Christianity’s retreat has left the West vulnerable to harmful new beliefs - Telegraph - 23.12.22
Our societies are in a severe muddle, which makes for fertile ground for woke zealotry says Charles Moore.
Flicking through a physical newspaper recently, I read the following headlines printed in the following sequence: “India masses army on Chinese border after soldiers clash”, “Putin piles pressure on Belarus leader to enter Ukraine war”, “China braced for million Covid deaths”, “Taliban bans all Afghan women from going to university” ; and finally, “US college to erase phrases ‘causing harm’”.
I think everyone would agree that the first four stories referred to desperate and dangerous situations – matters involving life and death, aggression, violence, disease, the oppression of women and, in most cases, threats to the wider world. Each story also involved at least one brutal and undemocratic regime. All the countries in these stories are outside what we loosely call “the West”.
The last story, the only headline explicitly about “causing harm”, did not involve any of the above. It concerned the website of Stanford, probably – apart from two or three on the East coast – the greatest university in the United States.
According to the newspaper report, Stanford’s website administrators have embarked on an “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”. Under this initiative, users of the website must not be so described because the word “users” might make some of them think they were being compared with drug addicts (who are themselves better described as “people who deal with substance abuse issues”).
Other words and phrases to be excised by Stanford include “rule of thumb” (it allegedly refers to an old English law which allowed men to beat their wives), “ballsy” (links personality traits to anatomy), “long time no see” (mocks indigenous people and Chinese), and even the now famous, fairly new expression “trigger warning” (can “cause stress about what is to follow”).
This story could have arisen only in the West, and would probably be incomprehensible to all but an elite few in the countries which featured in the four preceding stories – China, Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan and even democratic India.
To some extent, this may be to the West’s credit. Happy the civilisation so prosperous and free that it can afford to take minute care not to upset the sensibilities of those it seeks to educate. It is part of the work of higher education, after all, to refine thought. This requires close examination of what words mean and how they ramify.
Nevertheless, the sort of thing worrying the Stanford “webmasters” (who have just decided to abandon that self-description because “historically, masters enslaved people”) definitely comes into the category known as “First World problems”. It is a bit of a luxury.
When the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to overtake the West and, in doing so, buying up Western universities for its own purposes, this “harmful language” stuff distracts attention from the actual threat and takes up too much thinking time.
When Russia, by means of extreme and indiscriminate violence in Ukraine, is trying to destroy the world order set up after 1945 to prevent war, it seems wilfully inward-looking.
Worse, this intense interest in the exact language we use, which now obsesses universities and other institutions across the West, is not expansive, but restrictive. Far from rejoicing in the multiple possibilities of language, it fears them. It sees free speech as dangerous – which indeed it is, but so is all freedom.
Even great literature cannot escape this policing. Shakespeare, the most inventive of all English-language users ever, is now – to use a phrase which Stanford will surely ban if it hears it – under the linguistic cosh. He is accused on campus, and even by some theatres performing his work, of racism, sexism and all the rest of it, without allowance for the fact that every single word in every play he wrote is spoken by a character he has imagined, rather than by him in his own voice.
Why, when so much of the world is in such pain, is such emotional and intellectual energy in the West being wasted on this exercise in thought control? Mightn’t our obsession with harmful language be, well, harmful?
Some of this zealotry is the conscious work of the anti-democratic Left. Having lost most of the old battles about economic power years ago, post-Marxist revolutionary thinkers have become more interested in culture as the road to power. Some of today’s woke work in Western academia draws on Chairman Mao’s techniques of terrorising educational institutions during his Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The Black Lives Matter movement stands in that tradition.
But wider and deeper, perhaps, runs a sense of desperation. In cultures which reject or forget metaphysical belief systems, the desire for belief does not disappear, but becomes ungrounded. You have beliefs, but you no longer know their shape and foundations, so you conceal your confusion with passionate intensity.
For the first time this year, the census return indicated that only a minority of people in Britain considered themselves Christian. This may reflect a welcome honesty – people often used to pretend to a religious belief they did not really hold – but it also suggests there are millions of people living without any coherent belief structure. Of these, significant numbers will be in a state of severe muddle.
A minority will seek extreme remedies: Extinction Rebellion; Animal Rebellion; Just Stop Oil; BLM; pulling down statues on the Left; fascistic nationalism on the Right.
For the full article in pdf, please click here: