SHORT AND SWEET – 12

Authority.

I have a love/hate relationship with this word. Instinctively I dislike it intensely. I misbehaved at school. Rather a lot. I couldn’t stand being told what to do. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I lived in my own world and authority figures cramped my style.

And yet, the collapse of authority in our society has been a catastrophe. Along with the loss of authority is the loss of deference. Everyone is open to abuse. Even the queen of England is taunted at times. It’s soul-destroying.

We so love democracy that we erroneously believe that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It isn’t. We may all have opinions but we should respect those who simply know more than we do. Sorry if you thought that simply having an opinion was sufficient to challenge the truly wise in our world.

So I resist authority while simultaneously acknowledging how important it is. It is good to submit to and learn from wise teachers. It is right that we see our own deficiencies, our own ignorance, so that we can grow. Authority figures help us do this.

And of course, most important of all, each day I bow before the Ultimate Authority Figure. I willingly and without resistance, seek to follow the only authority figure who completely warrants my worship and devotion.

Just need to control that ‘naughty boy’ inside, who doesn’t want to do what he’s told!

Have a great day.

SHORT AND SWEET – 7

“A statue of founding father and writer of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson is sparking debate at the University of Missouri, with some students demanding that the statue be removed over Jefferson’s “offensive” history as a slave owner.” Online article. 

A similar thing took place with regard to a statue of Cecil B. Rhodes, the Victorian adventurer.

Yesterday, I wrote about Progress. Some refer to it, I suppose, as political correctness. Were figures from the past sexist and racist? No question. There’s just no way of getting around that. But the urge to remove commemorations of historical figures because you don’t approve of their values, I’m not so sure. As with all things progressive, where do you draw the line and on what grounds? For fear of offending people, we will end up living in a world with nothing but white-washed walls. A kind of modern Puritanism.

A while back, Bomber Harris’ statue was criticized because he was responsible for destroying Dresden during WW2. Should he be removed? I think not. Morality in times of war is notoriously difficult to assess.

As for Jefferson, his case is much clearer. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he is one of the greatest Americans in history, whose life has affected millions. Worthy of honour, I think.

Feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

SHORT AND SWEET – 4

No clearer example of morality being based on heart and not head is the issue of abortion. But let me start with some short observations on language.

Pro-choice. If you’re into marketing, this is possibly the best example of clever marketing you’re ever likely to find. It is quite brilliant. Why?

First, because words matter. They really do. Words create pictures, worlds; they build up, destroy, they exert immense power. Christians know this better than anyone. After all, we follow a man called The Word, whom we believe created the universe.

Pro-choice. Genius. The subject is abortion and you’ve framed it as choice. It isn’t actually about choice, but you’ve sold us the lie that it’s about choice. Nice work. Who could possibly be against ‘a women’s right to choose?’ Oh, there’s another tasty word, ‘right.’ Or maybe ‘a woman’s freedom to choose.’ Even more powerful. Freedom and Choice. Words don’t come more powerful than those two.

So, before we even get started, those who oppose abortion are up against it. We’re up against the power of language, and the other side is using the big guns.

Want to know why our culture approves of abortion?

Start with language.

SHORT AND SWEET – 2

What drives your moral judgements? Yesterday I suggested heart and not head. Here’s an example to get you started. It’s a story about ‘gendering’ in Manchester. Yes, it’s about toilets. My apologies.

Gendering? Where did this word come from? And it’s transitive. Oh my gosh, it’s actually transitive! You are gendering me! How dare you? There are few things more emotive than the charge ‘don’t gender me!’ Even with this horrible use of language. Forget reason, this is all emotion.

But it’s really postmodernism gone completely mad. There is no longer male and female. We are what we choose to be and apparently, it’s fluid. You want to cause massive confusion in a young person’s life, tell him/her that genitalia are no indicator of gender. Really. You can make it up as you go along.

I’m thinking three Scriptures, just for some enlightenment.

Male and female he created them. Gen. 1

For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God. Gen 3

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. Judges 21 

I hope you don’t think I’m ‘imposing my religion on you.’

That hot chestnut I’ll address tomorrow.

SHORT AND SWEET

Short and sweet. A post every day of the working week.

200 words or less. A minute of your time. Enjoy.

So, why is it that if you mention Hitler, you always lose the argument? It’s true isn’t it? And it happened last week. Boris – gotta love a great entertainer.

