20 June 2007

Misusing the i-word




Some interesting thoughts and counter-thoughts from the always highly readable Chris Dillow and Matt Sinclair. Plus my own comments. It's all just opinions, of course.

Chris questions whether attitudes to crime can be affected by the implicit moral values conveyed by the media.

I reckon there are (at least) four reasons why a black youngster might rationally choose a career in crime or music over a conventional professional career ... the thing about these four factors is that they can't be solved by giving young black men good role models. Indeed, quite the opposite.
Matt counters.
While criminals and pornographers do form their own communities that attempt to make up for their shunning by respectable types they will always be aware that they are somehow outside the community proper. The only way this changes is if, for example, the career of a pornographer becomes more socially acceptable. A successful community won't let this happen for a criminal lifestyle.

That I not only choose to accept far lower material standards of living [by not pursuing crime] but do so without a moment's hesitation is the power of social standards. No law or subsidy can push people towards socially useful pursuits as effectively. Breaking those social standards down, as far too many left-wing movements have, is therefore extremely dangerous. The breakdown in standards leads, rapidly, to a wider social breakdown as choosing a civilised way of life is then not the rational choice for far too large a body of people. That is why, for all the repressive effects that social mores can have, I respect their vital importance. It is this insight, more than anything, that causes me to describe myself as a conservative these days.
I agree it seems likely that ethical values are picked up from others, as well as from cultural output. Everyone has an internalised value system about how approvable/disapprovable any given behaviour is, which to some extent looks to the value systems of others. Television and movies convey implicit moral values and ideologies, and it seems implausible that, where these differ from the viewer's existing ones, some "averaging" doesn't result.

Chris responds to Matt:
I agree that standards matter. And I agree they have broken down. But I'm not sure this justifies being a small-c conservative. And it certainly doesn't justify being a big-C conservative, in three ways.
And here's where things seem to get a little tendentious.
Conservatism, especially in its Thatcherite form, celebrated greed and wealth, however acquired.
Now I know the idea that "Thatcherism celebrated greed" has practically become dogma, for people of all political persuasions. But I would love to hear some actual arguments for it. The fact that we had a bit of a backlash during the eighties against the anti-capitalist ideology of Old Labour, and that this coincided with an economic boom, may tell one something about the prevailing ethos of that period, but doesn't in itself prove anything about Thatcherism, let alone Conservatism.
The individualism which Thatcherism unleashed can easily spill over into narcissism.
I have the same problem with this. Yes, everyone now takes it as read that Thatcherism "unleashed individualism". But I'm surprised that Chris isn't more critical of this knee-jerk assumption. What is meant by "individualism" anyway? Self-reliance? Aggressiveness? Independence of thought? How were any of these "unleashed" by 80s conservatism?

And linking individualism to "narcissism" seems not to be adding much more than insult to the analysis, it's such a vague concept. I believe research suggests that self-esteem is positively correlated with things like helpfulness, and negatively with aggression. If we mean the kind of behaviour displayed on "reality" shows then it's questionable whether this has anything to do with "individualism" at all. People expressing themselves in dumb ways for the benefit of an audience is arguably a form of anti-individualism, because it encourages everyone to regard themselves as nothing more than what the audience (society) sees. It is, in effect, an assertion of (public) appearance over (private) content.

The term "individualism" has become ridiculously debased, and is now used to refer to people who think it's okay to be rude, stroppy or aggressive. Stephen Pollard doesn't use it himself to describe folk who behave without thought for others in a concert hall, but I can think of several mainstream commentators who would invoke the i-word for precisely this kind of thing.