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Friday, 26 April 2013


 From the Liberal

Chapter One

Is western society based on a mistake? Fundamental to any society is its understanding of human nature. It shapes our worldview and explains other people’s behaviour. It affects attitudes and practices on a whole range of issues including: interpersonal relations, the upbringing and education of children, family policy, welfare, economics and penal policy. Our understanding of human nature is crucial, yet we rarely - if ever - discuss it. Since the 1960s the dominant view of human nature in the west has been a liberal one. The word ‘liberal’ is hard to define - a bit like nailing jelly to a wall. Nevertheless, here goes ! The word ‘liberal’ comes from the Latin ‘liber’ meaning free. Freedom lies at the heart of liberalism: free love; freedom from rules, regulations and restraints; freedom from external authority; freedom of thought; freedom from superstition and ignorance; freedom from oppression, hierarchy and privilege; freedom from the past and tradition.
In practice it has led to: the liberalisation of the laws on drinking alcohol, gambling, divorce and abortion, a sexually promiscuous society, economic liberalism with free markets and deregulation, and the ending of censorship. I hope it is clear that I am not using the word ‘liberal’ in any party political sense, but rather indicating a mindset and worldview. In other words ‘liberalism’ with a small ‘l’, not a capital ‘L’. Most liberals are decent well-meaning people, who are rightly concerned about fairness and social justice. Also in the past liberals played a positive role in fighting social and racial prejudices. However these positive aspects should not prevent criticism of liberal ideas in the present.
The belief in freedom rests on an unspoken assumption – the goodness of human nature. If we are good, it makes sense to increase freedom, because we do not need restrictions, rules, morality or religion. Freedom will not be abused; our natural goodness will prevent this. Therefore we can liberalise laws and adopt liberal attitudes, and no harm will come. So maximising freedom assumes human nature is essentially good. I believe this assumption is mistaken. In this book I aim to show that it is contradicted by recent scientific discoveries, by the insights of Freud and Jung, by the evidence of history and by the experience of social workers.
Our view of human nature has changed over time. For thousands of years Judeo-Christian societies were based on the Bible. In the story of the Garden of Eden God forewarned Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They ignored the warning and ate the forbidden fruit. As a result, they were driven out of the Garden. This allegory stands for the imperfection of human nature and the reality of evil. In religious jargon - we are sinners. This does not mean we are wholly bad – in the Middle Ages the word ‘sinner’ was used in archery for an arrow that fell short of its target. We are imperfect - not totally depraved. On this understanding children are sinners too and need to be disciplined and socialised by parents and the community, so they can become productive members of society. Also parents are wiser and more experienced than children, and so should be respected. In the words of Thomas Sowell, the leading African American philosopher, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of little barbarians, who must be civilised before it is too late.”[4] In this tradition stands the 17th century English thinker Thomas Hobbes, who regarded human beings as self-centred, and saw conflict as endemic in social life.
This Biblical view of a flawed human nature was challenged around 300 years ago in the Enlightenment, which turned traditional notions upside down. For example Rousseau claimed children are born wholly good, but later their families and society warp them. In his own words, “Man is born happy and good, but society corrupts him and makes him unhappy.”[5] On his theory children are pure and innocent, whereas parents and society have been corrupted, so children are morally superior to adults. It follows that parents should respect their children who are leading us to a better world. These Enlightenment ideas partly explains our present reluctance to discipline children. Child-rearing and education have fundamentally altered over the last hundred years. We have gone from a strict, authoritarian approach, to ‘progressive’ ideas and child-centred learning. One contributor to this trend was the founder of Summerhill school - A. S. Neill, who believed children are “naturally wise and good.”[6] So they should be given the maximum amount of freedom, and never be disciplined. He represents an extreme form of liberalism, but his and other ‘progressive’ ideas have seeped into the educational system, resulting in some secondary schools that are marked by ill-discipline and anarchy. In Britain today school councils of pupils have been set up, which in some cases have even appointed teachers. A friend of ours teaches 4 and 5 years olds at a local primary school. She has found recently that more and more of the children starting at the school are aggressive, assertive, disobedient and very difficult to control.
