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Purpos/ed

My contribution to the great purpos/ed debate.

Q. What’s the purpose of education?

A. To make kids brighter

That should just about do it. I’ll donate my 496 unused words to a good cause.

Cultural Marmite: Labour, liberalism and language

I’ve been banging  a drum for longer than I care to remember about the fact that at the root of Labour’s electoral failings is a clash between its hierarchy and its supporters that is not primarily political, but essentially cultural (see here, for example). I thought I’d have another bang of that drum now, this time in relation to those terms that have come to be the political equivalent of Marmite: ‘Equality’, and ‘Diversity’.

Now, ‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’ are not necessary terms of the left, or even fundamental, since they tend to reflect the priorities of one small (and highly vocal) group of people at the expense of others, and in so doing take the eyes away from what ought, so far as I understand that old ‘moral crusade’ of the Labour Party,  to be the primary goal of the left. Nonetheless, leaving aside for the moment internal logical inconsistencies, it is fairly uncontroversial to suggest that these terms have become slogans, emotive baggage which arouse the passions of a particular type, usually (though not always) resident within the narrow purview of the metroliberal left, or the ‘progressive’ Left, as they might prefer to call themselves. In short they draw very definite lines in the sand, and whilst being ideologically divisive, they often prove politically and culturally divisive too.

Now it is worth stating at the outset that, for what follows, it is not the content of these ideas that I wish to explore. To state my loyalties, I think there is much in them that is wholly commendable, just as there is plenty that is wholly pernicious. Similarly, I think there are aspects that actively help those in need, whilst there are other aspects that unwarrantably hinder. Rather, the focus of what follows will be on what they have come to mean, how they have come to be delivered, what palpable clashes they have come to symbolize, and how those clashes play their part in much estrangement from the Labour Party today. And to extend that point, I would argue that such slogans, or more accurately the cultural movement and mindset of which they are often indicative, is one that is actively antagonistic to precisely those folk whom the left would, at all other times, consider themselves to have the natural moral right to represent. There are other slogans that evoke recognition of the same clash; ‘progressive’ being one, ‘liberal’ being another (‘multicultural’ can often be another, but not in quite the same way).

And so for an example. A few days back, I spent a day in various workshops and drama presentations exploring the ideas and ideals of ‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’. As one would expect, the presentations were rather one sided, not much prone to debate, and merely distilled the same (narrow) ideological foci of the teacher training course and applied it to the issue of ‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’.  On those rare occasions that an individual sheepishly questioned any of the judgments there pronounced, so was the coup de grace delivered through sneery smiles: if you do/say/think that, you’ll be in contravention of the Equalities Act 2010, and will get both yourself and your school in big trouble. Debate over. (In fairness, it was never explicitly suggested what we must think, but rather how we must act: instead, the ideological policing came implicitly, in the generally hostile atmosphere toward dissent, and the absurd stereotyping and caricaturing of potential counter-argument).

But that’s not really my point. Rather, what I found most interesting was the way in which this message was spread, and more particularly the caricatures through which it was spread. For you see, whenever a boorish, vulgar, bigoted, unenlightened opinion was required, so it was duly delivered, the mouthpiece of which always bore certain striking similarities. There was nearly always, for example, a strong indigenous regional accent, with obvious connotations. There was never any sophistication of speech or expression, only monosyllabic bursts of coarse opinion delivered through bluff brusqueness, with obvious connotations. There was often the implication of low status work or skills, the wearing of a high-vis vest for example, or the carrying of a satchel, again with obvious connotations. And there was constant implication of inferior intelligence, never through robust exploration and inquiry, but usually through ad hominem stereotyping around choice of newspaper (the Express was mentioned thrice, and the Sun and the Daily Mail twice).

In sum, there was the constant presumption of self-evident enlightenment, of ‘us vs. them’, without any effort whatsoever to justify or substantiate that presumption, the ruse policed through the generation of an atmosphere of conformity that bordered on the bullying. So did the naked Emperors prance, and so did the crowds cheer their finery (although, having said that, there was rather more ‘cynicism’ [their term] or ‘free-thought’ [my term] in the room than I had initially expected – a cheery thought).

Now one need hardly point out the irony of the situation. And yet, to drive home the point the point that the Equalities and Diversity organisers were devoid of a certain self-reflection, one of the most explicit incidents of the use of this kind of negative stereotyping occurred in a workshop on the disabling power of stereotypes, and how they can disclude (illegitimately) groups from the public sphere without fair hearing (a drama presentation delivered by a man with a heavy Welsh accent, wearing a high-vis vest and beanie hat, and playing the role of a janitor). When I mentioned to the organiser of the event that, in light of what I had seen so far that day, perhaps he ought to add a seventh category to his prejudice chart (age; gender; sexual orientation; race; religion; disability), this one being socio-economic, or perhaps (to be a little more accurate, although the two intertwine) socio-cultural, there was little more than bluster in response. He went on, eventually, to suggest that sometimes one must draw on stereotypes to make a point, all in good humour, and if one avoided this entirely then one would soon find oneself in a whole muddle without the ability to say anything very effectively. I pointed out that this was precisely one of the standard arguments of the very people he was negatively stereotyping, in opposition to such terms as ‘Diversity’ – yet the irony didn’t appear to catch on.

The important feature I’m trying to draw out is this: ‘Equality’ and ‘Diversity’ was presented as unquestionably good, opposition to it as self-evidently bad, with the suggestion that it is only ever certain vulgar types (which we, being teachers, could never possibly be) who oppose it.

That said, the question is how or why is this relevant to my previous point about Labour?

Well, it is simply this: the cultural mindset that informs the clashes I have tried briefly to illustrate in the previous couple of paragraphs, is precisely the one that often appears dominant within the Labour Party, and it both antagonises and agitates against precisely those whom Labour need to vote for them if they are to govern (whilst the antagonism I am exploring here is primarily cultural, I think it is absolutely true on the political level too). Labour has invested itself, both emotionally and culturally, in precisely this cultural war (I use that term advisedly), and marching on the other side of the firing line are precisely those people they should be fighting with, not against. For all too many, Labour speak the wrong language, their cultural and moral grammar is not shared by the people they wish to represent (at least, not the ones they traditionally used to represent), and their sneering misanthropic condescension toward the great unwashed is palpable in too much of what they do and what they say. In short, Labour’s problem is cultural and ideological as much as it is political, and even if Dave is whittling down his own base by investing in the same narratives, so Labour must one day recognise that this leaves a vast body of people not greatly enthused by either option: and they must reach out to them.

Phillip Blond once argued that Labour had been rejected by society because it had rejected society itself. His point was rather cerebral; that liberalism has rejected the very notion of society in deference to its commitment to the (atomised) individual, the consequence of which was a social liberalism that demanded an illiberal authoritarianism to police its pronouncements into existence (a liberalism that reinforced power, and acted against the disempowered – see here). Still, the point holds in the particular too: Labour needs to learn to speak the language of society, not only politically, but culturally and, importantly, emotionally, if they are ever to overcome that culture clash.

Not so long ago a report was released suggesting that in Britain there was no ‘progressive majority’. The fact that anybody in Labour had ever assumed otherwise tells one all one needs to know about the size of that culture clash, and the depth of the chasm that needs to be bridged.