Friday 24 August 2018

Creatures of Consensus

Another fine post on Stephen Pentz's wonderful First Known When Lost blog. This one is about what he identifies as 'the current form of puritanism', i.e. the 'liberal', right-on, virtue-signalling form, in all its self-righteous, repressive glory. Among the luggage unpacked in the Norman MacCaig poem he quotes we could now include Diversity, Inclusivity, Tolerance (and its mirror image Zero Tolerance), Multiculturalism, etc.
  But is it, quite, puritanism? Marilynne Robinson would say not. In her essay Puritans and Prigs, she mounts an eloquent defence of historical puritanism against the common charges levelled at it, and carefully distinguishes puritanism from another phenomenon that she thinks more characteristic of our times – priggishness.
  Noting the modern 'liberal' antipathy to morality – 'a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills' – she identifies priggishness as an irresistibly easy substitute:

we have priggishness at hand, up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash.
True morality tends to quietism, self-interrogation and empathetic understanding of the failings of others, whereas

 priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig’s formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one’s better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. 

And priggishness has now reached such a pitch that it does more than embarrass dissent – it positively forbids it, often by legal or quasi-legal means.
  The behaviour of prigs, being (in their eyes) inherently good, can only have good consequences (and if they are shown to be otherwise, the intention was still good, and that is all that counts). They are in effect blind to the consequences, and, as Robinson notes, 

People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.

The hardest thing becomes the easiest. No wonder this new priggishness is so universally popular among the hard of thinking and the easily led.


  1. Hi Nige,
    Well, she’s right about priggishness, but I continue to wonder about Robinson’s professed Calvinism. Does she really believe in total depravity and predestination? I have also noted that many of her views tend almost always to miraculously coincide with Democratic Party talking points.

  2. Fair points, Frank – her various defences of Calvinism make for exhilarating reading but I guess they're more than a little tendentious. I do wish she hadn't become so famous – her utterances as a Public Figure make a dismal coda to her earlier writings.

  3. Is 'priggishness' just pharisaism and whited sepulchres by another name? It doesn't interrogate itself.

  4. The phrase ‘virtue-signalling’ is recent (and timely): the thing itself is not. The best account I know of its absurdities and dangers occurs in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air. In Part 3 Chapter 1, the hero, George Bowling, goes to a Left Book Club meeting to hear a well-known anti-Fascist speaker:

    "You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy. But somehow it interested me to watch him. A rather mean little man with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. What’s he doing? Quite deliberately he’s stirring up hatred. Doing his damnedest to make you hate certain foreigners called Fascists. It’s a queer thing, I thought, to be known as ‘Mr So-and-So, the well-known anti-fascist’ A queer trade, anti-fascism. This fellow, I suppose, makes his living by writing books again Hitler. But whatever did he do before Hitler came along? And what’ll he do if Hitler ever disappears?"

    Bowling’s point is not that Hitler should not be resisted - far from it - but that we should be very wary of people who stir up hatred in the name of virtue and who define themselves solely by their opposition to something else.

    One other thought on virtue-signalling: What was Mao’s Cultural Revolution if not a ten-year spasm of virtue-signalling on a national scale?

  5. Great stuff, Ingoldsby – and the situation has got so much worse since Orwell's day. At least the anti-fascists of those days had some actual Fascists to be anti, and they had Hitler rather than Trump or Rees Mogg or whoever. And there were probably far fewer anti-fascist agitators then (when the threat was real) than now. The allure of virtue signalling is so seductive (to some)...