Last week, I spent a day in in a seminar in Cambridge with Professor Jordan Peterson. He had been cancelled from speaking or teaching a year or so ago. This was event was seminar of a group of about nine academics who had been invited to a meeting to argue the issues. The strategy was to first challenge and then cancel the cancellation.
One of the issues we were addressing was ‘how do you create a value system that protects truth and freedom?’ What’s your list of competing ethical choices?
This might seem a bit theoretical, but all the recent clashes in our culture are caused by this confusion. That’s how cancel-culture got a foothold and then a strangle-hold.
The cultural fight we are caught up in is between the D.I.E agenda, (diversity, inclusion and equality) and an older hierarchy of values we have lost sight of and faith in.
But why the confusion? Mainly because diversity, inclusion and equality don’t stand for what they appear to mean. They are actually about a slow but steady revolution; a major shift of cultural values. Each of them is a buzz-word for revolutionising our culture and values by supplanting the old values and hierarchies, and giving a special platform to minorities.
Obviously almost all generous people sign up to the idea that these minorities, usually ones made up of diverse race or sexual identity, should be protected and permitted. But having done that, suddenly a slippery slope appears under our feet.
All of a sudden, ‘permission and protection’ morph into two new manifestations. The first is shutting people down from speaking critically or even asking questions about these minorities in public (the phobia tactic); and the second,requiring everyone to sign up to this new agenda as a condition for keeping their job/home/friends/public platform.
There are so many examples, but one of the most astonishing and well known was the attempt to cancel JK Rowling. As a feminist (or to her enemies a TERF- trans-exclusionary-radical-feminist) she continued to believe in sex rather than gender; that is, in more recent terms, that who you are is controlled more by your biology (women don’t have penises),than by your imagination (you can be anything you want to be).
Suddenly, she was vilified not only in the weird world of twitter, but also in the world of work. The staff at Hatchett’sUK said they wanted to refuse to sell her books. Four other authors left the publishing agency, the Blair Partnership, as a way of pressuring the publishers to drop her, and terminate her writing career.
The ground under the D.I.E. agenda suddenly turned from being a platform dedicated to giving a fairer part of the public space to worthy minorities, into a very slippery slope down which JK Rowling and a whole list of public figures began to slide as they were cancelled.
Jordan Peterson’s response to being cancelled has been to try to help us create a hierarchy of values that we can agree on, in order to protect the values of freedom and truth.
It’s not so easily done. People dispense with the truth by demonising their opponents because power or winning matters more than telling the truth; and we sacrifice others’ freedom by shutting those who lose out of the public and professional space.
Changing our ethics almost always reintroduces a slippery slope.
The recent vote in Jersey to progress towards assisted suicide is another example of how hard it is to resist the slippery slope.
Everyone is against needless suffering. Of course we want to save people from end of life pain. But if we were really serious about that, we would invest a much greater portion of our economic muscle in palliative care, which protects people from suffering as the body begins to lose its battle for life.
Assisted suicide is a short cut. It turns doctors into executioners. Many people who sit on the fence over the issue can be swayed by the promise that there will be safeguards built in to restricting its use to physical distress only. And this is where the sudden appearance of the slippery slope, smuggled into the vacuum of absolutes in a hierarchy of values, starts to bite.
If we look more carefully at the utter misery of that crowd of poor wounded people found in Holland, Belgium and Oregon who, at a moment of particular despair, asked the state to kill them, we know we need better safeguards. But safeguards, like restricting it to physical distress, almost always give way in the next round of negotiations as we slide down the slippery slope.
There is no way, once you have changed the values a society is founded on, to stop the ‘incremental adjustments’ that get lobbied as ‘improvements’.
The link between psychological and physical pain is a very problematic zone to understand let alone police by blunt legislation. The short history of assisted suicide is this: we reduce the resources put into palliative care, and those few people who get to end their lives by calling on state legitimized executioners, do so with the price being paid by the crowds of wounded, confused, disturbed and despairing ultra-vulnerable who are temporarily caught in dark places from which they can as yet see no exit; and ask for the same remedy. Who are we to deny them?
Jordan Peterson may or may not succeed in persuading our culture that freedom and truth matter more that D.I.E. He may or may not succeed in helping us understand what our hierarchy of values is and which ones take priority.
But we are in the process of swopping the protection given by a few absolute ethical rules, for some more elastic relativist ones.
We are free to do it of course. But only by defending absolute ethical rules (like ‘don’t kill’) will save our elastic from stretching down the relativists’ slippery slope, and requiring the most wounded and vulnerable to pay the price.
Our society has largely swopped the wisdom of the Bible for the bullying ethics of Twitter or Facebook, But when we turn the pages of Harry Potter, the old moral absolutes are found there too.