In praise of modesty

“Thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way” – so sang Maurice Chevalier in the late 1950’s. This is not something that I ever gave much thought to – at least, not until I had daughters of my own – and I wonder if Chevalier could possibly sing the same now.

Consider, for example, the charmingly named ‘slutwalk’. This began in Toronto, in response to a police officer’s comment that, in order to be safer, “women should avoid dressing like sluts”. The officer’s comment was rude but realistic. Men are simple creatures. We have a biological system that is hard-wired to respond to signals of sexual availability – like exposed flesh – and whenever presented with such signals there is an instant limbic response which pushes testosterone into the body in order to prepare for a mating opportunity. This is our biological inheritance – what St Paul often called ‘the flesh’ – and the challenge for a civilised man is to ensure that these triggers do not overwhelm our wider values. When successful this is called character, the product of being trained in the virtues of self-restraint.

The problem with the slutwalk approach is that it believes that all men should have achieved that character before being allowed out in public. In other words, it rejects what I described in my last column as our fallen world. It does not recognise that the world is imperfect, and unlikely to be made perfect any time soon. To offer an analogy – if you are dealing with a recovering alcoholic then it is generally considered a good idea to make sure that access to alcohol is restricted, for the simple reason that the habit of self-restraint has not been properly fostered. The slutwalk attitude seems to imply that waving a bottle of vodka beneath an alcoholic’s nose has absolutely nothing to do with their subsequent falling off the wagon. Very powerful passions are provoked – and the slutwalk is simply an abuse of power, an exercise in bullying.

This might seem to be ‘blaming the victim’ but that is not what I am trying to describe. A man who is unable to exercise a brake upon his passions is morally culpable for whatever they then do – I don’t subscribe to our modern fad for medicalising our moral failures – but this is the world that we actually live in. It is simply imprudent to act so recklessly, with such brazen disregard for the consequences of our actions – and to then present that as a higher virtue simply reveals the moral depravity into which our culture has now sunk.

What we as a society need to do is work on our virtues more, recognising that many of the other benefits of social living that we take for granted depend upon a prior framework of accepted values in order to function. For example, business, politics and scientific research would all be impossible without the virtue of trust, which allows colleagues in the field to take what is said at face value. It is our virtues that make us free.

The slutwalk is not an exercise in freedom, but rather a parade of slaves to social and biological desires. In order to overcome such slavery, and gain a genuine freedom, virtues need to be cultivated, and the crucial virtue in this context is the virtue of modesty. I like the way that the Christian writer Kahlil Gibran described it: “modesty is for a shield against the eyes of the unclean”. In other words, modesty is about not provoking a sexual response in the course of carrying out the normal business of life because to do so would be a distraction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Even worse, by dissipating the power of the erotic through wall-to-wall exposure of flesh, the genuinely holy and creative power of the erotic in its proper place is vitiated. This is one aspect of the evil of the tabloid newspaper industry, and its prurient lack of propriety. Modesty, after all, has as its corollary the capacity to blush – blush at our own indiscretions but also at the revelation of someone else’s. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

So am I arguing for a complete covering up? Do I believe that we should adopt the chador as customary women’s clothing in our society? No, but I believe that there is a value in the Muslim approach which should not be dismissed. There is surely a happy and creative middle point between the slutwalk and the chador, one where our daughters can grow up to be respected as whole individuals and not simply evaluated as pieces of meat. I believe modesty is an essential component of that fuller life, a fuller life that includes a proper appreciation of the erotic. Modesty does not mean unsexy, after all – it simply leaves more room for the imagination to work, and that is the most important sexual organ of all.

Adam and Eve and Assisted Dying

The story of Adam and Eve from the Book of Genesis is one of the truest stories that we know. By that I do not mean that it is an accurate account of historical events – which would render a trivial truth at best – but rather that it is a story which tells us profound truths about our human nature. It is a story that reveals us to ourselves.

The story is about a loss of innocence, and then a process of blaming and accusation, followed by an expulsion from Paradise. This is a true story because this is something which happens repeatedly in human life. Christianity talks about this using the language of ‘The Fall’ – that is, we understand this world as Fallen, by which we mean that it is broken, that things go wrong, that the world is not operating in the way that was intended. Christians also believe, of course, that what went wrong with Adam is put right with Jesus – “a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came” – but this understanding does not remove a sense of the world being broken, in which things and people have gone wrong and will continue to go wrong again.