In 2010 Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at Kent University, wrote “A substantial group of parents have given up disciplining their kids altogether…. Powerful cultural pressures are making parents uncomfortable disciplining their children.”[7] Parents have abandoned ‘tough love’ and try instead to be friends with their children. These ideas have empowered children and enfeebled teachers and parents, whose authority has been called into question. Their confidence in disciplining children has been undermined. Parents no longer feel able or willing to tell their children what to do. It seems now that children teach parents, rather that being taught by parents. As a result many children grow up knowing few boundaries, which often leads to unruly youths and anti-social behaviour. The riots in English cities in August 2011 are a stark illustration of this.
Also on this theory, criminals are essentially good, but have been warped by society, and so should be seen as victims of society, rather than offenders. This has affected our penal policies and the treatment of criminals. I helped run Victim Awareness courses in a local prison. At the end of one session, a group leader said that one of her group had been born very poor in Jamaica and wanted to make money – not unreasonably. He figured the best way was to run drugs into England. He did not have a British passport, so he had to use a fake one – not unreasonably. As a result he was now serving time for drug running. The group leader said we should think of him as a victim, not a wrongdoer. Additionally the prisoners in their cells have televisions, set-top boxes, computers and game consoles. They wear their own clothes; cook their own food; and a new block is being built with en-suite showers. One prisoner said to me - with no prompting on my part - “It’s like Butlins in here mate.”
However the liberal understanding of human nature has been contradicted by science, according to Steven Pinker, who is Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He argues that recent scientific discoveries relating to evolutionary psychology and genetics - including the Human Genome Project - have undermined the belief in inborn goodness. They have revealed a flawed human nature. He wrote, “Genetics and neuroscience show that a heart of darkness cannot always be blamed on parents and society.”[8] In other words: the human capacity for evil is inborn. Pinker claims these discoveries undermine the worldview of many intellectuals. In his own words, “They eat away at the cherished assumptions of modern intellectual life.”[9] Pinker rejects the idea of Richard Dawkins and others that the end-product of evolution is altruistic and unselfish human beings. Dawkins argues that blackbirds feed a cuckoo chick in their nest, because they are programmed to feed their own chicks, but their brains ‘misfire’ so they feed other chicks in their nest as well. He believes human brains misfire in a similar way, and as a result we love everyone, not just our kin. Pinker rejects this as nonsense. His stark conclusion is: “In a nutshell: Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong.”[10] Far from mankind being innately good, Pinker gives a list of inherited human defects, including: the primacy of kinship; limited sharing within human groups; universality of violence, dominance and ethnocentrism; self-deception about our own wisdom and fairness; and a moral sense warped by kinship and friendship.[11] If Pinker is right, then the idea that men and women are born good is unscientific and mistaken.
Liberal thinking was also rejected by Freud, who saw the mind as an arena of conflict between our conscious and unconscious minds, and between the superego (the conscience) and the id (the instincts such as the sex drive). Powerful forces in our unconscious minds have an influence on our thinking and behaviour of which we are unaware. Jung went further. He dismissed the notion of inborn goodness as nonsense. He held that an understanding of our flawed nature was necessary for us, but we are resistant to the truth. He wrote: “The jungle is in us, in our unconscious, and the psychologist who tries to expose the blind spot faces a thankless task. The human mind carefully refrains from looking into itself.”[12] And “All that nonsense about man’s inborn goodness, which has addled so many brains after the dogma of Original Sin was no longer understood, was blown to the winds by Freud, and the little that remains will, let us hope, be driven out for good by the barbarism of the twentieth century.”[13] [Original sin is religious jargon for the idea that we are born imperfect and sinful, rather than innately wise and good.]