He was vilified immediately. Why? Because Hitler is a non-starter in an argument. Why? It’s because in our culture we respond primarily with our emotions and not our judgement. We’re all heart and no head. Second, we’re really into ‘being offended.’ Hitler ticks both boxes. I’m offended by your suggestion that there is any similarity between the Bad Guy and me or my position. Second, my emotional response trumps whatever argument you were making.

Did Boris have a point? Who cares? We’re all so offended, it’s got lost.

So, when you’re tempted to mention Hitler, remember Basil Fawlty. ‘Don’t mention the war. I did once but I think I got away with it.’ He may have, but you won’t. Your argument will be lost.

 

Free . . . but don’t hurt others

It has various names and tag lines. Live and let live. That’s probably the most popular slogan. It’s also called libertarian freedom. I’m referring to Western culture’s prevailing philosophy, the one which governs and underpins Western democracy and most of our political engagement.

Do what you want, but don’t hurt others.

There it is. In all its glory. It dominates the thinking of the vast majority of social commentators, those who write Leaders in our major newspapers, those who represent the arts and culture. In the past, in a nominally Christian country, we affirmed the value of a particular religion: Christianity. No longer. Now we’re multi-cultural; we’re tolerant. We endorse no one philosophy, with the exception . . ahem . . . of evolutionary biology (yes, it is a philosophy), which we embrace with a faith-like grip. More on that another time.

But back to libertarian freedom.

First, the positive. When you think about it, it sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Freedom to make my own moral choices – I like that. Don’t hurt others – hard to see a problem there. Superficially, there is much to commend this philosophy. Indeed, it provides Christians in the West with the liberty to share the gospel, meet together regularly, heal on the street, if we so choose. Without it, great suffering ensues. Three cheers for libertarian freedom!

So, yes, freedom – which includes both free speech and free association – are goods which should be recognized. And the ‘don’t hurt people’ is simply a no-brainer.

Actually, hold your horses just for a moment. ‘Not hurting people’ sounds good but when you think about it, life just isn’t that simple. The fact is that avoiding hurting people, which seems like a noble goal, also turns out to be unattainable. Not only that, it’s undesirable. In disciplining my children, I certainly do wish them to suffer, to the extent that they must learn the consequences of their poor choices. And I’m fine with criminals paying for their crimes in prison. In addition, I hurt people every time I drive my car. To a limited extent.

Pain, it turns out, isn’t a universal bad to be avoided at all costs; there are nuances to its application.

But there is a deeper problem.

When you look more closely, the philosophy is so empty, it’s almost hardly there at all. Just saying, ‘I want to be free to live as I choose’ is a morally vacuous thing to state. It acknowledges no familial or societal obligations whatsoever. It is, then, entirely focused on the individual with no recognition of communal responsibilities. It might work for a single-handed sailor, but it doesn’t say enough to help us live together and build a better world. We need a lot more than this.

Second, libertarian freedom, I think, is a fig leaf to cover up a form of nihilism which I hear often on the BBC. You see, we’re world class at using our freedom to run people down, at stating what we don’t like and don’t approve of, but we’re wimps when it comes to saying what we actually believe in. In fact, sometimes it seems as though we live by this philosophy: The one thing we believe in and hold to is the belief that there’s nothing to believe in. This is the result of self-confident atheism, which has begun to stretch its wings in our culture. Just listen to 6.30pm comedy on Radio Four, especially the Now Show, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me return to the emptiness of live and let live. Just stating ‘I’m free’ is like a sign outside your house stating, ‘Keep Out!’ It doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on in the house at all. And therefore, it’s not a philosophy which is fit for purpose in promoting actual values; values, I might add which are essential to the building of healthy families and local communities.

You like serving the poor? Why? Inside your little libertarian vacuum, the only available answer is ‘because I choose to do it.’ Any more and now you’re venturing further than ‘live and let live.’ The moment you say, ‘because I believe it’s a moral duty’ or ‘because my religion teaches that it’s a good and right thing to do’ you’re no longer basing your behaviour on libertarian freedom. Now you’re building real foundations.

The bubble of freedom may give you the oxygen to serve the poor, but it will never ground and justify the behaviour itself. For that, you need more. A lot more.

In the past, religion informed public policy. It provided real, firm, gritty, justification for how to behave individually and communally. No longer. But don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of Victorian heavy-handed state-religion-imposed morality. Not at all. I like freedom of religion. But Freedom – Capital F – by itself isn’t up to the job of telling us how to live. It’s too flimsy.

But don’t we have Natural Law?

