And everyone, it seems, is off on holiday there – meaning trouble for our institutions
There has for some time now been hot debate over changes occurring in the Earth’s polar regions. Some say it’s likely that human activity has added to substantial Arctic warming over the last 50 years, others say understanding the current reduction of Arctic sea ice requires regional variations and processes be considered. If you were a martian visiting Earth observing this actually quite mild back and forth, you might ask: where is the heat in the debate coming from? A lot of it is coming from huge changes occurring in a different set of polar regions: the polar regions of culture and politics.
Where you stand on the Earth’s poles depends on which pole you occupy politically. Proclaim yourself as leftish? You’ll see human fingerprints all over the melting ice and have no time for fossil-fuel-funded denialist claptrap from the stuffed sock-puppet mouths of corporate shills and other assorted greedy, lying bastards. Have at least some sympathy with the idea of free-markets and industrial growth (identified now, for good or ill, as an exclusively right-wing position)? You’ll stress the variability of natural climate and may well view your opponents as grant-scrounging leeches inventing bogey-men to keep themselves doing alright, thank you very much.
It’s a mutual squeamishness that replicates across many issues. Take free speech: identify as leftish and you’ll see ‘absolute free-speech’ as a problematic obstacle to social justice – a trojan horse for privileged, hegemonic, bigoted speech-assaults from rape-apologising, islamophobic, transgender-denying shitlords. Identify as, um, let’s just say the opposite of leftish and you’ll see the use of the qualifier ‘absolute’ before ‘free-speech’ as nonsensical. Free-speech is already an absolute. ‘Progressives’ who claim that ‘je suis Charlie’ applies only so far because Charlie can sometimes be racist miss the key fact that free speech is for racists too. Blue-haired, trans-gendered, personal-pronoun sensitive social justice warriors are dressing free-speech in clothes it just doesn’t want to to get into and, as such, are screaming, lunatic, concept-abusers.
Or consumption: leftish, and the food and drink mass-produced by big corporates grooms people’s animal hungers for high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar high-ABV stuff to maximise uncaring and unethical profit; rightish and you’ll view that argument as the bottomwash of puritans and dullards who wouldn’t know a good time if it was synthesised in the lab into a physical strand of DNA and spliced directly into their genome by good-looking doctors who need to follow up the splicing with a lot of business in their fun regions.
Welfare? Supports a weirdly entitled victim-class happy to moan and suck on the teat of the state. Seriously? I mean, I can’t even… WELFARE CUTS ARE FASCIST ATTACKS ON THE MOST VULNERABLE BY COLD-HEARTED, DIAGNOSABLE PYSCHOPATHS.
Notice a pattern? Whatever the issue, the other side isn’t just mistaken, it’s loathsome, stupid, dangerous, lunatic, vile, scum-like and the opposite of me.
How has this cultural and political polarisation come about? How has it become so personal? The origins lie in the emergence of the idea, back in the 1950s, that politics should start addressing the concerns of identifiable cultural groups. Reeling from the racist and nuclear horrors of the Second World War, the world was being conceived as not after all on a steady, rational course to a better future but in reality a hostile place full of risk and the unintended consequences of ideological hubris and certainty. Modernity, the idea of perfectibility, leads to the gas chambers. Vulnerability, then, was becoming a dominant political framework: a sense that the ground beneath our feet (and even the air above the ground beneath our feet) could be treacherous. Scientific and material progress had made the bomb, and now it was ruining the environment too; gender was a construct that constricts women’s lives and re-inforces the patriarchal structures that give rise to brutal, war-starting ideologies. It was no wonder that by the late 70s, with the postmodern condition flinging itself everywhere to see if it would stick, individuals had grown an inch-thick protective carapace of new-age sloganeering and self-actualising mantras heralding a new ‘culture of narcissism’.
