If you want to understand why public debate is so screwed up, turn your mind back to the divorce referendum campaign in 1995. It is a somewhat arbitrary starting point but deeply symbolic for me. Why? Because I remember opening a Sunday newspaper and reading a prominent opinion piece tearing into the No campaign. I don’t recall the headline verbatim but it was along the lines of “Don’t listen to what the No camp has to say. Just look at who is in it.”
The author was a standard-bearer of liberal-left – exactly where I fancied myself to be on the political spectrum – and I was never going to do anything other than vote Yes (supporting the legalisation of divorce). However, the article deeply disturbed me because there was a No campaigner who I happened to know and love – someone who I knew to be a compassionate, open-minded and sincere individual – and that person was my father.
Identity politics has been around for aeons in different guises but that article crystallised for me a new approach to moral disagreement: don’t judge someone else’s viewpoint on its merits, just ask what tribe the speaker came from. My father was, like hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland, firmly in the conservative Catholic camp, against which the winds of change were then blowing.
The same tactic would be repeated again and again in subsequent campaigns around social and moral issues. Not every campaigner on the “liberal agenda” took an absolutist approach to conservatism but all too often people dissenting from progressive causes were pigeonholed as – depending on the issue – homophobic, misogynistic, sexist or just plain nuts.
This pattern continued for years until something quite curious occurred: some card-carrying members of the left, along with libertarians and a cohort of feminists, started to come under attack for perceived backwardness on certain progressive issues, notably critical race theory, hate speech and transgenderism.
This shifting landscape is examined in fascinating detail by Bryan Fanning, the University College Dublin professor of migration and social policy, in a new book, Public Morality and the Culture Wars. A dichotomy between conservatives and liberals that dominated public debate for decades has now been displaced by “a triple divide between three sets of protagonists each with distinct perspectives on social and moral issues”, Fanning writes. What makes this so disorientating for what might be called traditional liberals – those who fought long and hard against clerics trying to control people’s thoughts and actions – is that some “progressives” are using tactics from not only the liberal playbook but also the conservative one by seeking to police public speech and moderate public behaviour.
“My contention is that the culture wars of the 21st century have become asymmetric,” Fanning declares. “Throughout the 20th century, these appeared to express dualistic conflicts between conservatives and an alliance of progressives and those committed to classic liberal values. However, new alliances can be identified between conservatives and liberals against progressives who now appear to be sufficiently influential to enforce their values as public morality.”
Conservatives may take some pleasure from the discomfort of their traditional rivals – it’s as though liberals didn’t realise the importance of freedom of conscience until they were the ones being cancelled – but Fanning rightly highlights that we’re all vulnerable in a society of mutual moral incomprehension.
Fanning’s book is rich with ideas and ambitious in scope. He tracks the evolution of moral philosophy from the Enlightenment to the present day, identifying a number of key factors of special relevance to our current predicament.
One of these has been a broadening of the definition of harm – beyond physical harm to include psychological harm or harming someone’s feelings. What Fanning calls “therapeutic individualism” breaks with the liberal understanding of the primacy of free speech “because it advocates curbing speech that might challenge somebody’s subjective sense of self”.
Another turning point has been the rise of social media, which has undoubtedly fuelled tribalism, intolerance and conformity within groups.
But perhaps the most crucial development identified by Fanning is the ascendancy of post-Christian secularism. This is dramatised in the book as the triumph of Richard Rorty, an influential American atheist who advocated “a dismissal of religion”, over Charles Taylor, a liberal Catholic philosopher who lamented the disappearance of religious thinking entirely from public life.
Heavily influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Rorty argued that liberal progressives should “kick away the ladder” from Christian theology and allied modes of thinking stretching back to antiquity. However, Taylor believed this would badly handicap moral debate. In particular, Taylor highlighted how liberal concepts like “freedom” and “rights” only got you so far in terms of resolving moral dilemmas.
In sexual relations, for example, consenting adults are free to do what they want. But can liberalism tell us whether promiscuity is bad? Or consider the consumption of alcohol – something Fanning astutely examines in the context of the prohibition movement: Adults are free to consume what they wish but can liberalism tell us whether people should stupefy themselves with drugs? In trying to answer such questions, we tend to reach for medical advice – promiscuity carries a higher risk of disease, drug-taking damages the body, and so on – but science can only inform moral argument, it can’t resolve it.
Another downside from “kicking away the ladder” is that it cuts us off from the foundational school of all moral thinking, namely virtue theory. An assumption that each one of us has a moral duty to cultivate virtues – virtues like honesty, compassion and mercy – nourished the first democracies of Ancient Greece and underpinned social revolutions that have brought us the very freedoms we enjoy today. Would there be any culture wars if we learned to be better listeners, or to practise forgiveness?
An irony is that, for all the demonisation of the Catholic Church in recent years, religion is a significant repository of mercy – a virtue that is in short supply as we try to address new and complex ethical questions. Fanning points out that western liberalism’s “core value was tolerance but it has proven to be more than capable of being intolerant” towards certain groups. It is easy to tolerate those who agree with you but, as Pope Francis declared on a visit to the Middle East last year, “the real challenge is to learn how to love everyone, even our enemies”.
My late father, incidentally, was a teetotaller and a member of the Pioneers but he was tolerant of drinkers. So tolerant in fact that he bought me my first legal beer when I challenged him to take me to the pub when I’d turned 18 (he had a Coke). As it happened, he worshipped in the same parish as Fr Tony Coote, who died in 2019 after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. One of the priest’s many progressive campaigns was to fight for the establishment of an LGBT+ group in the parish. A banner that he commissioned still hangs in the local church. It reads: “Love not judgement.”
* Public Morality and the Culture Wars: The Triple Divide by Bryan Fanning is published by Emerald (£24)