The Lost Art of Holding Things in Tension

“Off with their heads!” The famous cry immortalised by Lewis Carrol’s Queen of Hearts. It was her simple way of despatching any and all who challenged her views.

I would humbly suggest that, next April Fool’s Day, the ‘Unfollow’ button on social media platforms be replaced with this slogan. It would beautifully apply Carrol’s satire of bigoted monarchs to their lesser ideological progeny.

The temptation is always to exclude from one’s life those who oppose our views or actions, especially when they (infuriatingly) do so with careful reasoning. This is that much easier when many of those you interact with are not even known in person. A simple click of the ‘off with their heads’ button, and they will bother you no more.

I personally suffer with a pathological desire to hear views I oppose. I spent my 4 years at university enthusiastically unlearning how lovely the West (especially Britain) was and how it was responsible for Nearly All The Bad Things. We invented Zionism, racism, slavery, the concentration camp and pop music. But I also spoke to real life Zionists, white supremacists, veterans and fans of Madonna. Comfortable it ain’t but I always have this nagging suspicion that I don’t know everything about something and I’m liable to stumble through the dark and collide with something I’m completely unprepared for.

So imagine my visceral surprise reading the below article.

The anonymous writer explains that he was introduced by a Sam Harris video to the idea that the tenets of Islam may not precisely align with modern western values.

(The title belies the actual story; the author wasn’t absorbing ‘alt-right’ information and he didn’t nearly become a racist. The ‘alt-right’ is a moniker specifically created by Richard Spencer to describe a repackaged white nationalism movement in the US. The term has seen significant semantic creep to now include anyone belligerent and right of the left. He didn’t nearly become racist, he nearly became Islamophobic; ironically, equating Islam with the ethnicities of the countries in which it’s common is itself a racist trope.)

The Milo Yiannopoulos’s of the world are indeed provocateurs who do little to advance inter-religious affection. But they often say true but difficult things. Difficult to say and difficult to hear.

There is indeed a tension between traditional Islamic teaching and western culture. Ask your Muslim friends. They will articulate a daily negotiation between the values of their religion and the demands of modern life. Most do this with dignity and kindness.

Over the timespan of the Koran’s writings, the Islamic nation became an empire typical of the time. Chronologically ordered, the book becomes increasingly bloodthirsty. There’s a cliffhanger ending; no sacrificial saviour came to ‘ennoble suffering’ and to espouse peaceful submission or love for our enemies. The empire was to grow, and to use violence if necessary. This is a tension we should educate ourselves on but not overemphasise.

Nietzsche said some awful things about Christianity’s influence on culture, as did Voltaire. Recently historians have spotlighted the extreme violence of various religious schisms across Christendom. As a christian I’m richer for hearing what they had to say. From time to time it’s good to be challenged to prove your goodness and your contribution to the world. I’m glad no one prevented them from throwing down this gauntlet.

The members of that notorious ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ – of which Yiannopoulos is arguably one – have much to offer the world in this regard. They have personal experience of the West’s greatest tensions.

Jordan Peterson gained infamy standing against Canadian legislation that established an individual’s legal obligation to use the pronoun chosen by a trans person. In interactions he addressed individuals however they wished, but took umbrage with this choice being enforced through law. There is a tension between freedom of speech and offence.

Bret Weinstein was thrust into the limelight after being forced to resign from his teaching post at Evergreen university by a literal baying mob after he refused to leave campus for a ‘non-whites only day’. There is a tension between highlighting and correcting racism and being racist.

Conversely Ben Shapiro’s famous adage ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ is an effort to reduce a tension to a nice simple plan of action; say all the facts – any frustration is just their feelings! But of course, there is a tension between truth and kindness. (I can well imagine Ben trying to explain his logic to his enraged wife who’s just asked if she looks nice.)

Jeremy O’Grady, long-time editor of The Week, points out that the conceit of the Right is to claim the individual has total power over their life; and it is the conceit of the Left to believe that instead institutions hold all that power. Well which is it? Which one is the nice, simple truth? Yes.

During my very left-leaning phase the world was a horrible place but it was at least a simple place. Ideas could be safely labelled as ‘good’ or ‘right-wing’. People could be ignored or amplified based on their outward characteristics or ‘lived experience’. History was a straightforward story of oppressed/oppressor. There was even an easy-to-understand caste-system called intersectionality, so you could work out who had the most right to speak about things.

There was no need to study the topography of the land around me. The village was comfortable and people in the (ivory) watchtowers told me what was out there.

But what of Kant’s summary of the Enlightenment; to see ‘man liberated from his self-incurred tutelage’? And what of the dream of the Reformation that precipitated it; to place knowledge of the Bible in the hands of every person and in so doing allow people to think themselves free of Rome’s monopoly on thought?

In stark contrast to the Guardian articles author, listening to viewpoints from across the spectrum – especially at the extremes – brings vibrancy and circumspection to our own intellects. There are real people out there and they have vastly different experiences and knowledge to you. They have made their own maps which you can add to yours.

Ultimately, this is not a call for a ‘balanced’ position on all issues. As if there exists some wide fence to which we may nail our colours and build a comfortable home. Rather it is a call to grip tightly to either side of every paradox and, in doing so, develop the strength necessary to apprehend reality in all of its tumultuous greatness.

Leave the village sometimes. You’ll come back tougher.

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