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Reviving post-liberal society

There’s a crisis of trust, anxiety, and relationship in post-liberal society. Graham Tomlin looks into what might revive it.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A loose rabble of a protest in the street is siluhetted against light and a shower of rain
A protest in Santiago, Chile.
Ignacio Amenábar on Unsplash.

Much has been made in recent times of the alleged demise of liberalism. From the heady heights of 1989, when Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay announced ‘The End of History’ and it seemed that liberal democracy was the only game in town, things don’t look so auspicious now. Back then, it seemed that of the three great twentieth-century political creeds, fascism had met its ugly end in the Second World War, communism had crumbled in the ruins of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and so western, free market, secular liberalism was the last one standing, the only realistic political and philosophical option for the future of the world.

Then a whole series of events challenged that narrative. The attack on the twin towers in 2001 announced that religion was not a spent force in the modern world but a powerful motivator outside the western European and American bubble, for better or worse. Throughout the twentieth century, Christianity had been quietly growing in Africa from just 9% of the continent’s population in 1900 to 48% a century later, and it continues to grow. The remarkable rise of Chinese Christianity after the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, the resurgence of Islam worldwide and the prediction that in coming decades, atheists, agnostics and others who do not affiliate with any religion will make up a declining share of the world’s total population, made the prediction of a secular future suddenly seem foolish. The financial crash of 2008 put paid to the hope of gradual economic growth in the trusted hands of the market, and then the rise of Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and, of course, the political and social earthquake of Brexit placed a huge question mark over the assumption of a globalised, liberal order gradually taking over the world.

In the wake of these events, a growing number of voices started to call attention to the travails of liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed argued that liberalism had failed to achieve its lofty goals:

“A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equality, defend a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity and, of course, expand human liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom.”

The crisis in liberalism is a theme that runs through the worried pages of many political broadsheets or cultural commentaries. Is liberalism dying, or is just going through a period of sickness before recovering in new forms? Most people think it’s not on its last legs yet, and yet the crisis in liberalism have led us into a number of crises in modern life, many of which can be traced to the flaws which lie alongside the strengths of the liberal project.

A crisis in trust

First, we have a crisis of Trust. Liberalism presented itself as a rejection of the tyrannical and stifling control of social, religious and political convention. The controlling eye of Church, school, family and government was seen as oppressive, contravening the rights of the individual. Throwing off the yoke of such supposed authorities was essential to living an authentic life. John Stuart Mill, one of the great pioneers of liberalism, wrote of the ‘despotism of custom’. And while Mill’s rejection of starched Victorian conformity may be understandable, the result of the revolt he helped to unleash was to undermine trust in authority and government.

A society full of mutual suspicion cannot function well, and is not good for us.

Examples abound. A recent one was Baroness Casey’s recent report on the Metropolitan Police, that accused it of being institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. Before that, the abuse of expenses trashed the reputation of MPs; the financial crash taught us bankers couldn’t be trusted; and the phone-tapping scandal bersmirched the reputation of journalists. In addition, a number of studies suggest that the length of tenure of CEO’s has decreased in recent years as they struggle to maintain legitimacy, while here in the UK, we have gone through Prime Ministers as quickly as football managers. The Church is no different – the many stories of child abuse, the betrayal of vulnerable adults, the prejudice against minorities have all eroded levels of trust in the clergy.  Whether you look at business leaders, bishops, local politicians, estate agents – levels of trust in sectors of our society that are crucial for the good functioning of social life are at a very low ebb.

It's hard to tell whether the crisis stems from our increasing scepticism that truth-claims are only ever power-plays, or because the rise of movements like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter have led to our leaders being held to a higher sense of accountability. Have standards in public life diminished? Have our leaders become less trustworthy? Are our institutions more systemically corrupted? Or is it that we now expect far more of our public figures than we used to and therefore constantly find them wanting? Whatever the answer, the overall result is catastrophic. Trust is essential for the good functioning of any human community. A society full of mutual suspicion cannot function well, and is not good for us. As Graham Greene once put it:

“it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all: oneself.”

Liberalism's tendency to challenge past authorities may been justified. Taken to the extreme it has been, however, has bred a society in which it’s hard to put your faith in anyone.

A crisis of anxiety

As well as a crisis of trust, we have a crisis of anxiety. Economic liberalism valorized free markets, liberating individuals to benefit from the mutual exchange of goods and releasing human enterprise from the shackles of convention and control. Deregulation would liberate the human spirit of adventure to develop a future shaped by progress. Rather than accepting to live within the limits and rhythms of the natural world and the givenness of a broader cosmic order, the liberal instinct was to declare the freedom of the individual to self-create, to forge individual identities in the search for autonomy and self-realisation.