This is something of a ‘tragic vision’, but it is also, I would suggest, a very realistic one. Moreover, it is a vision that has distinct and practical consequences for how we should live from day to day. That is, this is a theology that has political implications – which all authentic theology does. To bring this out, I would like to look at the discussion about ‘Assisted Dying’ that has been in the papers recently.

Early in this New Year, a report was released by a committee headed by Lord Falconer, which was exploring this issue. I would point out straight away that this committee was largely self-selected, and paid for by active supporters of euthanasia, so it doesn’t qualify as an ‘independent commission’ in the laudable sense of that phrase. The committee argued for a change in British law to make it more straightforward for people to help their loved ones ‘die with dignity’.

I can understand why there is a desire to see such a change in the law. Some of the circumstances that have led people to seek to end their own life are indeed truly horrifying, and it would seem as though it is simply compassionate to allow such deaths to take place more easily, without leaving grieving relatives at risk of prosecution. Yet, as the legal saying has it, ‘hard cases make bad law’. The law has to concern itself with the likely use to which it may be put, not simply how it may be deployed in an extreme case.

Which brings me back to the Fall. One of the implications of accepting that we live in a Fallen world – and the sort of circumstances which lead people to support euthanasia are clear evidence that we do – is to expect that people will tend towards making the wrong judgement. Just as Eve listened to the serpent, and Adam listened to Eve, so too will people go along with things which seem like a good idea at the time even when they have been told explicitly – with divine authority! – that certain things must not be done. In other words, when designing laws we should expect and anticipate that they will be used by people with poor or malicious motives. We are not angels, we are Fallen human beings, and that means that we will each of us, sometimes, act wrongly.

If, therefore, we change the law to allow euthanasia – which is what the euphemism ‘assisted dying’ is really describing – then we can expect that it will mean that, sometimes, people will be pressured into ending their lives by people who are acting from wrong motives. Sometimes there will be an explicitly evil intention – lets get rid of Granny so we can seize her inheritance – and sometimes there will simply be accidents and misunderstandings – Granny chooses to end her life earlier because she believes that she will be a burden to the rest of the family, even when the rest of the family would be horrified by such a thought. It doesn’t matter what the specific safeguards are which are put in place to prevent such things occurring – for all arrangements are subject to human use, and in a Fallen world it is that human use which leads to things going wrong.

Clearly, our present system is not a perfect one. Yet accepting that we live in a Fallen world means accepting that we are never likely to obtain a perfect system, and certainly not by our own inevitably compromised efforts. The question is about what sort of imperfection it is better to live with. Do we wish to live in a world which affirms the theoretical sanctity of life, but has a little bit of humane and practical leeway in extreme circumstances – at the cost of some terrible stories about people who believe that their lives are not worth living and who cannot legally end their existence? Or would we rather live in a world where such people were enabled to end their lives when they chose, but at the cost of knowing that some people are now pressured into ending their lives prematurely – and that the law provides a cover for such things to take place? Neither outcome is pure, neither outcome reflects the world as it was intended to be – but that is because we live in a Fallen world, and those are the implications that follow.

Personally, I believe that we have to stand for the right to life, even when doing so carries a significant cost. I was very much moved by the example of the late Pope John Paul II, who at the end of his life experienced great suffering as the ravages of old age overtook him. Yet I believe God also used that time to make him a witness to the sanctity of life, a living embodiment of what he had taught. I read recently a comment saying that, in the future, when Christianity has largely died out in a secular and decadent West, Christians will not be known for how they worship or who they follow, but simply as that strange bunch of people who don’t kill babies and don’t kill their old people. I could live with that.

Trigger’s Broom and Living Traditions

In one episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ Trigger is boasting about having received an award from the local council for having used the same broom for twenty years – and he then reveals that in that twenty years the broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. Is it the same broom?

This is actually a new form of an ancient philosophical argument, first written down by Plutarch in the first century, where he discusses ‘The Ship of Theseus’ – a ship where all the different planks and masts and so on have been replaced over time, so that not one original piece of timber has remained. Is it still the same ship?

