ON the one hand, conspiracy theories are not good for one’s mental health. On the other, ‘just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you’.
We have a media campaign that suppresses Saudi Arabia’s bombing of children in Yemen, but is only too happy to fulminate about Syrian videos involving purportedly gassed children without hard evidence.
The suspicion that this approach may be dictated by vested interest kick starts a fear there is a conspiracy at work. That gets made worse by noticing the vitriol poured on anyone who continues to question the Western media and government narratives.
This week it was the turn of a rather cool progressive priest called Giles Fraser to find himself rubbished by an otherwise reputable newspaper. I disagree with Giles about a range of ethical issues, but I have never questioned his integrity, only his judgement; who knows, he might turn out to be right, and I wrong.
But instead of questioning his judgement, the hired hand for the national broadsheet went for Giles Fraser’s jugular.
Giles tweeted a photo of his visit to Syria, where he had been invited to be part of a group of Christians who were meeting the Syriac Orthodox Church leaders as well as some politicians.
In the background of one photo was a picture of Assad hanging on the wall. David Aaronovitch, a Times columnist, wrote a long assassination of Giles Fraser’s character ending with: ‘When the portrait on the wall is of a bloody dictator and you instead choose to look out of the window, that odd smell is not apple tea, it’s your own moral decay.’
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the character assassination was ordered by the authorities (one more huge hammer to crack a tiny obscure nut, not that Giles is a nut), the idea that lies behind the character assassination is both important and difficult.
It is ‘guilt by association’; pretty well any kind of association.
I have lost count of the number of times I have put something up on social media that caught my eye as being interesting, only to be shrieked at by someone saying something like ‘how can you publicise that, didn’t you know that “x” or “y” follows them?’. ‘X’ or ‘y’ being in this case people who are supposed to be utterly repulsive for the views that they hold. The idea is that because ‘x’ or ‘y’ are repulsive (to someone) then anyone associated with them shares in their guilt – or as Aaronovitch puts it, ‘the stink of their moral decay’ – and so does anyone approving of the people who approve of these ‘stinkers’.
This guilt by association is a kind of psychological excommunication. It is intended to isolate and condemn anyone whose views are disapproved of. Once tainted, forever tainted – that’s the rule.
So, if Giles Fraser visits Syria, then he is obviously endorsing Assad by association. And if I write in support of Giles visiting Syria (because I think it is a good thing when people meet and talk, even, or perhaps especially, when they disapprove deeply of each other), then I must stink of moral decay too. And if you agree with me, agreeing with Giles, then you do too; and so on, ad infinitum.
Like so many political reactions of deep distaste, this kind is based not only on disgust but on fear; fear of moral or ideological contamination.
And it’s also what lies behind the whole snowflake generation’s horror of allowing people onto university campuses to exchange ideas they dislike or despise. If they are given a platform, then it is seen to amount to approval.
This is a huge cultural shift from what existed until only a few years ago. Ideas were put up in public so they could be tested, and maybe even ridiculed. There was no fear. Argument, debate, rationality and a commitment to discovering the truth was robust enough to allow real freedom of speech without any exceptions. The tradition of Voltaire was one in which truth claims were vigorously and rationally tested.
But if that was true about the ideology, what about moral sensitivities?
One of the great strengths of the Christian tradition is exemplified in the Gospels. Jesus associated often with the ethically incontinent. The religious authorities were very fastidious about moral hierarchies, and contemptuous of the people at the bottom – especially prostitutes and quislings. They attacked Jesus – who rubbed shoulders, ate, drank, socialised with them, and loved them – with a venom that would compare well with Aaronovitch’s. Jesus replied: ‘Sick people need doctors.’ He changed people.
Behind these two approaches to the morally contemptible are two opposite views about the relationship between good and evil.
Aaronovitch and the snowflakes are afraid that evil is so contaminating that virtue (political or ethical) has to keep its distance. Christianity on the one hand, and the rational tradition championed by Voltaire on the other, insist that both good and truth are stronger, and more real, than evil.
Aaronovitch and the snowflakes’ fear leads them to hate and excommunicate. Those who have confidence in the power of goodness and truth can afford to eat, drink and argue with their enemies. And in some cases, perhaps even love them. It has even happened that loving them has changed them. Sick people need doctors; lies need truth.