Days 49-50: Clean pale hands / There is no authority that we won’t argue with

‘’As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. Its once honourable attempt to reimagine our society in a more equitable way now embodies all the worst aspects that religion has to offer (and none of the beauty) — moral certainty and self-righteousness shorn even of the capacity for redemption. It has become quite literally, bad religion run amuck.’ Nick Cave

My religious upbringing, and my abandoning of it, has seeped into a few songs I’ve written over the years. Clean Pale Hands was inspired by an encounter with a Jehovah’s Witness, whose devotion left me feeling simultaneously disturbed and envious. Would I be happier, I wondered, if I was that certain about the big questions of life and death? For a very short time during my early teens I was heading that way – hence the line ‘you might have had me when I was thirteen’ – but it didn’t last. There is no authority that we won’t argue with is a more defiant song – it refers to God as ‘some bastard in the sky’ which probably wouldn’t go down well at my mum and dad’s church – but also expresses a similar envy in its opening lines: ‘When the light fades, when the light’s almost gone, they’ll be happy, sure of what’s coming next.’ Is death less frightening, I wondered, if you’re not only sure there’s an afterlife but have a clear mental picture of what it will look like?

Ultimately, neither song is really about religion per se, more about certainty and my lack of it. As both songs suggest, I’m even uncertain about whether my lack of certainty is a good thing or not. My tendency in any conflict situation is always to try and see the opposite side of an argument. It’s served me well as a journalist – in fact it’s probably why I became a journalist – but it’s less helpful when talking to a loved one who is suffering and needs solidarity and support rather than a defence of the person who’s wronged them that’s presented purely for the sake of argument. Neither has it made me a very good political activist. To push for change, you have to be reasonably sure of the rightness of your cause. I rarely am.

Of course, religious belief has no monopoly on the kind of moral certainty I find limiting and often disturbing. I knew this from a young age, having discovered that Joseph Stalin was an atheist – I can’t remember how but probably from someone defending religion – but I’ve often found myself repelled by the moral certainty with which people who are, in lots of ways, political allies will argue particular points – that eating meat is morally indefensible, for example, or, more recently, that the police need to be defunded. By this I mean arguments that I feel some affinity with but to which there is clearly another, also persuasive side, as opposed to arguments I find repugnant on every level, such as Holocaust denial. Twice in my life I’ve joined a political party – Labour, and then the Greens – and abandoned them soon afterwards, both times after encountering people whose moral certainty – and whose inability to see the negative impacts it had, or the hypocrisies inherent in their position – bothered me too much.

I’ve been mulling over Nick Cave’s recent blog, quoted above, quite a lot. The blog has been divisive, understandably, because he’s discussing two phrases – ‘political correctness’ and ‘cancel culture’ – that are frequently used to muddy or distort an argument rather than try and bring any clarity or common ground to it. Assumptions have been made about what he’s saying, why he’s saying it, and who he is criticising. The argument has been amplified further by being published not long after an open letter in Harpers magazine, criticising ‘an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty’..

I’ve seen other variations of this claim, most recently in an article by Caitlin Moran observing that ‘this is, undeniably, a far more inflexible and judgemental era than when I was a teenager, or young woman’. It was conspicuous to me how carefully Moran was choosing her words; it was something I recognised. The issues here are complex, and the Harpers letter has provoked some strong responses, some of which I sympathise with, but my own recent experience on social media in particular is that cultural battle lines are constantly being drawn and you are expected to pick a side, not just in individual arguments but in your whole outlook on life. A position on one issue is assumed to reflect your position on numerous others. Your choice of particular words is assumed to be loaded with hidden meaning and intent. The words that jumped out for me in Cave’s blog, though, were not ‘cancel culture’ or ‘political correctness’ but ‘as far as I can see’. Not a phrase you see often on Twitter.

At the same time, I understand why some people have reacted negatively to it. If you feel constantly embattled, oppressed, discriminated against, by people’s language as much as their actions, then I can see why language might always look like a weapon, and why phrases like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘political correctness’ might provoke, regardless of what Cave understands them to mean or how he is using them, because of the associations they already have. It obviously doesn’t help when newspaper columnists report his comments like this:  ‘Snowflakes and cancel-culturists across Britain and the world were offended today – well of course they were – after a 62-year-old man called them out in spectacular fashion, leaving them without a moral or intellectual leg to stand on.”

This, as far as I can see, was not Nick Cave’s intention at all, and it’s telling that the columnist quoted above showed very little interest in the first – and, to me, much more important – section of the blog, in which Cave talks about mercy, a quality that both righteous newspaper columnists and angry Twitter activists frequently lack.

“Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society. Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe — to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself. Mercy allows us the ability to engage openly in free-ranging conversation — an expansion of collective discovery toward a common good. If mercy is our guide we have a safety net of mutual consideration, and we can, to quote Oscar Wilde, “play gracefully with ideas. Yet mercy is not a given. It is a value we must nurture and aspire to. Tolerance allows the spirit of enquiry the confidence to roam freely, to make mistakes, to self-correct, to be bold, to dare to doubt and in the process to chance upon new and more advanced ideas. Without mercy society grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless.”

This actually reminded me of the best aspects of my religious upbringing. As a child I learned about mercy, forgiveness, and redemption from the Bible, and those values have shaped much of my life since, even if I’ve long abandoned the religious belief or reverence that went along with them. I still feel a lot of empathy with people who are religious. In fact, I’m just about to record a new EP whose opening song expresses some affinity with Presbyterians. But that’s a story for another day.




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