While the seeds of the culture wars were sown in academic circles through the 60s and 70s, arguably it was only in 1989, when a near-global roar for market-based liberal democracy rang out that the cultural polarisation we recognise today really took off. When even nasty right-wingers like Roger Scruton were being honoured for their part in revolutionary liberation (President Václav Havel awarded him the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit) then, for the left, the whole world was upside-down and planning culture instead of planning the economy was the last redoubt. The move was to moralise politics: being explicitly concerned about marginalisation and abuse (of identity-groups and eco-systems) has a moral potency, a glamour not quite present in discussions about wage-control, or working conditions, which only drably and implicitly concern themselves with welfare. Those observing that indicators were showing rising standards of living, rising environmental standards, decreasing racism, increasing opportunity and remuneration for women etc. were at best victims of complacency and at worst evil. So they began to react with equal but opposite moral outrage: after all, being called evil is not nice. And so the ride to the poles bumpily accelerated.
I say bumpily because as late as the early 2000s, after fifty-odd years of these trends gathering pace, it was still possible for a pole-tourist to get jolted off course. He or she could meet either a pleasant, empathetic right-winger or a coherent and persuasive left-winger because the fact was life was still being lived for the most part in the real world, where these people sometimes exist.
But then came social – or anti-social – media, which is sort of where we find ourselves today.
If, in our analogy, people were first hitchhiking, then cycling, then taking a bumpy bus ride to the poles as the decades progressed, with social media there was now a high-speed railway station directly outside your front door, trains ready to go the split second you needed them. The result now is a kind of virtual-reality politics (a virtuel-reality, since the primary concern is to appear virtuous) hermetically sealed from the real world of political negotiation. On the one hand virtue-signalling, without having to do anything much to maintain your status as virtuous because, well, that’s not where the action is; on the other, a permanent paroxysm of loathing for the emptiness of the online virtue-signaller.
Well, so what? We’re all having a good time aren’t we, flinging mud at each other from our corners? Actually, it seems to me we’re pretty miserable and angry most of the time. And this is because we know, on both sides, that polar life is damaging not just people on the opposite side but on our own side too.
Polarisation is wreaking institutional havoc
Institutions derive their value from being above the squabbling that can occur between people in the grip of their passions. They are a way for human beings to escape the pushes and pulls of personal ambitions, jealousies and anxieties. They do this by aiming to be fair and, in a phrase used by Orwell, having the ‘power of facing’ i.e. the strength to face the possibility that the truth on any given matter can be found in areas you never expected it to be. The best institutions – especially scientific ones – operate, then, along the same lines as Orwell tried to, who, as Elizabeth Wasserman puts it,
…did not believe in politics as a matter of allegiance to a party or camp. What he did believe in was his own sensibility—or what he described as his “power of facing unpleasant facts.”
However, as polarisation has seeped into every crevice of our lives, its pull on the individuals within institutions corrodes these aims. Institutions now routinely favour people with a certain political leaning, and have become hostile environments for those deemed to be sceptical of these leanings.
Polarisation is leading to (a) less and (b) bad art…
(a) Less art
Why make art which reaches out to wider humanity who recognise and value the effort, work and time you’ve put into making it when you can form a tweet, write an angry blog post and get an instant pat on the back from your pole-itburo (or even, if you’re lucky, make a Patreon-funded career out of it)? It’s just easier. Once, the dispossessed, the marginalised and the righteously angry would take to writing music or books to get their voice heard, and widen empathy and generosity as a happy by-product. Writing a book or composing a piece of music was an invitation for readers and listeners to widen their experience. Now, those who might’ve gone on to books and music get stuck in a tantrum world of tweeting angrily and don’t invite you to anything. If anything, they’re more likely to tell you to fuck off sooner or later.
(b) Bad art
What supposed art is made is increasingly instrumental. It is made for a purpose. To serve the cause. Echoing Oscar Wilde’s definition of art as something useless (having no use because it exists just to be true and beautiful), Brian Eno recently observed that art is stuff we don’t have to do. We need to eat, but we don’t have to make a baked alaska. We need to move, but we don’t have to dance. When we don’t have to do something, but do it anyway, there’s a creative impulse at work. Tragically, polarisation stamps all over this impulse. Suddenly, you have to write this play highlighting this particular concern because if you don’t the world will end; you have to write this poem because you were invited by an environmental charity to take a trip to the north pole and they believe poetry is one way to get the message out beyond the usual channels. That is, you’re no longer doing something you don’t have to do. You are doing something you absolutely must do. Is that art? No. It’s something beginning with P and ending with ‘ropaganda’. Write that down.