This is one of those questions that occupies philosophers for a very great deal of time, and I don’t plan to get very technical in this column (I have been known to learn a lesson. On rare occasions). The reason why I mention it is because it cuts right to the heart of the various changes that are going on in and around Mersea at the moment. Is it still the same Island?

My view is that Trigger’s Broom, and Theseus’ Ship, are the same, despite the changes. That is because there has been a continuity of use over time. Trigger has been using a broom to do his work in a consistent fashion for over twenty years, and each day he has taken the broom from the same place, and at the end of the day he has put it back in that place. The fact that on several occasions parts of the broom have changed has not affected the identity of the Broom – at any one point, people could have pointed to the one object and truthfully said ‘That is Trigger’s Broom’. In a similar fashion, there was a sailing vessel crewed by a community of sailors that achieved certain travels under the command of Theseus – and at any point people could have pointed to that vessel and truthfully said ‘that is Theseus’ Ship’. In other words, the identity of the object (the broom or the ship) rested as much in the continuous use by the community as in the continuity of any particular physical element.

This is a debate that often comes up when considering churches. The parish church here in West Mersea has seen vast changes in its history. The origins of the Christian community there are likely from the early seventh century, and the importance of that community (as what was then called a Minster church) was such that the King of Essex, Saint Sebbi, built the Strood in order to gain regular access to it. Almost nothing physical from that time now remains (there is one very small Anglo-Saxon carving in the church and that’s it) but I would argue that the church now is the same as the church then, simply because there has been a continuity of use on the site ever since. Similarly, the various physical changes to the church – building the tower using old Roman Tiles, the expansion of the different aisles, the massive re-ordering through the Reformation period, and more recently the installation of memorial pews and so on – all these things are simply like replacing the decking on Theseus’ ship. For some 1400 years the ‘sailors’ in the church have continued to share bread and wine while telling the story of Jesus. It is that which gives identity to the church, rather than any one particular configuration of the church fabric.

In the same way, when we are considering the various things about Mersea which may or may not be changing in the future, we need to remember that what gives Mersea its identity is not any one particular physical feature so much as the nature of the community that lives here – and that too has seen many great changes over time. The issue is perhaps not so much ‘we need to preserve that particular set of decking’ as ‘will this help us to keep sailing’? So in the context of Mersea, the questions are – what will best enable the population to flourish fully? That includes the environmental and historical questions; it also includes questions of employment and local amenities. Judging the balance between these elements is a complex task and I don’t envy those who have the responsibility for making the final decisions. I do however believe that decisions are best made at the level closest to those affected – which means, for many issues, that decisions need to be made by the Mersea community and not in Colchester.

What I am trying to describe here is the reality of a living tradition. When a tradition and a culture is alive then it is open to ongoing evolution and development in response to different circumstances – in other words the ship is kept seaworthy. It is when a tradition has begun to die that different elements from that tradition get broken off and held up as totems, the ship is only good for salvage value. At that point there is no longer a living tradition, there is a museum full of relics – and museums are wonderful and important places, they can tell us the story of where we come from and therefore help us to know where we are – but I wouldn’t want to live in one, or on one.

Collapse, part 2

Courier article, also based on my Tainter review

In my last column I briefly reviewed a book by Joseph Tainter on the collapse of civilisations. His principal argument is that societies collapse into lower levels of complexity as a direct result of decreasing marginal returns on investment. In other words, there comes a point when investing more resources into maintaining the status quo actually makes the situation worse, not better. How far Tainter is correct in this thesis is something that professionals in his field can take forward. My interest is with the implications for our present crisis, for it seems unarguable that our existing society has entered the realm of diminishing returns on investment (seen most clearly through peak oil – the Deepwater Horizon disaster can stand as the symbol for that).

Here are some thoughts about the implications of Tainter’s argument, including why I come away from studying it with a sense of optimism.

To begin with, there is a trade off between efficiency and resilience; that is, the most efficient forms of complexity are the most susceptible to a sudden collapse. In contrast, those that are less efficient have deeper levels of resilience. This can actually be seen with regard to the collapse of the USSR in the 1990’s, the most recent example of a civilisational collapse. As the Soviet state was incredibly inefficient, most citizens had actually developed ways of coping without the central state, especially with regard to growing their own food. This meant that they were well placed to cope with the withdrawal of central state services when the collapse came.