Criticism of liberal values has also come from the youth worker and pamphleteer Shaun Bailey. He grew up in a deprived inner city part of London and set up a charity called MyGeneration, which works with disadvantaged youngsters. His background is in the West Indian community of west London, where he was brought up by a single mother on a council estate. He claims liberalism harms the poor, “The more liberal we have become, the more the poor have suffered.”[14] He describes the outcome of liberal policies as: a lack of discipline in schools; the erosion of marriage; the subversion of parental authority; encouraging free love and casual sex; fostering dependency; and the relaxation of the laws governing drugs and alcohol. He accuses the middle-class liberals of living their lovely lives in leafy suburbs unaware of the damage their policies cause to working class communities.
History too provides plenty of evidence of human evil. The 20th century showed the ugly side of mankind: the slaughter in the trenches in World War One; the deaths of over 120 million under communism - 50 million in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1953, 70 million peacetime deaths under Mao, plus those who died in the killing fields of Cambodia and elsewhere.[15] These deaths are in addition to the 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Everyday there are news stories of murder, violence and war. Anthropologists have found that most primitive societies are violent and conflict-ridden, thus confirming human nature is flawed. So the evidence against the belief in innate human goodness comes from science, psychology, history, anthropology and social workers.
Despite all this evidence liberalism has not merely survived, it has become dominant in western societies. This is a puzzle. Why does it persist in the face of so many objections, and the evidence of human evil in history? The answer, I believe, lies in its emotional appeal. In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins exemplifies this, writing, “I dearly want to believe we do not need policing - whether by God or each other – in order to stop us behaving in a selfish or criminal manner.”[16] This is sentimental and unscientific. It is based on ignorance of human psychology and history. It may be easy to think mankind is good, if you have been brought up by loving parents in a nice area and led a sheltered life. Your fundamental assumption is - unselfishness and kindness are normal. You may be surprised by reports of child abuse, domestic violence and murder, as well as bloodshed in other parts of the world, but you regard these as exceptions. One self-styled liberal said to me, “To be frank I live in a middle-class bubble. I’m not really aware of what goes on in poor communities.”
Many people are deeply wedded to their utopian worldview. They resist any questioning of it. We prefer to think of ourselves as wise, rational and virtuous, rather than flawed, self-centred and fallible. It is nice to think that other human beings are essentially good. I remember discussing the topic with a nice old lady, who lived in a village in the Chilterns. She told me she would be depressed if she thought other people were unkind and bad; she preferred to believe in human goodness. She said to me, “I don’t want to believe that mankind is flawed.” Was she a seeker after truth or someone who had found her comfort blanket? T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”[17] However there is a problem with the rose-tinted and optimistic view of human nature: it can lead, for example, to a failure to socialise and discipline children, and then the outcome can be anti-social behaviour. Whereas if you accept reality, you can take steps to deal with the problems. But haven’t some societies been too strict and disciplined? Yes, that is true. However the abuse does not remove the use. Just because some societies have been too disciplinarian, does not mean there is no place for discipline.
It was in the 1960s that a liberal and progressive consensus came to dominate British society. The Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins claimed a liberal society was a civilised one. However, looking round Britain today, ‘civilised’ is not always the word that comes to mind. Our society is marked by binge drinking, broken families, a growth in violent crime and a decline in trust. We have taken sexual liberation too far and have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. As Jung observed, humanity only thrives when spirit and instinct are in harmony, “Too much of the animal distorts the civilised man, too much civilisation makes sick animals.”[18] We have gone from the Victorian society’s denial of sex, to one that is obsessed by sex: from the dominance of the superego, to the triumph of the id. Our phoney understanding of Freud believes that we should never deny our sexual urges, and that any thwarting of our sexual instincts will result in neurosis.
