16 May 2019
Abortion and Alabama
The march of piety.
By John Watson
So what have they got in common? Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana and now Alabama. Two things really. The first is that they are all American states in which the legislature is moving to restrict or abolish abortion. Not that any of the bans has come into effect yet – that is likely to be the subject of litigation in the Supreme Court – but with the conservative majority there they may do so in the future. The second is that they are a long way away and full (one would presume) of hillbillies and backwoodsmen of one sort or another. At least that is how it looks to us in modern liberal Britain and it is easy, when sipping a second glass of white wine in Hampstead or Highgate, to take a slightly patronising tone:
“Well, what do you expect, darling? In places like that everyone has been marrying their grandmothers for generations, so eccentricities are only natural.”
But this writing off of six American states as a glorified extension of the Forest of Dean misses the central trend. Tolerance is in retreat everywhere and a new strictness – where ideas are taken seriously (rather odd biblical ideas in the case of the states in question) and put into effect – is taking hold in its place.
Even in Britain, the natural home of laissez-faire, social attitudes are changing. The Jeremy Kyle show is being removed from the airwaves not just because someone committed suicide but because there is a genuine public revulsion for entertainment of that sort. It may well prove a tipping point. Prepare for a new age of censorship as the public expresses its disapproval at the vacuous and malign nature of much which is currently offered to us by way of entertainment. Whether that censorship is imposed by the authorities or by social pressures remains to be seen, but the new strictness will make itself felt one way or another. The days of anything goes are over and, as Danny Baker has found out, even comedians need to be careful not to overstep the mark.
Intolerance is coming back and, uncomfortable as that may be for the liberal minded, it has clear advantages when changes to behaviour and attitude are required. Take recent changes to the way in which the public views minorities, as an example. You might say that allowing people to self-select their sex takes liberalism to a new extreme and shows society in a very tolerant and easy-going light. In a sense it does but look then at how the changes in sexual attitude have been achieved; the no-platforming of speakers, the withdrawal of academic honours, the jumping on anything which could possibly be construed as conflicting with the current piety. There is nothing tolerant and liberal about this. The new “tolerance” is being enforced with an iron hand.
To an extent this is a familiar pattern. Society has always alternated between the relaxed and the strict. The ruthless Protestantism of Cromwell’s puritans gave way to the louche attitudes of Restoration England; the freethinking Georgians gave way to the pious Victorians; the children of the disciplined generation who won the war were the baby boomers. Forward and backwards goes the pendulum, the piety of one generation being succeeded by the irreverence of the next and then back to piety we go.
So where in this procession of alternating strictness and loucheness do we now stand? There are plenty of clues. It is not so long ago that a Prime Minister was anxious to create “cool Britannia”. The successes of Thatcherism have degenerated into a hedonism where wealth and success are commonly seen as an entitlement rather than a privilege carrying a responsibility. Jeremy Kyle’s show was on ITV. On the rollercoaster of our social attitudes, it must be time for movements towards strictness and intolerance.
However, it isn’t just the movement of some eternal wave which is driving this. It may be true that “Cometh the hour: cometh the man” but that is only part of the story. Where there is a need, a real need, social attitudes will adjust themselves to meet it. And the need is clearly upon us. It is not necessary to be a member of Extinction Rebellion to understand that we need to change the way we live to reduce the pressure on our environment. We all know too that in addition to reforming our own way of living we need to persuade others to reform theirs too. In these post-imperialist days that can only be done by social pressures and that means little social tolerance for those who do not conform. Without intolerance we can achieve nothing and are doomed.
So next time you read that the forces of intolerance are resurgent in the US or some other distant part of the world and wince at the ugliness of the result, you need to bear in mind that what you’re seeing is the nasty backwash of a wider social trend, but that the trend itself is our lifeblood.