So you want to base a whole-life philosophy on Natural Law? Be my guest. Well done, John Locke. Your problem is that our current account of human origins is constantly undermining the project. Why should a society affirm particular values merely because we’ve ‘evolved’ in a particular way. No, I’m afraid Natural Law – as currently proposed – doesn’t do the job.

In my opinion, without God, you’re just flapping about in the air. Yes, you’re free up there to do whatever you want, but you can’t tell me why I should care for others, value life, give to charity, etc. When you do, you’re just trumpeting your own subjectivity. And simply because you happen to ride the current zeitgeist – that, I’m afraid, does not amount to rational justification.

In the end, I’m with Dostoevsky, who wrote, Without God, everything is permitted. You want to know the number one objection that Muslims have to Western culture? (not foreign policy – that’s different) Its permissiveness. On the back of Freedom, we have imported pornography, the sex trade and ever increasing levels of nudity. Be free but don’t hurt others. Who says people aren’t getting hurt? But I’m straying from my subject.

To continue . . .

To build a society, you need foundations. And foundations, to hold up an entire society, well, they need to be immensely strong. They need to be solid.

Christianity may have been misused and misrepresented over the ages, but at its heart, it has always recognized and championed moral virtues. Not to mention promoting compassion for the poor. Under broadly ‘Christian values,’ at least when people misbehaved, they knew they were misbehaving and that makes a huge difference. A sinner who doesn’t call himself a sinner is a scary thing. And we’re pretty close to that now.

So I affirm that Christian belief is substantial and solid.

Faith, hope and love are not empty values, they’re meaty. They provide a positive, ‘planted flag’ way to live. Freedom, for all its virtues (and yes, there are many without which we are doomed), well, it can never tell humanity how to live well.

You’ve got to believe in something solid for that.

And there’s no one with greater solidity than the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person who is of sufficient stature to guide my behaviour and inform my moral choices. To quote C.S. Lewis, he may not be safe, but he is good and that’s enough for me.

© Richard Collins 2015

Charlie, ce n’est pas moi!

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

~~

After the carnage of last week, Charlie Hebdo decided to print a cartoon of Mohammed after all. Hmm.

In the media, there are big stories and HUGE stories. This one is HUGE. Why? Re-wind back to 9/11, 2001. Headlines everywhere like this: Attack on America! America under attack! Same thing this time, but with a twist: Freedom Attacked. Attack on Freedom!

What makes this HUGE? These men attacked not simply people, they attacked the most cherished value in Western society: FREEDOM. Free speech is sufficiently valued that when it is threatened, we in the West circle the wagons. To mix my metaphors, this is a hill we are most definitely prepared to die on. Do not question it, do not threaten it – we will take you on. See our pens? We will fight because as everyone knows, the pen is mightier than the sword . . . or Kalashnikov.

But what about some perspective, to quote Anton Ego from Ratatouille. Where does the obsessive need to keep drawing Mohammed come from? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to both affirm the principle of free speech; abhor the horrific violence of last week while also questioning the decisions of the editors of Charlie Hebdo. Surely satirists should invite debate and examination. That is the foundation on which they build their case for satire.

So, first a look at free speech as a principle. My first point is this: Freedom is defined by its limits. Freedom without limits isn’t freedom at all, it’s anarchy. No one possesses absolute freedom, since we’re finite human beings. In society, freedoms are limited by respect for others and their wishes. My freedom to play loud music at 3am is limited by my neighbour’s freedom to get a good night’s sleep.

So how do we set about defining those limits in a ‘tolerant’ society? (I’m using ‘tolerant’ here with its proper meaning – literally ‘putting up with people with whom you disagree.’) If we seek a tolerant society, then surely simply brandishing ‘free speech’ isn’t enough. After all, we already limit free speech. No racism, no sexism, for example. There are a whole bunch of things you can’t print and rightly so. Just ‘I have free speech’ isn’t a sufficiently strong argument to justify reckless or insulting behaviour.

So what’s going on in this case specifically? Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I’m bound to say that when I heard the words ‘aggressive secularism’ from a commentator’s lips this past week, I could see his point. Did the cartoonists seek to expose the ideas of Islam? Well, just one idea – that Mohammed shouldn’t be depicted. Just like in the Garden of Eden, the one thing ‘forbidden’ was the one thing they wanted to do. They had vast acreage out there to ridicule but they wanted the tree with ‘keep off’ hanging from a branch.

