In the news recently there’s been a story that has kept coming back to me about a conflict in a school between predominantly Muslim parents and an initiative promoting same-sex relationships. The initiative itself was introduced by the Assistant Headteacher, who is gay himself, at Parkfield school in Birmingham. One news report stated that as many as 600 children have been withdrawn by concerned parents and this amounts 80% of the children in the school in question. Ofsted, the UK government schools inspections body, is reported as having sided with the school in question, as have the vast majority of commentators I’ve seen on the story. Others have merely wondered who would win in this struggle between two prized minorities in the liberal arena.
The latest news suggests that the initiative in question has been put on hold until at least after Easter following a consultation with parents.
Whilst this issue is ongoing it’s been really interesting to see how people respond to this. I must also confess that I am sympathetic to the Muslim parents in this instance, who constitute the majority at the school in question. This means it’s highlighted dissonance between my own views on education and those of the progressive majority. The local MP in question also showcased her response to the issue on Twitter and has been broadly reviled by those who have engaged with it particularly by many liberal political commentators.
The issue given seems to be the lack of consultation with the parents in question, this is as a result why the initiative has been postponed until it can take place after Easter. Whilst this seems like merely delaying the inevitable confrontation it does seem justifiable.
Liberals and their treatment of parental objections
Yet liberal commentators, perhaps best depicted by Muslim activist and former extremist Maajid Nawaz, were particularly scathing in what they see as a capitulation to religious extremism.
I think his appeal against moral relativism and identity politics is an interesting one and it seems clear now that whilst the Muslim minority is winning on the ground the air battle on this issue is dominated by advocates of the LGBT position. As we can see by example of Maajid’s comments the main basis of the pro-LGBT argument seems couched in the ubiquity of human rights. The issue with this approach is that it paints Liberalism as foundational when it is nothing of the sort. Liberalism itself usurping the older Classical tradition really only since the Post-War period. Hebert when writing on the work of the political thinker Yoram Hazony writes of contemporary thinking so often couched in language of rights writes…
It is this repudiation of the ultimate veracity of reason that informs the rigid (and brittle) rationalism of modern ideologies. Replacing a supposedly nonexistent objective good with the satisfaction of subjective desires, modern (and post-modern) thinkers see all moral, political, and religious orders as instrumental human constructs. Reason is retained as a tool for shaping and reshaping these orders, not in accordance with nature, but in hopes of better satisfying dominant human desires. This formula reins in various forms of liberalism, whether the desires in question seem to be stable over time (such as the Hobbesian desire for survival or the Lockean desire for property) or to evolve according to an apparently interminable historical process—as with today’s “constant assertion of new human rights,” which are driven by a demand for the absolute and equal affirmation of all ways of life, regardless of objective moral or practical standards.L. Joseph Hebert, Yoram Hazony, “Conservative Democracy,” and the Classical Tradition of Reason and Liberty
What this translates to is that in a world where everything is socially constructed (and subject to deconstruction) by framing an affirming view of LGBT movements in society in terms of Human Rights one can place such topics outside the realm of debate and safe from deconstruction themselves. We see this in other forms of criticism of the Muslim parents by commentators who see LGBT advocacy, from within the liberal tradition, taking priority over that of a faith. In a sense the former is treated as a priori and the latter a posteriori to these people. The below tweet is an example.
Here we see an implicit expression of the axiomatic liberal belief that the unfettered and unmoored individual when born is something of blank slate. Without initial means to process a view of the world or form beliefs around it and that this forms a primary means of individual formation. This is a vision of children in particular that sees them initially unformed by family, community, custom, culture, or in any sense of continuity with how they even came into the world, they are atomised and belong to thee as much as they do me. When coupled with the belief that sexual orientation is hardwired it becomes a given that it should be treated equally to any other form of relationship and devoid of context, love is love as the saying goes. By contrast religion or culture is something ‘learned’ or later, in Lockean terms, consented to. Therefore a natural response by a liberal to someone saying their child is too young to be taught LGBT doctrine is they are inevitably too young to be taught about their culture or religion.
