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Why are so many intellectually deaf when great ethical issues are debated?


March 30, 2018   5 mins

In his column yesterday, Tim Montgomerie coined the term “hegemonia” or (I prefer) “hegemania” to describe that desire for total, crushing victory that has grown across what used to be normal political debate.  It is a useful term for the distinctive trend which I had previously thought of as the ‘YouTube-isation’ of politics.  It is a trend which seemed to start with online videos which were given headlines such as ‘X CRUSHES Y’, or ‘A DESTROYS B’. Soon this became the format for almost any excerpt from any political argument. Click-bait was the word coined for that. A video titled ‘Mr A mildly corrects Ms B on a matter of common interest’ might not bring either great attention or consequent advertising revenue. And when any highlight of a broadcast political exchange involves ‘crushing’, ‘destroying’ or (even more popular) ‘annihilating’ opponents, the performance of politics evolves in click-baitable directions.

When politics changes as significantly as it is now changing, new terms can help to encapsulate what is going on. For years I have wondered whether we could popularise a term for the opposite of deja-vu.  That is, for something that you see which you just know you are going to see again.  How about ‘pre-ja-vu’?  Almost a decade ago when I saw a certain type of street politics emerge I wondered if something like ‘pre-ja-vu’ might enter the political lexicon.  But even as I watched a man like Jeremy Corbyn, forever on a soapbox at demonstrations, I never thought that I would ever see quite as much of him as we now see of him as Leader of Her Majesty’s opposition. The idea of pre-ja-vu could apply to almost any realm of life. It is at least as possible to see an outfit, a colour, or the return of some form of facial hair and think ‘Yes, I fear I am going to be seeing a lot of more of this in the years ahead.’

For years I have wondered whether we could popularise a term for the opposite of deja-vu. That is, for something that you see which you just know you are going to see again. How about ‘pre-ja-vu’?

My nomination for UnHerd’s “new words for new challenges” series is not pre-ja-vu but a word that relates to the presumption in politics and ethics that people change their minds based on evidence. While this is often the case it may be more true – to our great irritation – that minds don’t change at all. As Harvard’s Cass Sunstein, among others, has shown, it is frequently the case that when a person in provable error meets the correction to their error they do not throw up their hands and say ‘Goodness me, what an idiot I have been’. Instead, they double down on that error. Jonathan Swift’s immortal phrase that “you cannot reason someone out of a view they were not reasoned into” should have prepared us for this reality.

Across so many political discussions – especially those with a strong ethics dimension – people’s minds are not only closed to new ideas, but utterly closed. This is deeper than the level at which people merely say ‘I could never support a Tory’ or ‘My family have always been Republicans/ Democrats’ (as though hereditary voting trends are something to be proud of). On a range of deeply-felt issues it is not possible to reason somebody out of a position because mere tribalism is not the key obstacle. For anyone to concede the validity of contrary arguments on many moral questions would be to do a hurt far beneath the levels at which politics can ordinarily reach.

We saw a glimpse of this with the resonant case of former UK Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, which our own Tim also referred to yesterday. It was demanded of Farron that he make a moral judgement about homosexual sex which he felt wholly unable to make and he was pilloried for doing so. But the flip-side of that is also worth imagining. For instance it would be unlikely that Farron would be able to reason with a gay person with a full sex life that they should share his views on the matter. Not impossible but certainly hard. Such an appeal would not be to a political stance, or even to a moral stance but to something of the essence – the echt – of the person.

Another example would be a discussion on the morality of abortion. For many people the issue is a matter of heated moral debate.  In America it also remains a matter of heated debate. Obviously there are people within that debate (who do not always contribute to it) who cannot be moved in their position. Not because they are not clever enough or supple enough to do so, but because the matter goes to the very core of their being. Obviously there are some in the ‘pro-life’ movement who feel this, and feel that their stance on abortion is central to their faith and politics. But the most strongly-held position of all is likely to held by a woman who has herself ended a pregnancy (or a man who has recommended a woman do so) and who is almost never going to concede to even  very powerful counter-arguments. The shutters are fixed around such positions, and are most unlikely ever to be able to be lifted.

On emotive issues like abortion there is little scope for people with personal experience of, for example, ending a pregnancy to ever change their minds. (Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

A final example. In his masterpiece ‘My Past and Thoughts’, Alexander Herzen recalls meeting a general and his wife who lived in Novgorod in the 1840s. Herzen recalls that their house had “a painful feeling.” That “there were tears in the air, and it was obvious that death had passed through it.”  The general’s hair is greyer and his face more wrinkled than a fifty year old’s hair ought to be.  In a cupboard are a collection of unused toys.  The general and his wife had had three children.  Two years before Herzen had met them their talented nine-year-old son had died.  A few months later one of the girls died of scarlatina.  The mother rushed to the country with her surviving child hoping to save her with a change of air, but came back a few days later “with a little coffin in the carriage.”

“Their life”, wrote Herzen, “had lost its meaning: it was ended, and continued without object, without need.” Husband and wife clung to each other in grief but were now bound more by their common tragedy than by love.  The mother clung to religious mysticism.  Herzen describes her as being “deceived by the flattery that religion pays the human heart.”  But he is at pains to add that “for her mysticism was no light thing, no mere dream; it was having her children again, and she was defending them when she defended her religion.”1

If Herzen had entered that house in Novgorod and argued the most eloquent, perfect argument against the existence of God he could not have won it – and perhaps should not have done so. Any intellectual argument would have met someone the foundation of whose being relied on him being wrong. Such an argument, therefore, would not really be an argument but an exchange between someone arguing on one plane and someone arguing on another one altogether.

I suspect that much of what now passes for the most vehement political and ethical discussion at least trespasses near this terrain.  Deep calls to shallow and shallow fails to spot the deep.  Yet all the time we behave as though various political and ethical exchanges are equal.


At this concluding point you will have noticed that I’ve identified a phenomenon but haven’t found a term for it with the resonance of pre-ja-vu, hegemonia or, dareIsay, “unherd”. We do need a term for it and I am open to your suggestions. Please use the “have your say” link at the top of this article to send in ideas.

  1.  Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, Constance Garnett (trans.), Humphrey Higgens (rev.), Chatto & Windus, 1968, Vol. II, p.404

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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3 years ago

As in “when you debated you missintegrated the level you were arguing from, he came from a place of morality and experience, you came from a place of statistics and personal detachment.”