Facts don’t care about your feelings. The phrase, associated with the American right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, has by now become something of a cliché among conservatives. It’s usually aimed at “snowflake” liberals who (as the theory goes) prioritise emotion over reality– for instance, those who claim that a person’s sex is determined by their feelings, rather than by their biology.
Well, that’s fair enough, as far it goes. But the funny thing is that both the left and the right, today, habitually accuse each other of ignoring reality in favour of feelings. The left, for instance, shake their heads at the “denialism” of climate change sceptics, and lament that conservatives won’t “look at the research” on an issue such as same-sex parenting. The prestige of mere feelings in political and social discourse is not very high in our time.
In spite of all this, I am going to write about my feelings in this article. Facts may not care about feelings, but I care about them. So, I believe, do you — and so does everybody else.
Here’s a good reason to take feelings seriously. How often have you found yourself in a debate with somebody and realised, at some point, that nothing you say could sway that person?
For instance, in the context of our own country, there seems to be a visceral rejection of anything that could be labelled “backwards” or “insular”, or in any way reminiscent of “Dev’s Ireland”. Often this depth of feeling betrays itself in sudden little signals — a curled lip, a pained look, a catch in the voice. In such moments, we become aware that far more is at stake than a simple intellectual analysis.
I’m certainly not suggesting we should give up on reason, or that we should embrace a “post-truth” attitude, but I do think we should take feelings seriously — our own feelings, and those of our contemporaries. Perhaps we should even practice a greater candour on the topic. Who knows? Such candour might facilitate a more fruitful discussion between left and right, conservative and liberal,since we will no longer be avoiding the heart of the matter.
When I ponder my own conservatism, I realize that one particular feeling plays a big part in it: that is, the feeling that contemporary society is almost unbearably banal, and that progressivism is pushing it even further in the direction of banality.
What do I mean by banal? Well, one quotation to which I turn again and again, in trying to explain this feeling comes from the essay “Can Socialists be Happy?” by George Orwell, written in 1943. Orwell was a socialist, but one capable of seeing his opponents’ point of view. He vividly describes the fear of a socialist utopia that he believed many anti-socialists felt, and a fear with which he sympathised himself:
“By far the best known modern Utopias are those of H.G. Wells. Wells’ vision of the future is almost fully expressed in two books written in the early Twenties, ‘The Dream’ and ‘Men Like Gods’. Here you have a picture of the world as Wells would like to see it or thinks he would like to see it. It is a world whose keynotes are enlightened hedonism and scientific curiosity. All the evils and miseries we now suffer from have vanished. Ignorance, war, poverty, dirt, disease, frustration, hunger, fear, overwork, superstition all vanished. So expressed, it is impossible to deny that that is the kind of world we all hope for. We all want to abolish the things Wells wants to abolish. But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia? On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygienic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive. A book like ‘Brave New World’ is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create.”
Another quotation relevant here comes from the English utilitarian philosopher John Stuart MIll, who died in 1873. In his autobiography, he described how his own sense of purpose was entirely invested in achieving social reform, and this seemed enough to give his life fulfilment. For a while, at least:
“In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.”
It’s a question I think modern-day progressives should ask themselves. What if all their social reforms were achieved tomorrow? What if gender stereotypes, the gap between rich and poor, financial hardship, social privilege, compulsion, sectarianism, “othering”, sexual repression, and all the ills that they lament were to vanish like a ghost in the first light of dawn? What then?
Would the world really be a better place? Or would much that had given life colour, charm, character, drama, and so forth, have been pulled up along with the extirpated injustices? For instance, would the loss of gender stereotypes be entirely positive, or would the world be poorer without the traditional ideals of masculinity and femininity, whatever their shortcomings?
This might all seem fairly abstract, but I feel this “weight of banality” very concretely in contemporary Irish society. As I see it, everything that gives depth and meaning to Irish national life is a legacy of the past, while practically everything that is distinctive of modern Ireland is superficial, trashy, and insipid.
I prefer the Ireland of the Sacred Heart picture on the wall, the street ballad, and the céilí to the Ireland of the drag queen, the Rubber Bandits, and the Millennium Spire.
One event that always comes to mind when I think of this creeping banality is Ireland’s repeal of the ban on Good Friday alcohol sales in 2018. It’s a perfect example, because the case against the ban was so easy to make in rational terms. Nobody (as we were constantly reminded) had to buy alcohol on Good Friday if they didn’t want to. The ban had never stopped anyone from stocking up on booze the day before. Non-Christians shouldn’t be forced to observe a Christian solemnity. It cost the publicans business. And so forth.
But when all these very reasonable-sounding arguments were accepted and the ban was lifted, what was the result? That one day in the year that had been marked as a little bit special, a little bit different, was now just the same as every other day in the year. Ireland was one step closer towards becoming a completely consumerist, hedonistic, secular, privatized society. And this is all-too-often the upshot of liberal, secular reforms: specialness, difference, character, and communality are diminished.
Another example of this banalisation is the ubiquity of quotations from the TV series ‘Father Ted’, which mercilessly lampooned the supposedly narrow-minded, hypocritical, pious Ireland of the past. The show was genuinely witty, at the time, but more than two decades later, lines from it are regurgitated in Irish discourse to the point of tedium, each one delivered as an unanswerable put-down. If you express offence at some particularly egregious display of vulgarity on TV, you can confidently expect the jeering rejoinder: “Down with this sort of thing. Careful now!”. If you suggest Ireland is at risk of losing its Irishness to multiculturalism, you will be met with the line: “I hear you’re a racist now, Father! Should we all be racist now?”. And don’t dare question whether greater prosperity and freedom is always a good thing, or some wiseacre will pipe up: “Maybe I like the misery!”.
This tiresome practice is only one manifestation of a broader phenomenon in Irish life: the endless proliferation of irony, the allergic reaction against anything that resembles reverence or solemnity or earnestness. The only reverence allowed today is a negative reverence, a fear of offending against politically correct taboos. I have sometimes wondered if this is not better than nothing, for all my dislike of political correctness.
Rational debate is a good thing. Indeed, it’s essential. But on its own, it’s incomplete. Human beings have other needs, needs outside the purview of “sophisters, economists, and calculators”, (to quote the great Edmund Burke). They have a need for tradition, for custom, for community, for continuity, for the sublime. Liberal and progressive reforms tend to take a wrecking ball to whatever satisfies these needs. They create a desert, and they call it liberation.