August 13, 2018

Whatever the rights and wrongs of what Boris Johnson said about the burqa, the controversy will have reinforced the impression that the Right has, at best, an ambivalent attitude to cultural diversity.

Writing from a left-wing perspective, Chris Dillow argues that this is inconsistent with what is perhaps the core principle of conservatism:

“There is one great truth which, historically, rightists have known better than many leftists. It is that our knowledge and rationality (two different things) are seriously limited.

“Hayek, for example, famously based his defence of free markets upon the fact that: ‘The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.’”

He also quotes Edmund Burke’s advice that individuals should not rely exclusively on their “own private stock of reason” but also “avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages”.

Dillow sees a contradiction between this epistemic humility and the right-wing tendency towards cultural conservatism:

“The paradox is this. If you believe that knowledge and rationality is limited and partial, then it is you who should especially welcome the voices of feminists and ethnic minorities. Their perspectives form part of the ‘general bank and capital’ of wisdom of which Burke spoke. Without them, we are trading only upon the stock of reason of old white men – which is limited. (I should know: I am an old white man).”

He goes on to suggest that a tension exists between “harnessing diversity” and conserving the “wisdom of the past” and that there is a trade-off between inclusion and tradition.

It’s a thought-provoking and challenging idea – and it deserves a serious conservative response.

My starting point is that there is hugely more diversity between individuals than between categories of individuals (whether based on sex, ethnicity or culture). It is from the unique qualities of each person that the richness of human knowledge is mainly and ultimately derived. I’d add that realising this potential depends on a cultural context in which individuals are not only encouraged to develop their aptitudes and inspirations, but also have the opportunity to freely compete and cooperate with others. Most important, the achievement of those creative relationships needs to be shared across time and space as part of a living, evolving tradition.

Potential is easily stifled and achievements readily forgotten. But they don’t have to be. The option to nurture and conserve is always there. That is why some cultures of the past, including those we might today regard as ‘monocultural’, were capable of bursts of world-changing innovation: for instance, the artists of Renaissance Italy, the inventors of Industrial Age northern England and the rebuilders of post-war Japan.

We might also want to ask ourselves why the internet, a facilitator of cultural interaction like nothing else in human history, is a sump of mediocrity, not a fount of human progress. Here, after all, is a technology that connects billions of people and provides instant access to the vast stores of knowledge – and yet what have we done with it?

We’re still creating new art of course, making new discoveries in science and founding new industries. But are the breakthroughs of the early 21st century really comparable to those of the early 20th or 19th?

It’s puzzling that the current era of globalisation is one in which the growth rates of advanced economies are in long-term decline. Surely, with all those barriers coming down and the end of deference to the ‘wisdom of the past’ we should witnessing a ‘great acceleration’ not the great stagnation that we’re actually stuck in. Globalisation without integration has not delivered.

Note that none of this is an argument against ‘diversity’ in the sense that Chris Dillow uses the word. Rather what I’m saying is that diversity should not be placed in opposition to the wisdom of the past. Specific cultural traditions matter and we should be keeping them alive – not least by including people that were previously excluded.

The conservative response to Dillow’s challenge is therefore one of partial but not complete agreement. We should enlarge not discard our traditions – making greater what made us great.