Speaking in today's (Thursday's) House of Lords debate on the "challenges to a liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism", Bishop Nick warned against both a complacent sense of superiority and the corruption of language, and he called for new "narratives of hope."
This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.
This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.
The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.
And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.
The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.
This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).
Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.
The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.
Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.
Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.
This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.
I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.