Thatcher, atheism, free choice, and buses

The Reverend canon Dr. Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, recently penned an article on CiF about Philip Blond’s new think-tank ResPublica, trying not to mention Ariane Sherine’s atheist poster campaign. Failing, of course. What he sees in the campaign is a return to Thatcher’s notion that society does not exist, and existence should be predicated upon free choices alone.

Fraser says

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher made choice the cornerstone of a political world view. Challenging the idea that the nanny state knows best, she emphasised individual choice over collective decision-making. Sherine’s campaign is Thatcher’s liberalism given an atheist makeover.

The subject of choice is crucial here. It’s a nice idea which nobody would (publicly) deny that kids should not have religion, or any set of ideas, forced upon them in a manner damaging. But we should not be naive here, by not forcing opinon on children, we must then accept that what is later regarded as that child’s choice has come from somewhere else. The philosophy here is simple; we as individuals do not assert opinion freely as such, we are influenced, social animals, mediated by the society before us. All sensible political systems recognise this fact, and, as such, observe that the better the society the happier its inhabitants.

In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett recognise that the benefactors of an equal society are not simply the poor, who by (supposed) consequence of considered implementations by egalitarian governments, enjoy the same benefits as the rich in society, but rather the whole of society benefits from equality.

The reason why this might be the case is because emotional responses to the world are not self-sufficient, bur reliant on societal mediation. Choice can be measured by exactly the same standard, the higher the proximity of something is to someone, the more chance it has on having an effect on that person.

But influence on individuals cannot simply be measured by differences in a permissive society and an authoritarian society, because, put simply, what in society determines one can be just as strong in a liberal society as it can be in a totalitarian society. Free choice in this sense is illusory, because of our proximity (emotional or otherwise) to the world and the things in it, what distinguishes free from unfree societies is the ideological direction with which governments or institutions promote.

And this is even based on textbook free societies, which most of us do not inhabit. Free societies – as it were – usually have just as much a logic, or an axe to grind, as any textbook unfree society. Thatcher’s society for example promoted free choice, individualism, measures against corrput society and group thinking, emotional proximity informing decisions and free-market capitalism. Many references to what free is, but freedom was far from what Thatcher’s Britian contained – it hid behind the rhetoric of free choice, as well as denying the content (the direction, the axe) of the project which it set up.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a perfect example of what is meant between the difference of a free choice and an authoritarian dictation

The superego works in a different way from the symbolic law. The parental figure who is simply ‘repressive’ in the mode of symbolic authority tells a child: ‘You must go to grandma’s birthday party and behave nicely, even if you are bored to death – I don’t care whether you want to, just do it!’ The superego figure, in contrast, says to the child: ‘Although you know how much grandma would like to see you, you should go to her party only if you really want to – if you don’t, you should stay at home.’ The trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, when, as every child knows, he is not being given any choice at all. Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time. Not only: ‘You must visit your grandma, whatever you feel,’ but: ‘You must visit your grandma, and you must be glad to do it!’ The superego orders you to enjoy doing what you have to do. What happens, after all, if the child takes it that he has a genuinely free choice and says ‘no’? The parent will make him feel terrible. ‘How can you say that!’ his mother will say: ‘How can you be so cruel! What did your poor grandma do to make you not want to see her?’

The trick of the illusory free choice is that it burdens the subject, as well as being authoritarian itself. As rubbish as it may be, at least the authoritarian parent gives the child something to rebel at. Here we can apply this to the atheist slogan, found first in Dawkins’ The God Delusion, no one likes the idea of children being force-fed ideas just as much as we dislike not really having free choices, but we must realise that that choice will come from elsewhere eventually, so the correct parental task is to prepare children for the multitude of information that will make its way to them soon, and advise them on how best to deal with it. That, or just read them this blog entry.