Monday 8 September 2014

Emotions and politics: full of yourself and empty of self

                                  I thought rather more fun than a headless chicken...

Of public matters, the two things that are probably most on my mind at the moment (judging from my recent blogging anyway) are Islam and the Referendum. In both cases, emotions run high and commentary thick and fast. In both cases, one is frequently struck by the omniscience of those proffering a judgment: interior design one day; Scottish independence the next; how to sort out the Middle East in a couple of days thereafter. What next? Cold fusion?

This blog certainly doesn't escape such a temptation to proclaim expertise it lacks. But in  my better moments, I try to confine myself to areas where I might claim some limited expertise, or to subjects where, willy nilly, 'everyman' has got to have some response. An example of the latter is, for example, the Independence referendum where, despite a lack of the full range of expertise required, I am going to have to make a decision on how to vote. (And where, as a result, my deliberative thrashings might have some wider (helpful) echo.)

But behind all this is a general difference of approaching the world. A Catholic, and anyone who inhabits a rich traditional culture, lives in a space that is much wider than the individual. Even in areas where I can claim an expertise, that expertise is dwarfed by what is still out there: the characteristic attitude of an individual here is to wait and listen and be patient (ie to 'suffer' the external reality to fill you up). On the other hand, the 'moderns' have a self which is full and spills over into the world: the characteristic attitude is one of a world which waits to be filled with the organizing endeavour of human beings (and indeed, most often, by me and my emotions).

Now, certainly, much more detail and complexity behind that very binary opposition. But that contrast does serve to illuminate a lot of what does go wrong in public discussion. Taking those two areas I mentioned, for example, the reality is that no one knows precisely the effects of Independence: we may, with care (con muchas pinzas) try to pick out the salient points, or, to alter the metaphor, like an archaeologist, brush off the surrounding earth to reveal the object, but that attempt, by the 18 September is going to remain incomplete. To some extent, we await God's final verdict (or, the Tao's, if you prefer). In the case of Islam, to take a very specific case, we shouldn't be surprised that Muslims struggle to express how they reconcile Islamic teaching with modern challenges: that sense of the current incompleteness and inadequacy of the individual in the face of a reality much greater than him is an essential feature of most complex traditional cultures.

For the moderns, on the other hand, the only thing that matters is internal coherence and force: so long as you've worked out how you feel, the main task is to get that feeling out into the public (and, if you're a bit Nietzschean as well) to get others agreeing with your thumping, emotion laden, view of the matter.

Certainly, it's difficult to imagine day to day politics without something of the tone of the Serengeti: big beasts roaming around, roaring at everything that's made of meat (ie voters). But even if that is unavoidable to some extent (and probably it's not to anywhere near the extent that it's currently practised), when we go home to close the door, we need to admit in the privacy of our own rooms if nowhere else, that we are waiting for reality rather than that reality is waiting for us.


  1. Well, yes: it's wise for us to approach the Referendum with a certain amount of self-awareness and humility. The truth is that voting either way on the national question requires a certain leap of faith: how can anybody really know what the outcome of a yes or no vote would actually be? Such knowledge belongs to God alone. Scotland (and indeed the committed Catholics and other Christians of Scotland) will face uncertainty, instability and challenges whatever happens, whether we remain a part of the UK or not.