DINING WITH TIGERS
It was on the very day that the nation was numbed by the death of Red Rum that I met them. I suppose I had known for some time that somewhere they must exist; but still it was strangely shocking. They were young, bright, well-educated. They were friends of a friend, encountered socially and quite by accident. They were animal rights activists in favour of abortion on demand.
Now, despite accusations to the contrary at a recent international gathering of Anglican bishops, I have never supposed that the so-called liberal agenda is held together by anything approaching intellectual coherence. It has always seemed to me to be a rag-bag of superstitions with little internal consistency to commend it. But the two young women at the supper party took the biscuit. There were so many questions I wanted to put to them – none of which would be considered polite conversation over a vegetarian lasagne.
The conversation was nevertheless wide-ranging and other important facts emerged. The two were, quite coincidentally – because, of course, there could be no logical connection – also devout feminists and convinced atheists. They supported the lowering of the homosexual age of consent to sixteen. And all that was before the pudding.
I got to wondering, in a sort of reverie, how their kaleidoscope of colourful opinions helped them address the hard cases of moral decision. Was it possible, for example, that they condoned the cosmetic use of aborted foetal tissue so long as the cosmetics were not tested on animals? What limits, if any, did they impose on a woman’s right to choose? If they accepted a woman’s right to abortion for social or career reasons ( as sympathetically portrayed by Lynda la Plante in a recent episode of “Prime Suspect”) would they also accept the routine abortion of females in some oriental societies (so negatively presented in a recent “World in Action” programme)? If a ‘gay gene’ were finally isolated, how would they view a mother who opted to abort a foetus known to possess it on the grounds that the child might cause her social embarrassment in later life? And if, like Glenda Jackson, they were called upon to debate in Parliament the ordination of women to the priesthood, how would they vote?
Politeness to my hosts denied me the opportunity of raising any of these issues. But they will not go away. It is precisely the fact that the planks of the liberal platform are not logically related which makes the many people who hold them in plurality such a fascinating phenomenon.
Why, for example, should so many of those who want to loosen the traditional bonds of marriage also be concerned to accord public recognition to homosexual relationships which are “stable, permanent and faithful”? And indeed does a significant number of homosexuals actually want this suburbanization of what many of them have taken to be an essentially subversive lifestyle. What price “double standards’? Was it for this, we must ask, that Quentin Crisp suffered and dyed?
It will be said (Dr Gillian Evans said it at the conference to which I have referred) that to talk of a liberal agenda at all is scare-mongering of the worst kind, and that the issues which are said to comprise it stand alone and on their own merits.
In a sense they do. Of course there are animal rights campaigners who deplore abortion, and advocates of women priests who castigate divorce. But statistically speaking they are rugged individualists. For the most part (and for reasons which are usually emotional or pragmatic) opinions cluster together in knots or nodules. Upon the observation of this phenomenon the system of parties, in Parliament and Synod, is based. In this murky world of practicalities the idealists – like Dr Gillian and myself – are essentially outsiders, unwilling to do the bargaining that actually gets things done.
Our unwillingness, I suspect, springs from a conviction that revealed truths are non-negotiable. They are not the self-evident truths of enlightenment mythology (which, in reality, depend upon consensus) but given truths which brook no opposition. They are truths which are not less true because the crowd rejects them.
Our intellectual antecedents are the Hebrew prophets, those uncomfortable trumpet-blasts of binary morality, the incarnated antitheses of consensus politics. The father of the campaigners for the liberal agenda is a very different character: Jean-Jacques, the first of the New Men, whose convictions about original virtue led him to make politics into a religion of salvation and legislators and pedagogues into the Messiahs of a new age. ‘Everything’, wrote Rousseau, ‘is at root dependent on politics. Virtue is the product of good government. Vices belong less to man, than to man badly governed.’
That the father of political correctness should sound like an Anglican bishop analysing the causes of crime on a municipal housing development will come as no surprise. Nor should we be surprised that his personal life was at variance with his declared aims. The rational inconsistencies of the liberal agenda spring from deeper personal inconsistencies. Human nature rejects the doctrine of original virtue. Self interest, alas, proves to be the only truth evident to the self. So the prime author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave owner in Virginia, and the author of ‘Emile’ abandoned no less than five of his children (all born out of wedlock) at the doors of the Hôpital des Enfants-trouvés.
The liberal agenda, I reflected over my cup of cocoa, when the fateful supper party was at an end, is altruism gone ideologically sour.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.