…And to the rise of mediocrity
With social justice- and eco-warriors becoming ridiculous, the vanilla figures who oppose them are elevated beyond their worth. So, every time you see Leonardo DiCaprio preaching for people to live more ecologically responsible lives from the deck of his $200m, 2000 diesel-litre per day rented super-yacht, or you see a story like the recent one in Massachusetts where a woman who decided to identify as a man was kept out of running to become class diversity officer because she/he was now a patriarchal white male
(is everything alright? No, it’s just, you seemed to be choking on something)
it inflates the notion of Katie Hopkins in the UK or Ann Coulter in America as bold and interesting iconoclasts just for pointing out the obvious madness and hypocrisy. But in a sane world Katie Hopkins’s 15 minutes of fame would have been up years ago. Who knows, Katie might have extraordinary talents, but why does she need to dig them up? Nothing and no-one is encouraging her to. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Or do we want a world where sane and capable people are incentivised to develop their talents and insight into doing or making something remarkable?
Imagine if Billy Connolly had grown up in our no-effort-required world. There’s a chance he too might’ve ended up on chat shows saying mildly incendiary things about the crassness of other people and British culture would now be incalculably emptier, bereft of 40 years of life-affirming comedy generously encouraging us to get over ourselves because the whole sodding thing is absurd.
A fine and insightful essay. Tom Wolfe wrote his take on this as well:
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In today’s world of social media and information overload, it is of course those at the most extreme poles who get the most media attention. Clarkson is famous because he deliberately says things he knows some people will find offensive. Similarly, if climate scientist A says the world might warm 2 degrees, B says 4 degrees and C says 6 degrees, no prizes for guessing who gets their name in the newspapers.
I love the picture, but don’t recognise many of the faces. On the “left” (ha ha) I can spot Jeremy and Katie. On the right, is that Vivienne, and Al?
Yep, Viv Westwood, Gore, Martin McKee in the bottom right (a public health authoritarian), behind him Charlotte Church, and the two most prominent women at the top right are Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, about whom more in part 2…
What superb prose! I’m jealous.
And so accurate as well.
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I can see what you’re getting at but I think you’ve missed the obvious.
People have always been polarised but this is the first time in history we can all voice our opinons and be heard… sort of. We’re also a mix of both left wing (we want everyone to be looked after) and right wing (we don’t want to pay for all the stinking plebs beneath us). As yet we haven’t worked out exactly what we do want and how much we want to pay for it but we are now at least allowed an opinion. In many ways the polarity is relatively mild. Head eastward or into the past and the polarity will get you your head to play with, literally.
What is left vs right other than church vs commerce? If either gets too dominant we suffer. Our very superiority as a species is due to our ability to swap from communal effort to individual effort and back again. It doesn’t mean we get the balance right.
Personally I think we’re closest to the balance than we’ve ever been before. Much of what you list, although hotly argued are really the concerns of people who are broadly satisfied and lacking in serious worries.
Bad art is the result of a lack of real hardship. Too many would be artists are failing to learn their craft properly and have swapped skill for pretension. A whole world has built up around a lack of skill. That doesn’t mean good art is not being produced. Go to affordable art fairs and you’ll find quality pieces being bought by real people. New art forms are developing – much though I hate the BBC some of their footage is pure art.
Good stuff happens through adversity. Climate science went sour because it had no opposition.