Secondly, armed with Tainter’s insights, the theme of diminishing returns on complexity appears to explain much of contemporary politics. In the UK for example we have over the last ten years or so seen a significant increase in the resources made available from the centre for various purposes, eg health care. Sadly, much of that new investment has gone towards increasing the level of central control, and has failed in every respect. The new coalition government’s emphasis upon the ‘Big Society’ is, I would say, simply a recognition that the central government can no longer afford to exercise such direct control.

Thirdly, a large part of the ‘green’ critique of our contemporary society chimes strongly with Tainter’s emphases. Underlying the idea that constant growth of the economy is a dangerous delusion is an entire vision called ‘permaculture’, or, sustainability. In other words, the idea is that a particular arrangement of human habits and lifestyles can be maintained over the long term, in a harmonious balance with the natural environment which supports such lifestyles. Lifestyles which take too much out of the environment are unsustainable – in other words, they will come to an end, they will collapse. What Tainter provides is a way of analysing our present activities that helps to indicate whether they are sustainable in the long run, or not.

Tainter writes that “Collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole.” It seems unarguable to me that our present form of industrial civilisation will collapse; what is not clear to me is whether it makes sense to equate ‘industrial civilisation’ with ‘technically advanced and humane civilisation’. In particular there seems no reason why it should not be possible to shift to a ‘steady-state’ type of economy, which is precisely what the green movement is advocating.

The crucial point is that I do not see our existing levels of complexity as inherently desirable, rather the opposite. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed it came about after a long period of the centre increasing taxation on the periphery – the Roman elite taxing the farmers in order to sustain their own lifestyles. As might be predicted, this simply resulted in a decrease in agricultural production and the seeds of rebellion. Just as the late-Roman farmers found it in their interest to let the central structures collapse, so too might the majority of the industrialised nations find it in their interest to let the gigantic state structures, built up through the twentieth century, collapse in turn. (What future the EU?)

So why have I come away from Tainter with an optimistic outlook? The answer is that Tainter makes plain that the collapse of complexity is not necessarily a universal bane. On the contrary, whilst those most closely invested in the centralised structures do badly in a collapse, it is quite possible that the majority of a community will benefit, not least because for a long time leading up to a collapse the maintenance of the status quo had exacted an increasing burden upon ordinary citizens, through the increase of taxes and the restrictions on human freedom. The removal of a particular level of human complexity does not, of itself, lead to depopulation. It seems quite possible that the twenty-first century future will be local, resilient and humane, and without an over-bearing state recklessly absorbing and wasting scarce resources that prospect seems very attractive. Of course, getting to that point will likely be very scary…

In my next column, I’ll be narrowing down the focus even more to talk about what these things might mean for Mersea.

Collapse, part 2

Courier article, also based on my Tainter review

In my last column I briefly reviewed a book by Joseph Tainter on the collapse of civilisations. His principal argument is that societies collapse into lower levels of complexity as a direct result of decreasing marginal returns on investment. In other words, there comes a point when investing more resources into maintaining the status quo actually makes the situation worse, not better. How far Tainter is correct in this thesis is something that professionals in his field can take forward. My interest is with the implications for our present crisis, for it seems unarguable that our existing society has entered the realm of diminishing returns on investment (seen most clearly through peak oil – the Deepwater Horizon disaster can stand as the symbol for that).

Here are some thoughts about the implications of Tainter’s argument, including why I come away from studying it with a sense of optimism.

To begin with, there is a trade off between efficiency and resilience; that is, the most efficient forms of complexity are the most susceptible to a sudden collapse. In contrast, those that are less efficient have deeper levels of resilience. This can actually be seen with regard to the collapse of the USSR in the 1990’s, the most recent example of a civilisational collapse. As the Soviet state was incredibly inefficient, most citizens had actually developed ways of coping without the central state, especially with regard to growing their own food. This meant that they were well placed to cope with the withdrawal of central state services when the collapse came.

Secondly, armed with Tainter’s insights, the theme of diminishing returns on complexity appears to explain much of contemporary politics. In the UK for example we have over the last ten years or so seen a significant increase in the resources made available from the centre for various purposes, eg health care. Sadly, much of that new investment has gone towards increasing the level of central control, and has failed in every respect. The new coalition government’s emphasis upon the ‘Big Society’ is, I would say, simply a recognition that the central government can no longer afford to exercise such direct control.

