So I saw Alasdair MacIntyre speak last night at the London Metropolitan University in the Islamic Republic of Tower Hamlets (they recently elected a radical Muslim as mayor there). He spoke, appropriately enough, of the need for greater censorship in our amoral liberal society.
MacIntyre is, briefly, perhaps the strongest critic of liberalism today, which he criticizes from a communitarian point-of-view – he suggests liberal individualism has failed to come up with a common moral system or a common sense of the end of life, which means we live in atomised fake societies in which we no longer possess even the possibility of moral discussion. He’s a cheery old sod.
He seems, in his extremely readable magnum opus, After Virtue, to wish for a return to Medieval times, when Christendom was united under Christian Aristotelianism, and the Church played an important role in guiding souls to eternal bliss. But he’s also a bit of a Marxist. So all kinds of people are into him – from Terry Eagleton to Phillip Blond. If you talk about the need to return to ideas of ‘the good life’, chances are you’ve read MacIntyre – or you should have.
Last night, he suggested that proper political deliberation is impossible in western societies, because so many opinions are tolerated, even ones that are obviously wrong and toxic, such as denying the Holocaust or supporting creationism. We should practice selective rational intolerance – some points of view should simply not be tolerated, and if people hold them, they should be excluded from holding public office, including teaching positions.
He broadened this to a more general attack on freedom of information in liberal societies, including our access to any book we want.
He said we need to re-attain a recognition that reading is dangerous, that some books are dangerous. He says: “When I was at university in the 1940s, the Papal Index of Prohibited Books was still in place. So anytime a Catholic student wanted to read a book that was on the Index, they would have to ask permission of the Church, by leaving a note in the chaplaincy. That included books by Descartes, Hobbes, Pascal and others. Now permission was always given. But a point was made: reading these books is hazardous for your soul. By reading them, you are putting your soul in danger. And that’s right. These books are dangerous for your mortal soul. The people writing them knew this very well.”
MacIntyre says we need to re-attain what Aristotle saw as the proper order of education: some books should be read later than others. You can’t really appreciate or absorb in the right way certain books until you have read other books first and attained a certain maturity. Otherwise they will be dangerous for you – like doing LSD when you are 14.
He even suggested that full political participation should be denied, in an ideal society, until you have completed a full course of reading that would include, say, Shakespeare and Aristotle.
But this sort of political education is impossible in our society, because everything is available to everyone in any order. Books carry no public health warning. They don’t even have age guidelines. My God…does anyone even read books anymore?
I asked him if that meant that the internet would be banned in his ideal society – banned was probably the wrong word. Perhaps ‘far more centrally controlled and censored’ is the right phrase. He said: ‘We should look to the example of that very wise organization, the Communist Party of China, who, in their censorship of the internet, have come up with a bad answer to a very good question.’
Well…he’s certainly not your usual liberal academic!
At one point, a woman complained that his ideas would be an infringement on ‘free young minds’. He replied: ‘I don’t believe in free minds, and certainly not in free young minds’.
If MacIntyre is the future, then I think the future is going to look like a cross between Brave New World and Planet of the Apes, with MacIntyre as Dr Zaius.
The problem is…who decides what is ‘dangerous for the soul’ and what isn’t? How do we prevent those who decide from using their powers of censorship to protect their own hold on power?
Liberalism may be an amoral system, but more authoritarian and opaque systems, such as the Catholic Church or the Communist governments of Russia and China, have surely been worse…
The challenge is whether we can combine an idea of the good life, or at least, a common pursuit of the good life, with some or most of the freedoms of a liberal society – because as MacIntyre knows, we need the freedom to be able to deliberate and come to our own decisions.