Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Shameless speech and the conservative disadvantage

                                                                      A pundit

There is a sort of Darwinian selection in punditry and indeed academia: those who are too shy or self conscious or simply aware of the strawfulness of their speech will select themselves out of the struggle for publicity, whilst those who lack this basic sense of shame will proclaim their latest thoughts with abandon.

Shame at one's own inadequacies is perhaps only one of a cluster of selective disadvantages that gather around the area of public speech. I remember, for example, thinking while in the middle of a period of postgraduate study that an academic apprenticeship was rather like accustoming oneself to gavage: learning to suppress the natural gag reflex in the face of amounts, or detail or type of work was essential to achieving the academic perspective. Certainly, entry into politics seems to require some highly abnormal personality traits.

But why should conservatives (and I mean by this as normal in this blog the sort of Burkean/Kirkian conservative rather than an adherent of one of the Conservative political machines such as the GOP or indeed the Conservative Party) suffer particularly from this? In politics, the conservative emphasis on the 'little platoons' means that any attempt to articulate their importance in party politics requires individuals to devote all their energies to a field which, ex hypothesi, they think of little importance. A religious sense, a sense which I grow more and more convinced is essential to conservative thought, pushes one to regard the natural end of human life as only of secondary importance to the supernatural end. Moreover the pursuit of personal virtue forces one to confront the shabbiness of one's own contributions sub specie aeterna. Simply a sense of politeness is a grave disadvantage in much contemporary public life.

The thought that conservative values (or perhaps simply civilised values) are selecting themselves out of the market of ideas is one that regularly strikes me. But here are two recent occasions which prompted such reflection. The first was Jordan Peterson's interview with Cathy Newman. Although I thought Newman came off particularly badly in this interview, I don't think Peterson came out of it well either. More precisely, Peterson himself in the interview seemed to endorse the aggressive contest of ideas that the interview itself embodied: whatever else Newman and Peterson disagreed on, they seemed to agree on the fact that disagreeableness (aka 'assertiveness') was a key feature of modern intellectual and social success. This is probably true as a description of modern Western society. It is certainly not  true of all societies (I found myself contrasting Confucian ideas of the junzi with the video while watching it) and not even of our own not so very long ago ('the gentleman').

The other occasion was in this account of the conductor Carlos Kleiber:

In a 2012 documentary, Traces To Nowhere (also the title of the second episode of the first series of Twin Peaks, Lynch fans), it’s revealed by his sister Veronika that Kleiber’s “bedside book” was the Zhuangzi, an ancient text written by Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou. He was particularly consumed by one phrase: “Leave no trace,” or, to quote the line in full, “The Perfect man leaves no traces of his conduct.” In the same film, German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender says he gave her a book, probably written by an Indian guru (he’d intentionally ripped off the cover), throughout which he’d underlined many passages, including: “We all know the fearsome emptiness lurking behind the way we live. Convictions give life the content we desire. Work becomes an indispensable drug. For its sake we accept all the depravations and disadvantages, and every illusion is welcome.”

The causality behind the current Western attraction to shameless speech is probably complex. Certainly capitalism with its tendency to convert all goods to the salable, democracy with its emphasis on contest and debate, and social media with the person as a brand are all involved in the mix somewhere. The fact that we do in fact live thus is no reason to believe that in the long term at least we have to and no reason that we should. But certainly, while we do live in such an eristic society, those who are committed to living otherwise will tend to find that they have excluded themselves from contributing to a debate that might be the only way to change it.


  1. You know, Lazarus, I think there's something in this: there's also the thought that an properly conservative attitude will foster a sense of humility and realism about one's own perspectives and abilities. I would also say, however, that shamelessness in speech and discourse is surely as common on the political right as on the left!

    1. Completely agree about the political right's tendencies here. Indeed, the alt-right seems particularly to enjoy shamelessness. I suspect that many more traditional conservatives go along with such shenanigans (as they did with fascism in the 30s) because of a sense that such extreme measures are the only way to preserve underlying conservative values. I think they are wrong and that a cultivation of personal virtue is much more important, whether or not it is politically effective. But TBH I'm offering a diagnosis here rather than a treatment.