Boris Johnson, assumed virtue, and self-generated sensitivity

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Boris Johnson, assumed virtue, and self-generated sensitivity

Even considering the panorama of nonsense the liberal consensus offers us it has truly excelled itself with this latest Boris debacle, says Sean Walsh. Indeed, has this piece of well-crafted rubbish been bettered, he asks?

“The rottenness of Boris Johnson goes deeper than his casual racism and his equally casual courting of fascism. He will advocate literally anything to play to the crowd of the moment. His career is a saga of moral emptiness and lies”.

It’s almost as if it’s the “casualness” that offends, and that if Johnson offered more than a Primark racism all would be well. The author of these remarks is one Andrew Cooper…an adviser to David Cameron on the evening of the night that no longer counts. Need one say more? I am unaware of any contribution to public life that has the imprimatur of Mr Cooper. As far as I am aware he has, in cosmic terms, not “troubled the scorers”. Let’s assimilate him to that wonderful taxonomy of things offered by the late David Bowie, of “songs that please the ear but leave the mind alone”.

Except…he doesn’t, in his nastiness, please the ear.

Let’s call him Exhibit A.

Clearly Boris Johnson’s remarks were offensive. For that he should be commended, as the people who have decided to be offended are precisely the people it’s right to offend.  See Exhibit A. If it were possible to offend the same people without them actually enjoying the experience then that would be a sort of polemicist’s alchemy. But we should not hope for too much. Let us acknowledge that Johnson’s remarks make for a promising start. Confected offence is the enforcement mechanism of our current culture of intolerance; it needs to be faced down at all costs.

Because here’s a thought: if you’re offended maybe it’s your fault.

We have obligations of  feeling as well as of belief and action. Aristotle wrote that happiness is an activity of the soul calibrated in accordance with virtue. It is our duty to contain possible excesses of feeling if they are likely to lead us in a bad direction. What is virtue? Aristotle identified these: courage, justice, prudence and temperance. The attack on Johnson has been cowardly, disingenuous, unwise and immoderate. The collective condemnation of Johnson on behalf of secular liberalism has, in other words, been vicious. Obviously, Aristotle is not contemporary. He was writing two and a half thousand years ago. And yet his navigation of the topography of the human soul seems more accomplished than that of anything offered by his secular inheritors. That something offends you is a challenge to you not to the person who has offended you. If it is wrong to give gratuitous offence then it is wrong also to gratuitously take offence.

And to those who say we have outgrown the complicated and nuanced structures of Aristotle’s moral psychology we can say this: maybe he had a point and maybe the fact that he wrote to us a letter from that temporally distant location is of no interest. As GK Chesterton said, why prefer Thursday over Wednesday simply because it’s Thursday?

Following Aristotle….it is an obligation not to receive a sense datum as “offensive” but to integrate it into your moral life and assess its role in the life of practical reason. A spiritual axiom of the 12 Step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous is this: if there is something wrong with you it is wrong with you. The genius of the 12 step program is its identification of a mode of living that is suitable for all of us.

Why are politicians even interested in what Johnson said? Those of us who ever announce a form of religious belief know the score: please be quiet and keep it to yourself. The secularist project becomes yet more transparent:  “What’s that you say? Worried about immigration? Or the burka? Or the culture of death that now prohibits any public objection to abortion? We get it. Let’s have a debate! Only…..don’t say this….or this….”. but to announce the need for a debate and then claim ownership of the language of the debate is to shut down debate.

David Berlinski recently lamented the death of vituperation. He pointed out that there are certain things we are no longer permitted to say. The world of Mark Twain and HL Mencken is no longer a possibility for us, he writes. In place of the learned scorn of an FE Smith has arrived the trollism of the comment box irritant who having read six copies of the latest atheism du jour believes he’s Sam Harris. Even Sam Harris, if you follow his own argument, has no reason to believe he’s Sam Harris.

The culture of assumed virtue and self-generated sensitivity needs to be faced down at every point. The only thing wrong with Boris Johnson’s comments is that they are by no means offensive enough.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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