Our intellectual ore must shine
Not slumber idly in the mine.
Let education’s moral mint
The noblest images imprint;
Let taste her curious touchstone hold,
To try if standard be the gold;
But ’tis thy commerce, Conversation,
Must give it use by circulation;
That noblest commerce of mankind,
Whose precious merchandize is mind!
This is an extract from the poem ‘Conversation’, written in 1787 by Hannah More, a British poet, playwright, educator and also a notable member of the informal social and educational movement known as the Blue Stockings Society. She was influential in persuading William Wilberforce to lead the parliamentary campaign that strongly supported abolition of slavery. On the year of her death that campaign had lead to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ending it across most of the British Empire. The potent arguments that gave strength to this cause continued to bring justice long after that. Are some ideas so bright and beautiful they carry an affirming flame?
Why was conversation so important to the Blue Stockings Society we might ask. It was mostly because they understood conversation to be crucial, not just to moral and political progress, but to individual development too. There is something extraordinary about the fact that every meaningful interaction is an opportunity to connect with one another’s potential, to hear a truth we never knew or recollect a truth we’d forgotten. Conversation is a dynamic and unpredictable process, often full of emotion. It differs dramatically from the billion-dollar self-help industry that claims to provide clear and defined paths to a perfectly peaceful existence.
Everyone knows that the mind can be a chaotic and discordant theme park routinely stuck on the rumination and worry rollercoaster – these two neurotic tendencies pre-suppose time. Rumination is bound to the past while worry imagines a possible future. In contrast, conversation provides a release from this madness and takes us back to the very concrete present. When committed to good-faith conversations, supporting our opponents right to think and speak on principle, without continually ascribing motives to them, we begin to understand why the Blue Stocking Society saw this activity as a civic duty and a moral imperative, an activity that in the 18th Century was not even a right let alone a duty for women. Conversation is a reliable way to realize what thoughts we have given value to and, where necessary, course-correct prejudice and bias that previously evaded our awareness.
Today, in a digital age of social media, with conversations limited to 280 characters, it is hard to tell if we are reliably producing more mental health problems or just overwhelmed with the numerous psychological failings that have become more apparent in a globally-connected world. One thing is for sure, the art of conversation is suffering as a result. Are there better ways to balance how the world is with how we think it ought to be? As social creatures shaped by natural selection it is becoming clear that much of our evolved software was coded for a very different life. What the emerging fields of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary psychiatry refer to as mismatch diseases are strategies and mechanisms that worked very well throughout evolutionary history but now cause havoc in novel environments. The strong desire to gorge on sugary foods historically scarce in nature, near-sightedness from reading and time spent indoors, heart disease and lower backpain from sedentary lifestyles, and the list goes on. Stone age bodies living in a space age world.
We know that bodies and minds did not evolve to increase wellbeing but were shaped to maximize reproductive success. Hence the reason why we are wired with what Evolutionary Psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse describes as the Smoke Detector Principle. It explains that regular protective responses often give rise to false alarms and apparently excessive responses. It gets its name because false alarms from the body’s homeostatic systems are like smoke detector alarms—frequent minor annoyances are far less costly than burning to death in a house fire. Anxiety, inflammation, pain, vomiting, coughing and diarrhea are protective responses whose costs tend to be small relative to possible catastrophic events if no response is expressed when danger is present. Understanding how biological and cultural conditioning produce false alarms that impact our lives, and the lives of others, can nurture a deep sense of understanding and forgiveness. This deeper understanding introduces humility back into the conversation.
In great contrast to this saner outlook, the modern, mostly Western world, has developed an obsession with how the world ought to be and is losing touch with, or intentionally discarding, the way our world is. This new dis-ease is given full exposure in Douglas Murray’s new book ‘The Madness of Crowds’. He begins the introduction by explaining, “We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes”. These zero-sum games that would have us believe that race, gender and identity are the sole lens through which we must engage with the world are deranging at best, but increasingly life and soul destroying at their worst.
Murray convincingly argues that boundaries have been set around conversation that are now guarded by moral police in order to maintain orthodoxy. This problem has spread beyond the confines of the university academy and into almost all walks of life. Commitment to the new-religion is a must and punishment of heretics that dare to question received wisdom is considered a compassionate duty- a modern day version of saving lost souls. I doubt this is a religion but it certainly has many of the hallmarks. The words that are highly relevant to this derangement are social justice, inclusivity, diversity, and, in the higher spheres of academia ‘intersectionality’. Murray’s sardonic wit jumps off the page as he explains a response he often hears “Excuse me? You are opposed to social justice. What do you want social injustice?”. As Karl Popper noted too much tolerance eventually leads to tolerance of intolerance. The same logic applies to inclusion- go far enough in one direction and you suddenly find adherents excluding everyone that doesn’t follow the inclusion narrative.
