Doubts about the time of contempt

The present state of politics gives me reason to be worried. Let me share with you all my doubts.

I write this at a time when a significant chunk of the political left seems to have adopted a form of Manicheanism.  Its adherents are defined by their fervent loathing of all things Tory. In such circles, conservatism has been branded a sort of disease, whose practitioners are worthy of ostracism and revulsion.

Disgust is a feeling which craves re-enforcement, which is why the disgusted seek out collaborators. This force will manifest later today in the centre of Manchester, as like-minded folk congregate to cheer denunciations of austerity.

Outliers of this process have used their time constructively, bellowing slogans like ‘tory scum’, holding aloft placards declaring ‘kill the rich’, and indiscriminately throwing eggs and spitting and conservative party delegates – whether they be journalists, Labour party members or even Labour party councillors. A man wearing an expensive crevette is worthy of an egg in the face, and a female attendee of any sort is worthy of the label ‘Tory whore’ (the fact that the woman in question here was there to defend women’s reproductive rights is by the by). And of course, there’s always a bit of rape-threatening.

Some will retort that, while these are all objectionable behaviours, they’re not quite as objectionable as the policies of the Conservative party. Which is a bit like me justifying my flatulence on the grounds that it isn’t as bad as sectarian violence – the former, for all its abundance, has yet to diminish the latter. And what about all the people who didn’t spit on anyone? Aren’t they deserving of a pat on the back?

One such idiot is the reliable Laurie Penny, who earlier in the year defended another idiot’s decision to bravely scrawl the words ‘fuck Tory scum’ across a war memorial. Penny’s attitude is typical: provided that the target is a Tory, all bets are off.

By the way, I can’t abide by such wonton use of the word ‘scum’. Scum is, by definition, disgusting. It’s a mass noun, like gravel, vermin, garbage, and faeces, which can’t be described according to its constituent individual parts. There is no individual Tory scum, there is only a gelatinous, malevolent whole – to be wiped away, lest it befoul the nation.

Whilst it’s true that every party has its fringe lunatics, I don’t recall any of this sort of thing being perpetrated by Tory activists in the build-up to Labour’s conference last week. You might think that the shrill whining of a few maladjusted pillocks is nothing to get agitated about. They’ll eventually get jobs working in a local branch of Lloyds TSB, start paying income tax and start voting Conservative. And yet still I worry.

Now, I voted Conservative last time. What can I say, I just despise disabled people and adore social stratification. The Labour party has yet to make a real attempt to dissuade me of these views. Indeed, they’ve seemed reticent to even make the attempt. Perhaps I, too, am irredeemable scum.

The Labour party has a problem reaching out. Let’s consider immigration. If vast swathes of the populace count immigration as one of their most pressing concerns, then a pressing concern it must be for any party that seeks to become elected. But no. The topic is a little bit too icky. Better instead to brand those concerned about immigration as somehow morally compromised. The sanctity of their minds has been cruelly impinged upon by the bigoted right-wing press (who must be regulated). Mention of the word ‘immigration’ in any sense but that of an economic and cultural boon has therefore been expunged from party rhetoric. UKIP, being the chief beneficiaries of this approach, are surely delighted.

Meanwhile George Osbourne used his speech to appeal to people who voted Labour last time. Osbourne is undoubtedly full of shit, but at least he’s attempting to appeal to people who don’t agree with him.

Just take a look at this:

“Do you know what the supporters of the new Labour leadership now call anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy, and the country living within its means?

“They call them Tories. Well, it’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right.”

As the NS’s George Eaton notes, this should terrify the living shit out of the Labour faithful – and the fact that it doesn’t speaks volumes.

Corbyn himself seems especially not-terrified. He’s taken a privately-financed train up to Manchester, where he’ll attend a meeting full of people who already agree with him. Which is a hobby of his. Frankie Boyle and Billy Brag will probably be there, spouting inane pieties to the converted, and revelling in their shared disgust at the Conservative party message.

Disgust can be a powerful moral intuition. And a quite useful one, too. It’s perfectly natural, for example, to be disgusted by an ever-expanding gulf between rich and poor – or with an economic policy which immiserates thousands. But it’s also perfectly natural to be disgusted by skin colour, sexual wantonness, or a disinclination to sing the national anthem. Clearly, disgust alone provides a pretty unreliable moral guideline.  Which is why any political movement which is wholly and unapologetically driven by moralised disgust is a very dangerous thing indeed.

The problem is that disgust feels good.  Disgust normally takes the form of a surge of righteous adrenalin. Perhaps you’ll slam your fist against the table as you bellow out a denunciation. It might not win hearts and minds, but dammit, being disgusted feels fucking fantastic. Of course, when the rant doesn’t persuade the disgusting people of their error, then, well – that’s just further proof of their despicableness.

There is one slight sliver of hope, here; I expect this whole movement to devour itself sometime before we’re all lined against a wall and shot in the head. Perhaps by then the Conservative party will find it in their hearts not to veer off to the right and establish the sort of Randian dystopia that the Labour party faithful imagine to already be in place. We can but hope.

Until next time

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