knife thinks she is doing the right thing. Clearly, one of us is absolutely right and one of us is deluded. If your culture believes in genital mutilation and mine does not, then my culture is right and good and yours is wrong and bad.” (emphasis mine)
What Senior does in this seemingly innocuous statement is incredibly dangerous. To turn around and assume that because a particular practice (in this case, FGM) is prevalent in a specific culture, EVERYTHING within that culture is equally horrific, and therefore available to be judged in terms of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, drags us back right into the 18th century. Her analysis here is equivalent to someone turning around and saying, “It was a Christian German culture that provided the cultural and political framework for the rise of the SS and the Nazis within Germany, which in turn led to the mechanised murder of 12 million people in Europe, including Jews and Roma, therefore everything in German culture is bad, including Nietzsche, Bach, Schopenhauer, Beethoven, etc.”
But you see, nobody would say that, because all good British commentators are well versed with the wonders of German intellect and their enormous contributions to European culture. Therefore any analysis of the rise of the SS and anti-Semitism within Europe is carried out with much greater intellectual honesty and with careful scholarship. It is much easier, when operating from within so clearly a Eurocentric worldview to dismiss other cultures, other voices, other narratives as being “wrong and bad”, and to get away with statements like the one Senior makes.
If I was to even step away from the mediocrity of Senior’s scholarship, though, I could perhaps find it amusing how her own theory does not hold to the whole BNP debate. To assume that the reason the BNP are able to occupy an increasing space in UK politics is due to an inability of other politicians to turn around and say, “You’re wrong” is clearly NOT borne out by the one hour of badgering that took place on Question Time with Nick Griffin. I personally struggled to see a single instance where any one person addressing Griffin didn’t turn around and say, “well, you’re not really wrong, but..”
Senior’s column in many ways makes me despair of leading publications in the UK. There are so many well (possibly over-) paid commentators in all the leading papers, and most of what they publish is such bilge that its quite depressing. Perhaps that is why I am increasingly beginning to rely on the blogosphere for intelligent analysis, as opposed to the mainstream media, who I now only really trust with breaking news (though after the balloon boy fiasco earlier this week, one has to question the wisdom of even that decision)