It’s precisely the offensiveness which attracted the cartoonists. They could have exposed all manner of beliefs within Islam itself without actually depicting the prophet, but they weren’t interested in doing that. Not really. Dare I say it, they intended to offend, protected by the principle of free speech. They would never offend black people or gays but religious people, they are apparently fair game. So why do it? Aggressive secularism or bravely exercising their free speech. You decide.

It’s worth remembering what kind of people we’re talking about when we think of those who took and continue to take offense. Let me quote from an excellent article (worth reading later here.) It’s by Bob Ekblad.

Many second generation immigrants, like Chérif Kouachi and his brother (who was orphaned and then raised in France’s foster-care system), experience tremendous alienation growing up in Western European countries as dissaffected minorities, and they find refuge in their identity as Muslims.

Ekblad gives an insightful assessment of why especially young, unemployed, alienated young European Muslims are so upset by the cartoons. And while not all Muslims are offended, the ones who do react are extremely offended. Are they not part of society also? Where’s some tolerance – the real kind – when you need it?

Perhaps it would be advisable at this point to remind ourselves of what freedom really means. Does it mean doing whatever you want? Not in the Christian tradition. Charles Kingsley, the 19C novelist and historian said it best. He wrote, there are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.

During this era, constrained by our sinful nature, we possess a certain kind of freedom and with it, we hurt and offend. We’re ‘free’ to do this. But one day, we will live in a world in which we will experience true freedom. Now, we choose badly. Then, we will choose wisely, animated by the Spirit.

And yet . . . even now, we can choose wisely. St. Paul once wrote this about our liberty.

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. I Corinthians 10.23-24.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should applies to cartoonists as much as to Christians.

We don’t have to choose to offend people deliberately. We don’t have to belittle and ridicule. Charlie Hebdo was in the process of going bankrupt; now it’s selling millions of copies. France must decide whether its use of free speech is a wise use. It will make that decision when visiting a kiosk each day over the next few months. Is this a publication which is really worth supporting?

Satire has a long tradition, we’re told. For my part, I find satire a vehicle for extreme cynicism and of course it’s always easier to tear down than build up. Always. Jokes at other people’s expense are a dime a dozen. The courage to hold onto firmly held beliefs is much harder.

Everyone last week was horrified by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Such violence can never be justified. Ever.

But free speech in a tolerant society requires wisdom and strength. The wisdom not to publish is perhaps a greater wisdom than being swept along by calls for satirical self-expression. May free speech never come with such a price ever again. We all mourn for those who have fallen.

The wounds in France will take some time to heal. Let’s hope that Charlie Hebdo helps that process by exercising some wisdom. They might wish to consult the writings of St. Paul. Hmm.

I’m not holding my breath on that one . . .

Our vicarious warriors

Four twenty-something men sit on a couch, each one clutching a can of beer; their faces are softly lit by a pale light emanating from a TV screen. Hands periodically dive into a large bowl of potato chips, emerging with a handful which are then transferred to waiting mouths. Edible debris falls lightly down their fronts as they stare fixedly ahead. Simultaneously, all four take a sip from their tinnies. Beer rolls gently down their chins. Suddenly, they cheer uproariously, high-fiving before settling back down onto the couch.

A scantily clad woman walks in front of them across our screen. They ignore her, look through her. They don’t even twitch; their eyes are locked on the TV. Gradually, the volume increases. Commentators can be heard giving play-by-plays on the latest baseball game. Or football. Basketball. (Fill in your sport).

We’re once again reminded of the power of sports. The hold which sports have over young men. Some of you may groan while others cheer but one thing we all share. We recognize subliminally the importance of modern sports in our society. Because make no mistake, sports are critical to societal cohesion and stability. Remove them and you would push society towards a tipping point. Remove them and . . .

Oh for goodness sake, Richard, you’re so melodramatic!

Yup, guilty as charged, but do I have your attention? I hope so. Why are sports so important? Many reasons, but in this post, I will focus on just one. Here we go.

Back in 1975, the movie, Rollerball, was released. Here’s the description from IMDB:

In a futuristic society where corporations have replaced countries, the violent game of Rollerball is used to control the populace by demonstrating the futility of individuality. However, one player, Jonathan E., rises to the top, fights for his personal freedom, and threatens the corporate control.

The movie itself was . . . bleah . . . but the theme has remained with me over the decades, the same way as Animal Farm and 1984 and Lord of the Flies. These are all works of art which offer profound commentary on the human condition. Rollerball – as a movie – is average at best, but its central idea touches on a truth which I’m reminded of every time I watch modern sports.