I agree that heading east can introduce you to the polarity of either having a head on your shoulders or not. That is a black and white issue. And I also agree that the real polarity in the west is very mild. But the pantomime polarity is what I’m concerned with. The name-calling. The casting aspersions of evilness. I’m objecting to the pantomime quality of left v right. I think that’s happened because the left was slapped in the face in 1989, and it’s struggled to articulate what the hell it was all about since. I personally think the left will always be on the side of the angels because it conceives of people as not the ideal, super-confident robots that libertarians base their assumptions on. But the left’s failure to concede that the right also has claims to advancing comfort and prosperity is also an issue.
Perhaps this is why authoritarian v libertarian is now the battle of the day. Dunno. What do you reckon?
A well-written and insightful essay. Thank you for this.
A French geopolitical analyst some years ago suggested that different regions of the world display different thinking and behavior based on differing prevalent underlying moods. To oversimplify, she thought the West is dominated by fear, the East by hope, and the Middle-east by humiliation. To the degree that Western societies fear losing the power and privileges they have enjoyed, their media become full of doomsday notions. And to the degree that artists give expression to future expectations, that darkness and pessimism comes through.
“Perhaps this is why authoritarian v libertarian is now the battle of the day. Dunno. What do you reckon?”
Ian – Libertarians are always seen as right wing, perhaps because few libertarian see the involvement of the state as a positive development. Does the state ever spend your money as prudently as you would yourself?
During the period of changes you identify since WW2, western countries have become more and more statist no matter whether right or left have been in power. Back in the 70’s a citizen gave up about 35% of their income to the state, it is now around 52% (the biggest acceleration being 1997 – 2010) and now to suggest that a cut to 49% is needed to help balance the books brings about ranting accusations of the type you mention. Pure tribal rubbish. Many of the left know cuts in spending are needed, but few are brave enough say so.
I see myself as libertarian but I am often accused of being a lefty on some things and right-wing on others. I am in the middle and I see that as healthy. I think for myself and your good argument can change my mind. I was brought up to help good people less able to make their way. I struggle to do it as well as mother who never had much money, but I try. Many middle-class (for want of a better term) lefties today see their socialism as an absolute position. Deviation or nuance of thought is not allowed. It is the same in the Green movement. If you are left or Green you are expected to disconnect your brain and believe anything you are told to think – or else. The right are more tolerant of free thought generally – perhaps that is why they get the loonies. You see it in western universities – as they say “what is the opposite of diversity??” answer – university. The lack of tolerance and free speech in academia is appalling. Now there is a change from 50 years ago Ian.
Final thought – I smiled when I saw your virtue-signalling picture with the Nye Bevan plaque. Lefties today think they are Nye’s children. I disagree. I think they should read his speeches from 60 to 70 years ago. Oh! yes he hated the right and the rich but he quite clearly warns about how the welfare state could lead to a dependency culture. He clearly saw the risk of the massive moral hazard we have today. Like most working-class folk he was quite conservative (small “c”). He wanted fairness for the working people and a safety net to provide for hard times, not handouts of other peoples’ money. IMHO if he came back today he would be appalled how it turned out.
David, sorry for the delay in approving your comment. University is the opposite of diversity – I like that, I’ll be using that again, probably. Regarding Nye Bevan, that’s really interesting. I didn’t know that. I respect him even more now.
I think a few of us on here would agree with you about being pulled left on some things and also being libertarian in other areas. Like you say, it’s tribalism that’s the problem, really.
This article is so full of telling details, lovingly described, that it seems a shame to criticise, but I will anyway, because it’s what I do best.
Certainly the new media have multiplied the expression of social polarisation by several magnitudes. But is the polarisation itself really greater now than previously?
I once saw a photo (circa 1920) of a group of sullen looking Morris dancers (Liberal voters to a man) standing beside a Tory election van which they’d just upturned into ditch. That could never happen nowadays, not in Nick Clegg’s wildest dreams.
One difference is that the polarisation, whether or not it’s more extreme, is certainly more fragmented. Once it was rich v poor, left v right. But to be heard in a media environment where the main criterion for success is being able to land a punch on the other side, artists have to get more and more picky in choosing what they define as “the other side”. Hence the trials of the poor white male trans you mention.