My attempts to discuss these ideas with liberal friends have met with very limited success. In his book Liberalism and its Discontents, the distinguished American historian Alan Brinkley wrote of, “An unwillingness or inability of many liberals to look sceptically or critically at their own values and assumptions.“[19] I have often met a refusal to engage with the evidence and the arguments. Steven Pinker has also encountered opposition and personal abuse. Those who challenge the liberal hegemony have been called ‘fascist’ or ‘Nazi’. Pinker wrote, “Part of the responsibility of intellectuals is not to trivialise the horror of Nazism by exploiting it for rhetorical clout in academic cat-fights. Linking people you disagree with to Nazism does nothing for the memory of Hitler’s victims, or for the effort to prevent other genocides.”[20]
So is this book a straight-forward attack on liberalism? No. It is not as simple as that. There are some areas where I believe liberals are right. I acknowledge that some liberalism is necessary and beneficial. Few would want to go back to the restrictions of the Victorian era or live under a despot. There was also a need to free us from a negative attitude to sex. Liberals are right to be concerned about inequality and to fight for social justice. There still remain great inequalities and their campaign for greater fairness deserves support. I welcome the undermining of the class system, the greater opportunities open to women, and the improved treatment of racial and sexual minorities – the decriminalising of homosexuality is an obvious example. However some liberals seem to think that they have a monopoly of caring. Thomas Sowell, the leading African-American philosopher, commented “Liberals assume that if you don’t accept their policies, then you don’t care about the people they want to help.”[21]
There is, I believe, a downside to liberalism. Freedom has often turned into selfish hedonism. We have neglected other values: the importance of social cohesion, of duties, obligations and responsibilities to others. We have lost ideals of self-restraint and self-discipline. So my argument is not that all liberalism is bad, but rather that in many areas we have become too liberal; that the liberal pendulum has swung too far. Liberty has become licence. Liberalism is like cholesterol: there are good and bad sorts. Therefore we urgently need to evaluate the positive and negative aspects of liberalism, and to discard those which harm society. In the next chapter I present the evidence against the belief in the goodness of human nature from science, anthropology, psychology and history.

[1] J-J Rousseau Seconde Lettre à Malesherbes 12 Janvier 1762 Hachette ed X pp.301-302
[2] Steven Pinker The Blank Slate (London Allen Lane 2002 ) Preface page xi
[3] George Orwell The Freedom of the Press (an essay originally drafted as a Preface to Animal Farm), The Times Literary Supplement, 15 September 1972
[4] Thomas Sowell A Conflict of Visions (USA Basic Books 2002) p. 162.
[5] “Que la nature a fait l’homme heureux et bon, mais que la société le deprave et le rend misérable.” Troisième Dialogue (Hachette ed IX 287) cited by E. Cassirer The Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (USA Columbia University Press 1963) p. 18.
[6] A. S. Neill Summerhill ( London Pelican Books 1968) p. 20
[7] Frank Furedi interview in The Sunday Times 21/2/2010
[8] Steven Pinker The Blank Slate (London Allen Lane 2002 ) p. 51
[9] Pinker p. 58
[10] Pinker p. 56
[11] Pinker p. 294
[12] C G Jung Jung Letters (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1976) Vol II p. 608 Letter to Mr. Leo P. Holliday dated 6 November 1960
[13] C G Jung Psychological Reflections (London Routledge and Kegan Paul 1971) p. 277
[14] Shaun Bailey No Man’s Land (London Centre for Policy Studies) 2 May 2007 
[15] The figure of 51million in the case of the Soviet Union and Soviet Russia see Norman Davies book Europe(London Pimlico 1997) based on the work of Robert Conquest and Roy Medvedev (Appendix III) and the figure of 70 million under Mao see Mao: the Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (London Jonathan Cape 2005)
[16] Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (London Transworld Publishers 2006) p. 260
[17] T S Eliot Burnt Norton (The Four Quartets)
[18] C. G. Jung Psychological Reflections (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1971) p. 105
[19] Alan Brinkley Liberalism and its Discontents (Cambridge Massachusetts Harvard University Press 1998) p. xi
[20] Pinker p.154
[21] Thomas Sowell widely attributed but unsourced