Why does our political culture seem so antagonistic and brittle? Why are people so quick to take offence and experience disagreement as attack? I find these questions particularly pressing in times like these, when streets are full of protest and counter-protest; social media is increasingly overwhelmed by insult, snark and recrimination.
The answer may lie in deep instability in people’s lives. Whilst this may sound like armchair psychoanalysis, contemporary debate is undoubtedly marked by a fierce prejudice, characterised by frequent heretic-hunting and ostracism of those judged to have strayed from the path of (so-called) righteousness. I’m particularly fascinated by the special status accorded to “safety”, understood as shelter from challenges to one’s views, especially those that relate to core aspects of identity, such as sexual identity.
The decay of the married family… leads to a society in which people have few opportunities to withdraw from public display and engage in self-examination and spiritual maturation. – Niall Gooch
I’ve often thought about where this emphasis on safety – this idolisation of mental comfort – has come from, albeit with some difficulty: the mindset in which “contradiction” translates as “insult” is alien to me. In fact, I like it when people argue with me. Although argument is often deployed cynically and to intimidate opponents, a disproportionate number of people believe that to have their opinions challenged is to be attacked. The stability question is, I believe, key.
And that is because stable, happy, secure home lives are key for emotional security in young people, along with access to places of retreat or solitude where they can step away from the clamour and the crowd. The decay of the married family – in April this year, the Office of National Statistics found that the number of men and women marrying each other has fallen to its lowest level on record – coupled with the constant self-exposure enabled by social media leads to a society in which people start out with low reserves of inner strength and have few opportunities to withdraw and reflect from public display and engage in self-examination and spiritual maturation.
Without a strong and stable grounding, it must be hard not to be swept up by groupthink, given the lack of boundaries in our culture. This fluidity may look like liberation, but is actually its opposite. Freedom is not simply the absence of coercion. Rather, it is the ability and the opportunity for us to live as thinking, reasoning, balanced individuals who are not enslaved to impulse and desire, and are not easily swayed by passion and hifalutin rhetoric. As Augustine of Hippo puts it in City of God: “The good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but – what is far worse – the slave of as many masters as he has vices”.
Freedom is not simply the absence of coercion. Rather, it is the ability and the opportunity for us to live as thinking, reasoning, balanced individuals who are not enslaved to impulse and desire. – Niall Gooch
The Catholic faith of course offers succour to those oppressed by the tyranny of current affairs. As a convert, one of the things that attracted me most to the Faith was the great sense of solidity, calm and permanence that the Church exudes. I have always been intrigued by the fact that Benedictines take a vow of stability, alongside the more conventional monastic vows. What this means in practice is that monks and nuns within that order are expected to stay in one place. The website of one US community puts it this way: “We give up the temptation to move from place to place in search of an ideal situation. Ultimately there is no escape from oneself, and the idea that things would be better someplace else is usually an illusion. And when interpersonal conflicts arise, we have a great incentive to work things out and restore peace.”
Committing to a vocation – not just monastic vows, but marriage or a career or the priesthood – restricts your options. It means there are things you cannot or must not do. And yet equally, it enables you to have a rooted, coherent existence, with a sense of purpose and even transcendence. It means that you have some sense of your place and role in the universe. It helps you place things in their right proportion; it reduces your fragility.
So perhaps that should be part of the Church’s offer to the young: come to us, and find a place where you can find an enduring way of life, with peace and stability.
Niall Gooch is a writer who lives in Kent.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.