Human Rights cannot be understood without obligations and are as a result contrary to liberal doctrines of consent
We also see in this a totally blinkered view of anything outside the individual. That there might be an ‘ought’ we are beholden to determined by an agent outside ourselves. This, irrespective of any appeal to metaphysics, is anathema to the liberal because the very idea of the ‘ought’ introduces the idea that with rights there might be obligations. Simone Weil, the activist and mystic, writing in the 2nd war, and before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wrote…
The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation towards him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind
It makes nonsense to say that men have, on the one hand, rights, and on the other hand, obligations. Such words only express differences in point of view. The actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, amongst which are certain duties towards himself. A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatever, but he would have obligations.
Yet we live in an age of rights whilst trying to escape obligations, these exist in a general sense but the idea of an individual having anything expectant upon them cuts against the Liberal doctrine of consent. The fact that an unborn baby has rights is dependant on the obligations beholden upon, among others their Mother. As Weil states it means nothing if the Mother refuses to recognise her obligations to her child and choses to abort it. Yet if everything is socially constructed, and there is nothing beyond it, then both the obligations and its rights become ephemeral.
Liberalism and the Buffered Self
We also, thanks to such comments, get a window here into what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the buffered self. A total segregation of the individual from any notion of the transcendent beyond that which is consented to. One cannot be possessed in any sense, one is not beholden, because one has not consented to such. Here we see that liberalism is actually predicated on a form of secular humanism, itself not so much an independant or coherent worldview but a perversion of classical and Protestant Christians beliefs that married rights and obligations. To the Muslim, or in my case the Christian, parent this is not the case. They and their children are self-consciously porous rather than buffered and this isn’t a belief so much as a recognition of the reality which affects everyone, like an addict who confesses their addiction. In light of this religion is as much a part of a person as is sexuality and contextualises how one works out the latter according to the ‘ought’ beholden upon them. This ‘ought’ is what CS Lewis called the ‘Tao’ when he wrote on education in his ‘Abolition of Man’. Borrowing the term and word from traditional Chinese philosophy and religion he wrote…
It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p 31
Lewis, recognised objective value as being something universally held by all major philosophical traditions until the latter half of the twentieth century in the West. In light of this the actions of Muslim parents does not seem so shocking. The Theologian and Philosopher John Milbank was one of the few people who picked up on this…
The perversion of state education as a threat to civil liberties
Milbank also correctly points out the implication for subverting the beliefs of the parents something they believe as fundamental as a claim on the children themselves by the state. This is made all the more evident by statements made by Ofsted head Amanda Spielman…
Parents and community leaders see schools as vehicles to “indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology” in the worst cases, Amanda Spielman says. In a speech today, she will call on head teachers to “tackle those who actively undermine fundamental British values”, facing them down using “muscular liberalism” rather than being afraid of causing offence.Extremists use schools to pervert education, says Ofsted head Amanda Spielman, The Times, February 1st, 2019
Here we see the ambiguous concept of ‘British values’ being used as a poorly veiled trojan horse for what here is called ‘muscular liberalism’. Yet by the standards of historical empiricism muscular liberalism in education is itself a form of ‘extremist ideology’ at odds with what was traditionally understood to be the aim of Children’s education in the West. More so that if liberalism really is predicated on a form of secular humanism it is hostile to religion and ergo Britain and its history. Education was predominantly related to what St Augustine and before him Aristotle called the ordo amoris. CS Lewis describes this ordering of the loves as…
The ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p 29
This is radically different to our ascendant technical or utilitarian vision of education wherein the state sets a curriculum best suited to mould individuals into that which may be of best use to itself. Let us ask ourselves what determines the ordo amoris? In an immediate sense such claims are determined by the context the child is born into, that is their family, culture, and religion. So to subvert this, to espouse a top-down rather than bottom-up view of education, is to provide a means for future imperialisms. This is done by eroding those multiple and competing institutions that Richard John Neuhaus described as “between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” Including but not limited to the family or church so that the state has unfiltered access to the individual in order to communicate its own ordo amoris. Without opposition, buffers, competition, this leads to statism.
