Sunday, 28 August 2011

The S-Bomb: Starkey didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition

 Now I don't want to stand in between David Starkey and the juggernaut of disapprobation that is ploughing through his Christmas card list- I am neither Toby Young nor a moron- but the recent debate surrounding his somewhat incontinent comments regarding race, poverty and class seems to have been marred by a mighty wind of righteousness. And no matter what side the argument falls on, whenever I hear someone being torn apart by Twitter, I automatically find myself wondering if the momentum carrying the tide of opinion is washing all debate and reason with it.

What is it with media-friendly historians and race, anyway? First David Irving describes Hitler as the 'Greatest unifying force in Europe since Charlemagne', and now Starkey has fallen into the spiked pit of telly. Niall Ferguson better watch his back, that's all I'm saying. You never hear Tristam Hunt talking like this.

Teaching Philosophy, I'm used to provoking and maintaining discussions that are designed to toe-punt as many sacred cows as possible, normally in the name of clarity and rigour. Half the time we're spent gazing into our navels and asking if there actually are such things as navels, and do we know what we mean by the term anyway? As my old PE teacher would say, 'Get a f*cking job.' But it's all to good purpose- our daily mental lives contain so many contradictions and holy uncertainties that it's bracing to watch as trusted, nurtured prejudices and axioms perish with the merest philosophy.

Dreaming of marmalade. The BASTARD.
I also teach Religious Studies- easy soldier, I'm agnostic- and one thing we certainly discuss in abundance is the Comment Is Free trinity of nationality, ethnicity and faith. And it only takes the shortest of nails to scratch away any illusion that there is anything like a consensus of opinion over such matters. There are, of course, broad brush-strokes of agreement (I say of course; without them, society is impossible), but these are accompanied by concomitant subtleties of position that have taught me that the varieties of opinion and values held by the human mind are infinite in combination and degree.

When we discuss such topics, at first there is often a tacit agreement to avoid controversy- the teenage ostrich seeks agreement and unity. But this guardedness shatters due to another teenage tendency- spontaneity. As soon as an even vaguely controversial perspective is voiced, the space between thought and verbal response in some students can be measured in nanoseconds: and debate is begun.

Whenever someone makes a comment that's a bit 'my mate Chalky' or 'Are there any people here from Bradford tonight?' I don't leap on them, or try to clobber them with the shillelagh of shame; far better to steer the comments into a conversation, a kind of Socratic dialogue with either the rest of the class, or myself, if that doesn't work. I have found that it is far easier to persuade people to adopt a moral position than to tell them to do so. Simply shutting down the debate doesn't do anything other than encourage them to dig their heels in and defend their position with greater vigour, however unpopular it may be.

The six squeezes of Henry VIII. Gs up, hoes down.
Here is a universal truth about our opinions: the things we believe become us. We take a position, find it pleases us, and then, subconsciously or otherwise, say, 'This is me; this position is who I am.' It is a perfectly natural way of defining ourselves. Most of us, even the chattering classes, do our thinking on a subject once; then we position our opinions in a way that is most comfortable to us, a way that coheres most readily with the interconnecting web of existing beliefs. It is rare that we readily adopt a view that radically contradicts our existing paradigm.

This isn't to say that our beliefs and values all cohere beautifully- did I mention we were human beings?- but that we filter the world to fit into a rough pattern that suits us. Kant would have described it as categorising noumena (unprocessed reality) into phenomena (our experience of that reality). This process is largely unconscious.

The problem is that we then become sympathetic to that truth; we become attached to it; we decide that it is part of who we are, and any attack on that view is an attack on ourselves.

And this is the chief danger in debate: the participants become antagonists; become opponents. The ideas and the ideologue become one, and soon face becomes as important as loving truth. This is the adversarial consequence of the debating chamber; it is the vice of the rhetorician, the sophist and the politician. 

David Starkey is a sinner in many senses, to be sure, but one thing he is not is stupid. Another thing he is not, is the universal arbitrar of truth, or a Renaissance man. Perhaps as a historian he is tempted to describe people in terms of class movements and great racial waves more than others. His comments were, in my opinion, medieval and broad. 
But the enormous hail of villification that poured on him recently was also unjust- the true test of a man's status as a racist or otherwise must surely be in how he engages with others. And until that has been proven, the chattering classes should be more sensitive themselves to damning a man, however much he may have stumbled in expressing himself. I've witnessed too many witch hunts in the classroom to feel much sympathy for the slightly hypocritical gathering of skirts that followed his outburst. By their denunciations, they proclaim, 'Oh no, not I! I would never make broad sweeping statements about anything!' 

And of course, we all do. Starkey's shame was that he spoke so publicly, so unwisely. But good quality debate is not generated by making Satans of anyone who trips the mousetrap of intolerance. We discuss; we debate; we consider and we meditate. Saying that I, too, have seen Goody Starkey dance around the camp fire with Lucifer does nothing but throw chaff in the face of real discussion, and makes real progress understanding differences between communities even harder. This isn't a game show. No one wins by being last to be wrong.

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