Yet today, Generation Z perceive climate change as the number one threat to their future. Climate Change Anxiety is an increasingly recognised syndrome, leading people to forego – out of despair - bringing children into such a damaging world, and fuelling high levels of mental health problems especially amongst young people. Add in a global pandemic, spread rapidly around the world by our fondness for limitless travel, that saw levels of anxiety rocket. We now have war within the borders of Europe, for the first time since 1945, with the added prospect of China being drawn into the war on the side of Russia. And as a result of this, and never quite learning the lessons of the 2008 financial crash, we have a cost of living crisis more severe than has been known for decades. The progress of the sophisticated algorithmic technology of social media fuel increases levels of anxiety and mental health problems for those addicted to clickbait or the desire for likes, and talk of an epidemic of mental health problems doesn’t seem an exaggeration.

A crisis of relationship

Third, we have a crisis of relationship. At liberalism’s core is the idea of the freedom of the individual from societal expectations and strictures. Michael Freeden, Professor of Political Theory of Nottingham University, summarised the heart of liberalism as “a rallying cry for individuals desiring space to be free from unjustifiable limitations." Theorists such as Ronald Dworkin argued that the individual is best placed to choose their own vision of the good (and therefore the state must remain neutral on such notion), leaving the playing field open to myriad definitions of what people ought to aspire to – almost as many as there are people.

If that is our central moral ideal – that the individual should be free from obligation or restriction from everyone else, should we be surprised that we end up more distant from each other?

The liberal ideal of individual freedom – that each person should be free of interference from their neighbour in their choice of the good life as long as they don’t harm others – is superficially attractive. Attractive, that is, until we realise that it gives us no good reason to care for one another, and in fact encourages us to think of our neighbours as potential infringements on our freedom to do as we choose. The result has been a slow erosion of the social bonds that tie us to each other. If that is our central moral ideal – that the individual should be free from obligation or restriction from everyone else, should we be surprised that we end up more distant from each other? Should we be surprised that we treat each other as enemies on social media? Or that we refuse to have contact with those of another political tribe? Or that we abandon those older ties, those social institutions that bound us to each other - family, parish, church, local voluntary societies?

Now, a crisis of trust, anxiety and relationships is, in fact, a crisis of Faith, Hope and Love.

This trio has a long history in Christian life and thinking ever since St Paul coined it in a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth in the first century, in words that echo in many a wedding service today: “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Christianity focusses attention on these three ‘theological virtues’ as they are known, and the Church, with all its flaws and failures, has continued to be a school in which they can be learnt, though a number of distinct practices.

Trust is built when people keep their promises.

First, faith. The creeds begin with the simple word ‘Credo’ – I believe. It’s the first thing you do as a Christian, to put your trust in something - or better, someone - who you cannot see, cannot prove, and yet you are invited to do exactly that – take the risk of faith. Trust is built when people keep their promises. The God that the writers of the Bible speak of describe him with exactly that idea: that he is faithful to his promises, like a marriage partner who does not give up on the other, no matter how wayward they might be. Being a Christian starts to teach you to trust God, in a way than might even lead to learning to trust people again. That doesn’t mean accepting deeply flawed and abusive institutions, but it does mean giving people the benefit of the doubt - the assumption of trust rather than mistrust – that tends to bring the best out of most people.

If our hope is in our political leaders to deliver radical solutions to combat mental wellbeing, it’s unsurprising Generation Z despairs.

Second hope. In politics false dawns are as predictable as taxes. If our hope is in our political leaders to deliver radical solutions to combat mental wellbeing, it’s unsurprising Generation Z despairs. Christian hope on the other hand, rests not on any human promise or expertise, not (thank God) on the superior qualities of bishops or popes, but on something entirely outside human capacity – the story of the Resurrection of Jesus, the conviction of a divine break-in to the order of the universe that has always had the capacity to bring a sense of hope in the darkest moments of an individual’s or a community’s life.

When I look into the eyes of my neighbour I see not a potential threat to my personal autonomy, but a person of infinite value.

Last, love. At the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that each person (whatever his or her qualities, background or even character) is infinitely valuable because loved by the God who made them. The outworking of this idea in history is to make love, not suspicion or even tolerance the ideal bedrock of social life. This is the tie that binds. When I look into the eyes of my enemy I see my brother. When I look into the eyes of my neighbour I see not a potential threat to my personal autonomy, but a person of infinite value, whom I am bound to love as God does, however annoying, contrary or wrong their personality or political opinions.

These three qualities – faith, hope and love, are like muscles. The more you exercise them, the more they grow stronger. A life, or a society that chooses to root itself in Christian faith tends to grow in its capacity for faith, hope and love.

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Politics
10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.