This is the fundamental weakness of ‘muscular liberalism’ that T.S Eliot picked out in his work ‘The Idea of a Christian Society’. In it he writes…
That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination. By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.TS Eliot, Idea of a Christian Society
What Eliot is saying is that whilst liberalism loosens the ties that bind this will inevitably come to a point where society will begin to come apart. This then paves the way for motivated minorities to exert disproportionate influence in society (Kauffman’s Asymmetrical Multiculturalism and reactions to it could be an example of this) which forces a liberal society to exert increasingly ‘artificial, mechanized or brutalized control’ and thus ceasing to be liberal. I think we can see this in the increasingly distinction between classical liberals and progressives, the latter of which show a much more willingness to coerce and compel others to accept their beliefs. This helps us make sense of comments from someone like Maajid Nawaz, quoted earlier in this piece when he writes to an MP “You’re meant to be a *progressive* member of Parliament, not a lobbyist for *conservative* Muslim fanatics. This is the morally relativist, vacuous #RegressiveLeft in action” Showing himself to be much more on the collectivist and authoritarian end of progressive liberalism.
The limits of liberalism
So what is to be done? If this is true, no matter one’s views on Islam and these Muslim parents, the reactions to this suggest that we are reaching the late stages of liberalism. We are finding ourselves straying into discourse and politics that are increasingly coming from a place of coercive ‘muscular progressivism’ which is further supported by a successive decline in support for democracy across generations.
This was a trend predicted by literary Christians like CS Lewis and TS Eliot. WH Auden, himself someone who struggled with same sex attraction, was also someone who saw this trend and it came out in a number of his poems. A good example of this is his poem to the ‘Unknown Citizen’ a play on the trope of the Unknown Soldier of the 20th century which had come to be seen as totemic of the idealised attributes desired by the state in a person. One section reads…
Our researchers into Public Opinion are contentWH Auden, The Unknown Citizen
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
The telling difference is the Unknown Citizens of today are increasingly unwilling to have children of their own but wish to pontificate and legislate on the fate of other people’s children as is shown by this Parkfield business. Today’s Citizens have managed to exceed the standards of even Auden’s satire. Yet Auden points out in another poem ‘Under Which Lyre’ that the solution to this mess is in the rejection of the technical society. Appropriating Nietzsche’s use of Dionysius and Apollo he contrasts the battalions of Apollonian Technocracy against the forces of the youthful Hermes the Messenger as a representative of both the Classical and Post-Modern (the Post-Liberal) world.
In our morale must lie our strength:WH Auden, Under Which Lyre
So, that we may behold at length
Battalions melt away like fog,
Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
Which runs as follows:–
Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
Auden foreshadows Pink Floyd’s personalist and populist refrain “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” most recently taken up by the children and parents of Parkfield Community School. We don’t know how the situation there will ultimately conclude but it has underscored the limits and dangers of the liberal political system. Society would do well in turn to take up the Hermetic Decalogue, to choose the side of Huxley’s John the Savage against the Mustapha Mond’s of this brave new world. To go forward, as CS Lewis says, by being willing to occasionally go backwards…
We all want progress. Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.CS Lewis, The Case for Christianity
If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
One doesn’t need to consent to the statements made by the parents of the Parkfield students to recognise the issues being raised by this confrontation. It is my own view that both parties in their own ways give causes for concern, however, whilst one may find the statements of the parents inflammatory the response of the commentariat and the state, and their claim over the child, I find personally to have much more far reaching and disturbing implications.