Watching Downton Abbey for the first time last year (shocking, I know), I gained the impression that the writer wanted to present a world entirely removed from our own, where men were men and women were women, where people knew their place and where a ‘damn’ or ‘blast’ let slip could cause many to blanch – and that in presenting this world, the writer wanted to say, ‘Look how bad things were.’
And in many ways that would be right. Of course the enfranchisement of women was an inevitable positive progress, and of course the disparagement of single mothers was a deeply entrenched problem (in many ways it still is) and, more often than we like to think, not the mother’s fault. Of course the enforced privacy of homosexuality was an illiberal practice (putting aside the conservative disdain of liberalism for the sake of social order for the moment). To imagine men walking around with top hats and canes while their ladies cling to their arms in 2017 is certainly preposterous.
After all, as L P Hartley wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
Yet throughout the programme, I was surprised at the similarity between the then and the now, especially in our approaches to language. One scene struck me in particular. A woman witness in a courtroom says of the defendant, ‘He called her a bitch,’ to gasps. If I called a woman a bitch in a public space (my Student Union building especially), I’d be met with a similar reaction and vilified – and for good reason. Insults are, by their nature, intended to address a private part of the person being insulted – their character, often – and to reveal a private embarrassment in public is surely deplorable. But the reasons have changed; and it is in this change that I believe the Left has come full circle, from a liberating movement to a censorious one, desperate to impress on to all a morality derived from sources not quite so moral.
As a young man immersed in the culture of my city (Birmingham), I have witnessed the rise of what the American philosopher Christina H Sommers calls ‘fainting couch feminism’. This is the belief that women are, despite their formidable forerunners, not strong, not capable of facing adversity, and not open to challenging and, perhaps, unwarranted opinions, and when revealed to them collapse under the sheer weight of the temerity of those who dare resist them.
I’ll not mince words; words such as ‘bitch’ and ‘cow’ are censored for their historically weighted usage and the insult they can inflict on the recipient. Let us ignore for the moment that insults are, by their nature, intended to cause insult (as the Left seems wont to do). We are told that the ‘gendered’ use of insults is, in their own phrasing, ‘problematic’ and that if we seek to insult we should do so on more universal bases. I understand this reluctance to use such offensive terms, and in my agreeing I worry, ‘Dear God, have I become a socialist?’ The answer, I have come to find, is not that I am a socialist; it is the socialists who have become conservatives.
Conservatives as recently as the early twentieth century knew the weight of insult, and strove not to employ them unless desperately called for. It was that spring of respectability, the civil society, that defined when and when not was acceptable to use them. We learned, over centuries of common usage and through testing the limits of acceptable public discourse, that these terms are greatly insulting to one another, and censored ourselves based on the perception of others around us and how that may change. These behaviours became deeply ingrained, and the taboos established, broken only when called for and mended swiftly after. It was during the great liberalising of society in the middle of the last century that these taboos were challenged and taken to task on their function. The liberal, in his rationalism, found that they were established on tradition and – God forbid – common decency and respectability, vestiges of a time gone and useless, and were to be done away with, in the pursuit of that great myth of the American liberal, ‘freedom of speech’.
Anyone with an understanding of history knows that such absolutism of morals has never existed in respectable society. Freedom of conscience, maybe, but we always knew the line, and crossed it only when desperately needed. Of course, the socialist, in his pursuit of the destruction of the structures of society in the hope that it would usher in a new era of moral and spiritual freedom, freedom from the tainting touch of tradition, shorn away in the light of rationalism and universal commonality, endorsed this challenge of the taboo, and encouragement of freedom of speech. But the structure of society did not pass away, thank God.
Our institutions, and the society that built them, are still here, if damaged and recovering. And the socialist was left with an intellectual crisis. The State still exists, and yet the old traditions of behaviour based on respectability and conscience have been wrenched away. In the moral vacuum that liberalism always creates, people have been given a great new moral licence: ‘you may do as you please’. People were emboldened into action previously seen as low, base and not worth taking part in. Perhaps one could argue that the liberalising of society was to usher in an equality of behaviour, where all forms of behaviour were equal and therefore beyond reproach, but that would not be the task of this article.
The socialist turned away from his own original focus, society, as a great mass of mobilisable proletarians to overturn the old institutions, and focused instead on the monolithic power of the State. Of course, this didn’t all happen at once; Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist socialism had encouraged this use of state power long before the modern socialist discovered it, and Clement Attlee’s Labour Party (far preferable to the current beast of Corbynism, at least for its respect of institutions) took power rather than deny its legitimacy to enact its socialist goals. One can respect Attlee a great deal; his goals may have been unfortunate, but his respect for the English way of doing politics made him a great politician, and one who is deserving of more recognition among his successors for doing so.
The endorsement of State power gave the socialist a new moralising goal: to transform social attitudes through the extension of the State into everyday life. Now the source of language censorship was not the spontaneous creation of taboo through civil society’s discovery of them, it was the State, and its rationalist prescription of what can and cannot be considered offensive.
For some conservatives, this is commendable, as in many ways it is a resurrection of the old way of doing things. But we should be cautious; the punishment before was disdain from our peers, and social exclusion until such a time as we were forgiven, maybe not by all but at least by the person whom we had offended. And what was considered offensive changed, the elasticity of which was largely a contributing factor to the liberalisation of social language discussed above, but it changed with the times, and thus when asked ‘why is that offensive?’ we could at least answer beyond ‘because it is so’, and trace it to events that rendered certain phrases no longer permissible.
With the State taking on this role, however, everything changes; the elasticity extends in only one direction. What might be considered offensive fifty years ago is still offensive, only now intimations of that offence are found to be at fault too, and because civil society is trusted less and less to curtail the language of those around us, the State must expand its definition of offence until the list of banned phrases and words becomes longer than the those permitted (and if history is unidirectional as socialists believe at the heart of their ideology, a list of permitted phrases and words will appear one day, turning Orwell over in his grave in the process).
So, the curious conservatism of the modern student Left can be seen by many of a conservative disposition as a positive curtailment of the liberal project, but we should remain cautious. Michael Freeden believes it is a part of our philosophy (well, he says ideology, but that’s an argument for another essay) that we use our weakest opponents’ strengths against our strongest opponents’ weaknesses, and so we might endorse this conservative-socialist turn to stop the liberals, but we may one day need the liberals on our side to stop the socialists once more.