You mention WWF-sponsored polar poetry, but link to an article by Ian McEwan (one of about six he wrote on the subject) about boots. You can see the poet in question (probably on the same trip that McEwan went on) spouting his poem at
‘We’re also a mix of both left wing (we want everyone to be looked after) and right wing (we don’t want to pay for all the stinking plebs beneath us).’
TinyCO2, the satire in your sentence reproduced above, deserves a complementary version:
‘We’re also a mix of both left wing (we detest the world we live in and want to see it radically transformed, and soon, by the State) and right wing (we enjoy the world we live in, and want to see it continue to improve through a great variety of enterprises and initiatives).’
The so-called extreme right-wing, such as the German nazis and Italian fascists of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe were actually led and inspired by socialists, and so I tend to lump them actually as extreme leftists, along with Soviet and Mao style communisms: they all wanted to radically transform the worlds they lived in using the State. So for me, when those on the screechy-left shout ‘fascist’ at the drop of a hat, I think they are blind to where their own views, not to mention their intolerant behaviours, could be leading them.
As this most stimulating post makes clear, there are crude bi-polar positions to be found on many issues, and that coarsens and degrades much discourse these days. In the States, there seems to be considerable effort by some to stop discourse altogether wherever and whenever it might upset the feelings of listeners. The ‘stoppers’ who have this exquisite sensitivity seem to be ‘on the left’. Anyone know of any exceptions? Have climate variation topics been included yet? For example, would one need to issue a trigger-warning over there, on some campuses, before showing a chart of satellite temperatures over the last 20 years or so?
Geoff, do you think it was all so personal, and people were so brittle in the past, though? Maybe I am exaggerating a bit – I might be a victim of spending too much time online myself. There we are – I’m a victim too. Where’s my patreon account?
(Thanks for adding a more appropriate link – my favourite line in his poem is ‘There’s no official sponsorship by an international energy company’. That. Is beautiful.)
I agree it wasn’t so personal or brittle in the past. Is that because of the new media? Or have the new media developed in the way they have because of something else?
You mention a ‘culture of narcissism’ – the title of a book written by Christopher Lasch in the 90s, long before blogging and tweeting. Lasch was a marxist who criticised the Left and was lionised by a part of the Right, much like George Orwell. The traits he identified in US society in the nineties are certainly present in the social media.
A marxist analysis would start with the relations between the social classes and work upwards to the cultural superstructure, then back down again. That’s something I’ve done in the past in a halfhearted way and may attempt again.
Culture of Narcissism was even further back than the 90s! 1979. Some of his observations read like comments on our online virtue-signalling now, it’s uncanny.
With that total nonsense as the basis of your discussion, any truths you might accidentally stumble upon in the rest of the article are worthless. The polarization you want to talk about is a strawman of your own creation.
Good art is, and always has been, good because it is a non-rational observation of the world. It is what is left when a rational mind is left out of the picture – leaving a blank space for recorded responses we recognise as having equal, if not greater, value than an exclusively rational one. That is not to say good art is irrational… it only posits (and often concerns itself with) transcending the limitations of a rational-centred mind and the psychic pain of being trapped in, and by, a refusal to do so.
Blank spaces, of course, are not something we would immediately associate with the cacophony or rage filling the social media. We might notice though – at least in terms of the ‘climate change’ craze – that the pure rationalism of science is being urgently insisted upon as the only authoritative descriptor and saviour of the world. In its absence, there is not art – only death (along with its associated terrors).
If we can borrow again from Mr Wilde, we might describe the maddening circularity of the modern rational mind as ‘knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing’. Better still is G.K. Chesterton’s observation that ‘A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason’.
How do you mean?
I’m glad you’ve found us. I’ve always found your interventions at Climate Resistance extremely stimulating, though, like Ian, I must admit they are not always very clear. On the other hand, I’ve often found that trying to understand them by rephrasing them in my own words is a rewarding experience.
There’s always a psycho-analytic tinge to your comments. In this one there seems to be a trace of Schopenhauer’s theory of the origins of artistic creativity. Your position that science is not “the only authoritative descriptor and saviour of the world” is something that the many rational science qualified people who support climate scepticism would do well to take seriously.