Thanks to the phrase Islamophobic coined by the Muslim Brotherhood a similar fallacy was deployed by many socially conservative and fundamental Muslims, as well as the progressive liberal media over the last few decades. Insist those that criticize your ideas are Islamophobic- a conversation showstopper. How exactly can one be phobic of ideas? Either you agree with them or you don’t. Either you have reasons for your disagreement or you don’t. This is a universe away from the very real problem of anti-Muslim bigotry- where opposition and disgust are directed at living breathing humans with dignity and potential, not at ideas they may or may not even hold. A distinction with an enormous difference.
‘Bi-la kayf’ was an Arabic reactionary phrase that meant ‘piety without reason’ or ‘without asking how’ and was a response to the ‘Muʿtazila’, a rationalist school of thought influential during the Islamic enlightenment. The school held that argument and reason were the sacred tools of truth seeking. Today, similar language is used to discourage those that fail to observe, or worse still, transgress, the ‘justice without reason’ or ‘don’t question it’ mantra. Instead of appealing to patience, reason, and human potential in order for conversation to flourish, there is a far more seductive impulse to support your position, or lack thereof. Accuse your opponent of being against diversity or inclusion, however ill-defined, and witness the conversation abruptly end. What is Douglas Murray’s answer to this current state of affairs? When the lunatics are running the asylum what can we do apart from pretend to be lunatics as well. How can we avoid the madness of the crowds? Murray suggests more forgiveness, a very humble starting point, and next, perhaps most importantly, gratitude. The great institutions and rich history that led to the rights and luxuries many of us now enjoy are still unimaginable in many corners of the earth.
Brexit, as with Trump, are now real breaking points for the contemporary mind, with forgiveness and charity increasingly absent from many conversations. Some of the modern left’s last vestige of sanity seems to be tied up in relentless opposition to symptoms rather than taking responsibility for any potential causes. So far as the left was a party of the working-class as well as securing the interests of minorities, they now seem awfully willing to implode with moral righteousness and hell-bent on rejecting a large portion of their former electorate, considering their voices, and more unbelievably even their character, to be deplorable. The fact there have been real economic difficulties, especially in the UK in the decades leading to Brexit, seems to have eluded most of the political class. Net-migration, for instance, rose substantially from 2012 until the EU referendum in 2016 reaching 350,000 in one year. The fiscal impact of non-EEA migrants between 1995-2011 cost the UK negative £134B, according to the Oxford Migration Observatory, while an empirical study done by The Bank of England in 2015 discovered that for every 10% increase in migration there was a small but significant reduction of 2% in wages. Guess who that 2% impacted? Low-middle skilled income workers. To have asked where the limits of migration were was to be accused of uncompassionate blasphemy. To consider Angela Merkel’s decision in terms of potential social consequences was to be ignorant of her boundless mercy. So what, if of those 1M migrants that were allowed to enter Germany only an estimated 40% were actually refugees.
What the left unwittingly forgot was that while pretending to be virtuous and not contending with harder questions, at some stage an unscrupulous populist was bound to fill the empty space. Intolerance and ill-temper, bigotry and discrimination, are found on all sides of the political spectrum. However, more than ever it has become fashionable on the left to betray, denounce, or even deny the fact that valuable ideas and traditions were ignited in the West and that the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, even though historically coincidental, were very much born in the lands of Europe. This is part of a much larger trend now referred to as “The Great Awokening” and over the last decade alone a significant number of baseline attitudes expressed by white liberals now display out-group bias preferencing other racial and ethnic groups above their own. Fast becoming the only civilization that focuses on the most negative historical aspects of itself, guilt and resentment are now the order of the day. Solutions to resurgent national pride, other than mere disdain, or alternative political futures, can hardly be imagined let alone articulated.
In my previous essay I lent support to the argument from Lyndon Storey’s book Humanity or Sovereignty arguing for the idea that human potential should be considered the defining characteristic of future political systems rather than national, ethnic or religious identities. In order to pursue this vision, conversation must return to concrete ideas such as belonging and dignity of work while taking a sledge-hammer to abstract notions surrounding modern identity politics. As is found in Shakespeare’s work– language and society continually change, but the central themes are timeless. It remains to be seen if we can take a leaf out of the Blue Stockings Societies book and once again see opponents as sheep in wolves clothing. If the UK and American political situations are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go. Conversation, ‘the noblest commerce of mankind’ need only be guided by this timeless principle. I might be wrong and you might be right but together we can get closer to the truth. One affirming flame can light a thousand candles.
Not to indulge in idle vision,
But strike new light by strong collision,
Of CONVERSATION, wisdom’s friend,
This is the object and the end,
Of moral truth, man’s proper science,
With sense and learning in alliance,
To search the depths, and thence produce
What tends to practice and to use.