To be found superficial and contemptible

John Gray has a characteristic piece in the Guardian rehearsing the familiar old saws about how naïve and delusional atheists and liberals are, how it’s all just Christianity turned inside out, yadda yadda…but despite the staleness it’s not all wrong.

The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence. Throughout history there have been large numbers who have been happy to relinquish their freedom as long as those they hate – gay people, Jews, immigrants and other minorities, for example – are deprived of freedom as well. Many have been ready to support tyranny and oppression. Billions of human beings have been hostile to liberal values, and there is no reason for thinking matters will be any different in future.

That bit isn’t wrong. Many liberal values are at war with some aspects of what human beings are like. We’re hierarchical, so egalitarianism is always at war with many of our impulses and urges. I think Gray is right that there’s no reason to think that’s going to change in the future.

We like hierarchies for one thing because we think there’s a chance we’ll scramble our way to somewhere high or highish up on them. We like them for another thing because we like bullying people and putting them down.

We also have impulses and urges that push us the other way, fortunately. We can discourage the first and foster the second. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Kumbaya is more natural or innate than Islamic State.

An older generation of liberal thinkers accepted this fact. As the late Stuart Hampshire put it:

“It is not only possible, but, on present evidence, probable that most conceptions of the good, and most ways of life, which are typical of commercial, liberal, industrialised societies will often seem altogether hateful to substantial minorities within these societies and even more hateful to most of the populations within traditional societies … As a liberal by philosophical conviction, I think I ought to expect to be hated, and to be found superficial and contemptible, by a large part of mankind.”

Today this a forbidden thought. How could all of humankind not want to be as we imagine ourselves to be? To suggest that large numbers hate and despise values such as toleration and personal autonomy is, for many people nowadays, an intolerable slur on the species. This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But there is no hidden liberal struggling to escape from within the killers of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, any more than there was in the torturers who served the Pol Pot regime. To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.

Yes. And as climate change bites harder and harder, peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration are likely to become every more exceptional until they disappear altogether.

But hey, maybe there will be a miracle.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Gray has widened his scope: Conservatives are from Jupiter, Liberals are from Mercury!

  2. says

    I don’t believe I have ever expected there was one thing natural nor inevitable about egalitarianism. The opposing conjecture, likewise, but pessimist that I am, I always suspected it slightly more likely.

    None of this makes the former one bit less worth pursuing, however.

    If I had a dime, mind, for every reactionary asshole who pontificated on ‘what atheists think’ purely to malign all opposition to superstitions they wish to protect, I could buy every conglomerate that employs them…

    And the pessimist in me suspects this, too, would be a waste of money. As an opposing firm would immediately thereafter form, hire them away from me, and continue to encourage them. And their sales would hardly hiccup.

    ‘Superficial’ and ‘contemptible’ and ‘John’ and ‘Gray’ do seem oddly consonant, however, all of a sudden placed all close together, here.

  3. says

    No, I suppose I too have ever expected there was anything natural or inevitable about egalitarianism as an explicit proposition, but I think I have had the background idea that people generally do have, that what I’m familiar with is The Normal. It’s different from living when, say, Jane Austen did – egalitarianism isn’t even a value in her world, not even peeping over the horizon.

  4. brucegorton says

    The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today. But this conviction is supported by faith more than evidence.

    Bollocks. The heart of the liberal philosophy that prevails today is that it is relatively easy to ignore persecution so long as you aren’t the one being persecuted, and tyranny is relatively easy for the one who holds the power to be the tyrant.

    The liberal philosophy of today is that human affairs are fundamentally malleable, and can cover a wide range of possibilities – therefore we have to work hard to make sure that it is the possibilities that get realized are the ones that we most want to live with.

    This is the central core to the concept of privilege and the main reason liberals tend to oppose too much power being concentrated in too few hands, whether that be via dictatorship or the economic hegemony of major corporations.

    It is also the central core to the value of education and access to reasonably accurate information. From a liberal perspective the more people have power the harder it is for a tyranny to form, as more people have the ability to oppose it.

    Knowledge is power, and it is religion that tends to consider ignorance to be the same as innocence. Adam and Eve were rendered sinful because they ate of the tree of knowledge.

    Liberalism tends to associate ignorance more with racism, sexism, homophobia and various forms of xenophobia.

    For religion ignorance is bliss, for liberals ignorance is fear.

    From a “New Atheist” perspective, the core issue with religion is that it gives a small group of people in the form of clerics unearned authority, with which they can devolve towards tyranny and thus harming other people. Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is an enabling factor for much of it.

    And one must further note it is not the nature of a tyrant to simply gain power, but also to deny it to others. Arguments which center around controlling the masses “to maintain order” or some sort of ill-defined “social good” are generally about depriving the masses of their power, and thus enabling the tyrant presenting the arguments.

    We have to be exceptionally careful with the power we grant, because we know that it is within ourselves to misuse it.

    Tyranny and persecution are not aberrations within the heart of human affairs, from the liberal perspective they’re the status quo – hence the need to be liberals.

  5. says

    Meh. Yeah. Maybe it is so background. But I honestly don’t know.

    Maybe I just don’t have the best barometer of what people think, I guess. But getting aggravated by all the assumptions. And still a bit peeved at what seems to me rather rhetorically dodgy. Assuming people who just want a better world are daisy-weaving hippies with little appreciation of harsh reality…

    What we need are people who take that harsh reality in the teeth, and still get up, bleeding from the mouth or not, and go after what they want to make it anyway. Stylish cynics telling them only they’ve simply no idea, increasingly, impress me less than this.

  6. says

    (#5 being response to #3, in case this wasn’t obvious. But tipping a hat all the same to #4. As that’s roughly where I’d go too.)

  7. Revelator60 says

    Gray is a former Thatcherite, and I’m surprised the Guardian publishes the writing of someone whose politics are at bottom deeply conservative–meliorism and all enlightenment thought are anathema to Gray (though he obviously enjoys their comforts) and his views on the hopelessness of humanity are curious mix of nihilism and masochism (which might explain their appeal). His glee at the supposed resurgence of religion is based on false premises. Both Europe and the US have grown less religious in the past decades (would the New Atheists’ books have been bestsellers in the 80s?), and Islamic terrorism is less a resurgence of religion than its angry death-throes against modernity. That religion persists in many parts of the “developing world” is par for the course–developing middle classes and the bourgeoisie have often been religious in a manner more standardized and stuffy than working class or folk religious practice. When it comes to religion, history moves slower than most people, including Gray, presume.

  8. lorn says

    I have no faith or hope that the chronic human flaws, the pettiness, xenophobia, jealousy, greed, and the whole gambit of distorted behaviors driven by destructive emotion, often rooted in prior abuse or deprivation, will ever be eliminated. That said, I think that many of these things can be managed. That many of the worse behaviors can be minimized by avoiding and treating cases of abuse and deprivation. There is something of a double payoff in doing so because a great number of those who are abused or deprived become abusers.

    I do place some limited faith in the idea that, generally speaking, outside brain damage or mental illness, people with warm, complete, emotionally fulfilling lives tend to avoid violence and extremism. IMHO the single most effective way of keeping people from becoming terrorists is making sure they have a job that uses their skills and talents in useful and constructive ways.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    The conviction that tyranny and persecution are aberrations in human affairs is at the heart of the liberal philosophy

    That’s the exact opposite of what my observation would have been. Surely liberal philosophy starts from the position that tyranny and persecution are all too bloody common, but that there is a better, more civilised way we can be.

    How civilised we are is, to a great extent, how far removed we are from our “natural” state of being tyrannical and persecutory. If civilisation has any point, it’s that, surely.


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