In this futuristic society – totalitarian of course, that seems to be our greatest fear and therefore dominates ALL future societies – sport is used to control the masses. The corporations know that subjugation will cause anger and frustration and these emotions need channelling in some way. What better way than a sport which allows its viewers to express themselves vicariously through the events in the arena. (In this sport, the players are killed, so the on-field violence is of the highest order.) We’re regularly shown pictures of the Rollerball crowds shouting and screaming and battering away at the chain link fence which separates them from the arena. All that anger spews out and the masses return to their paltry lives sated and unable to challenge the status quo. That’s how totalitarian control is exercised. Through a sport called Rollerball.

Of course, it’s undone by a hero battling authority. Triumphing over oppression. The central character, Jonathan E., played by James Caan – a minimalist acting performance if ever there was one – is an outstanding Rollerball player. A cult of personality arises and well, I won’t tell you what happens at the end.

So, why interrupt your day with a reminder of a 70s movie most people have forgotten?

Because, like 1984 and Lord of the Flies, it communicates something elemental about our human condition. Human beings, especially the male of the species, are filled with hormones (testosterone above all.) These generate enormous energy; we’re energetic and we’re aggressive. Human beings, especially males, are astonishingly aggressive. By aggression, I don’t simply mean destructively aggressive and brutal, I want to include the idea that we’re filled with Drive.

On the basis of our Drive, we have risked our lives to discover new worlds, we have scaled mountains, explored the depths of the ocean, found ways of combating disease, built cities half way to heaven, we have created beauty and yes, we have almost destroyed our species and our planet. We are, if nothing else, infused with a Drive which must . . . it HAS TO find an outlet.

In ancient times, our young men went to war. They killed each other first in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands and in recent times, in their millions. Our commemoration of the start of the First World War this year (2014) reminds us of how extraordinarily aggressive, destructive and foolish our species has been in the past. We have always struggled to control our Drive.

Perhaps the most important factor in helping us do so is Freedom, represented politically as Democracy. Democracy is and always will be a civilizing force, because it channels our Drive into non-destructive behaviour. It is always preferable that our politicians shout at their opponents across the aisle than fire their weapons instead.

But sport is also critical for maintaining harmony in society.

If you don’t believe me, then you need to attend a football (pick your sport) match. I will never forget standing on the terraces (they existed back then) at Chelsea Football club in the 1980s. I have never heard such foul and disgusting language spewing out of men’s mouths for such a prolonged period of time – it went on throughout the entire match, directed especially at the opposition’s goalkeeper. To draw on a well-worn cliché (I think that might be tautological!) a sailor would have blushed.

Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that football was a magnet for violent behaviour. I think the term ‘hooligan’ was coined specifically to describe a football supporter who got into fights outside the ground. Happily, that is largely a thing of the past. Now, sport is doing its job a whole lot better. It is better patrolled.

After attending that Chelsea game, it became abundantly clear to me that a football match is simply Rollerball for our modern era. It’s an outlet for our Drive, for our anger, for our frustration, for excess testosterone, which is sloshing through young men’s veins.

So, if you’re a football fan, verbally abuse the players as much as you like. If that helps you deal with your anger, please, go ahead! If that provides you with an outlet, then that is infinitely preferable to violence. If shouting expletives at a goalie means you won’t beat your wife, then by all means, get it out at the match. Unleash your inner angry child. In the old days, we gave you a weapon and told you to run into battle for King Henry. Now, you’ve got video games, perhaps, but above all, you have Saturday afternoon. As long as sports help you keep a lid on violent behaviour, then please, go to as many games as you need.

And be thankful that your warriors are taking hits so you don’t have to.

Consider either kind of football – soccer or American. Both sports involve tackle after tackle, leading to multiple injuries, but you’re not getting injured. The players are. And so vicariously, you ‘fight’ your battles down there on the field/pitch, not out in front of the stadium. This is especially valuable for young men without a job, who hate their job, who feel that life has treated them badly and whose anger is bubbling away inside.

Thank God. I mean that. Thank God for modern sports. These modern day gladiators help hold our society together. Yes, they do.

This is just ONE benefit of modern sports. There are at least another five major benefits. Yes, five. At least.

Allow me a moment to draw on stereotypes and address my female readers . . . So, when your man switches on the football and puts his feet up, instead of rolling your eyes, give thanks. When the men in your family leave you behind to go to the game, thank God they’re picking up tickets and not swords or guns.

Thank God for modern sports. They are part of the glue which holds our fragile society together.

Now, grab your coat and go to the game!

© Richard Collins 2014