I’m not arguing for any kind of mysticism here. Once upon a time your position would have been quite uncontroversial. From the Enlightenment to the mid-twentieth century our culture was based on the three pillars of science, art and religion. (The last one was optional, but, given its importance in society, its rejection necessarily involved the adoption of an alternative philosophy.)
What have we got nowadays? Science, still. (It’s so useful for making stuff, even if its practitioners do tend to annoy us with their edicts on what we shouldn’t eat and how much carbon we should emit.) But art has become entertainment and religion is replaced by fuzzy feelings of spirituality (Zen buddhism anyone? One haiku or two?) It’s difficult to imagine any modern scientist (or any other intellectual, for that matter) reading the whole of Shakespeare or Aeschylus every year and seeing it as an essential part of his life.
Excuse me for asking, but are you German-speaking? It would explain the complexity of some of your phrasing, and also your cultural references.
PeterS, Geoff – whoops! My reply was made on the phone, and it was to the previous comment by Raff. For some reason it’s appeared unders PeterS’s comment. So, Raff – how do you mean? Can you explain further?
I second Geoff’s welcome to Peter, and have also found your comments at Climate Resistance extremely interesting and off the beaten track in a good way. Carry on!
I’m suggesting that setting aside a felt urgency to rationalise one’s environment leaves an internal space in which other capabilities for perceiving may make a play for different – more fulfilling and rounded – subjective experiences. And the value felt in this experience may, in part, be its spontaneous affirmative feedback contextualising rationality as an important, but by no means exclusive, means by which the world can be understood and interacted with.
If we, as humans, have a need to believe in something (as much as we have a need for something to eat) then in getting rid of its objects – because both they and the need make no sense at all to a mind tyrannised by reason – we may leave ourselves psychologically starved as a result. If so, attempting to sate this ravenous chasm with more and more anaemic (and increasingly purified/puritanical) rationality becomes like the escalating, maddening cycle of drinking down seawater to cure one’s own thirst.
The craze for manmade climate change brings with it the incessant accusation that the sceptical are ‘ignoring the science!’. But for those with better things to do, such as observing (or making) the art or quietly (or loudly) believing in the God, ignoring the science – or setting aside a rigid rational perspective – is, of course, a prerequisite if they are to have any meaningful return on the effort involved in their pursuits. Perhaps it is only those for whom science has usurped and crushed any other capacity for experience or expression, that ‘ignoring it’ carries (despite itself) the terrifying belief that the world it describes will end – just like a self-tormenting belief that if one’s heartbeat is ignored will stop. Rationality – the ultimate, petrifying narcissism.
(Thanks to you and Ian for your encouragement.)
Ian, the first paragraph of my comment was a quote from your piece. I used ‘blockquote’ but it is is not obvious from the presentation that I was quoting your text. Maybe I misspelled blockquote. I suppose I should have added quotes… So here it is again:
You suggest that having “at least some sympathy” with those ideas is “an exclusively right-wing position”. By that reckoning economists like Keynes or Krugman today, the bogey man of the right, would be right-wing, unless you have some evidence that they had/have no sympathy with free-markets and industrial growth.
Paul Krugman: Markets can be very very wrong.
Paul Krugman: the cult of efficient markets led to a belief that nothing could go wrong, ever.
Raff, I didn’t suggest that. I suggested that people are polarising politics, and one effect is that ‘having at least some sympathy with free markets and industrial growth’ will nowadays get you labelled, in these polarising times, as an evil rightwinger. That’s the whole point of the essay. People flinging mud at each other and failing to understand you’re not necessarily evil if you don’t subscribe to a pantomime version of ‘left-wing’.
So do you think non-skeptics like me or Krugman have no sympathy for free markets (as opposed to some sympathy you claim for skeptics)? That would be an amazing claim requiring strong proof.
No, I don’t. I’m talking about more high profile actors in the debate like Naomi Klein.