Thirdly, a large part of the ‘green’ critique of our contemporary society chimes strongly with Tainter’s emphases. Underlying the idea that constant growth of the economy is a dangerous delusion is an entire vision called ‘permaculture’, or, sustainability. In other words, the idea is that a particular arrangement of human habits and lifestyles can be maintained over the long term, in a harmonious balance with the natural environment which supports such lifestyles. Lifestyles which take too much out of the environment are unsustainable – in other words, they will come to an end, they will collapse. What Tainter provides is a way of analysing our present activities that helps to indicate whether they are sustainable in the long run, or not.

Tainter writes that “Collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilisation will disintegrate as a whole.” It seems unarguable to me that our present form of industrial civilisation will collapse; what is not clear to me is whether it makes sense to equate ‘industrial civilisation’ with ‘technically advanced and humane civilisation’. In particular there seems no reason why it should not be possible to shift to a ‘steady-state’ type of economy, which is precisely what the green movement is advocating.

The crucial point is that I do not see our existing levels of complexity as inherently desirable, rather the opposite. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed it came about after a long period of the centre increasing taxation on the periphery – the Roman elite taxing the farmers in order to sustain their own lifestyles. As might be predicted, this simply resulted in a decrease in agricultural production and the seeds of rebellion. Just as the late-Roman farmers found it in their interest to let the central structures collapse, so too might the majority of the industrialised nations find it in their interest to let the gigantic state structures, built up through the twentieth century, collapse in turn. (What future the EU?)

So why have I come away from Tainter with an optimistic outlook? The answer is that Tainter makes plain that the collapse of complexity is not necessarily a universal bane. On the contrary, whilst those most closely invested in the centralised structures do badly in a collapse, it is quite possible that the majority of a community will benefit, not least because for a long time leading up to a collapse the maintenance of the status quo had exacted an increasing burden upon ordinary citizens, through the increase of taxes and the restrictions on human freedom. The removal of a particular level of human complexity does not, of itself, lead to depopulation. It seems quite possible that the twenty-first century future will be local, resilient and humane, and without an over-bearing state recklessly absorbing and wasting scarce resources that prospect seems very attractive. Of course, getting to that point will likely be very scary…

In my next column, I’ll be narrowing down the focus even more to talk about what these things might mean for Mersea.

The collapse of civilisations (part one)

A courier article, based on my original Tainter review

Pretty much every civilisation that has ever existed has come to an end (we can argue about China another time). Our civilisation will be no different. There has, as you might expect, been a fair bit of academic research into why this is the case. What I’d like to do in the next few articles is describe how this collapse might be understood, first in general terms with a book review; then thinking more locally, in terms of the UK and Mersea itself; finally thinking about what sort of response we might make.

The seminal work in this field is ‘The Collapse of Complex Civilisations’ by Joseph Tainter. Tainter’s work was originally published in 1988 and has the feel of a work which is establishing a new field of study. Tainter is concerned to explore what ‘collapse’ means, when applied to a society; how collapse happens; and, in the conclusion, to draw some possible lessons for our present situation. The first chapter is a swift survey of eighteen historical examples of collapsed societies around the world, from the Harappans to the Hohokams. This serves to introduce the field that Tainter wishes to study, and also indicates the absence of rigorous empirical investigation. This is the cue for Tainter to begin his systematic analysis. He outlines what is meant by ‘collapse’, describing it as “a matter of rapid substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterised by fewer specialised parts…” Then in chapter three, Tainter surveys the explanations commonly given for why a particular society collapses, finding them all more or less deficient, and saving an especial scorn for ‘mystical explanations’ (eg Spengler or Toynbee), about which he writes: “Mystical explanations fail totally to account scientifically for collapse. They are crippled by reliance on a biological growth analogy, by value judgements, and by explanation by reference to intangibles.” In the course of this chapter he also gives a resounding declaration of the benefit of excluding value-judgements: “A scholar trained in anthropology learns early on that such valuations are scientifically inadmissible, detrimental to the cause of understanding, intellectually indefensible, and simply unfair”.

Tainter then takes the best existing explanation for collapse (economic) and proceeds to develop a hypothesis to explain why complex societies might suddenly shift from a more complex to a less complex state. His thesis can be concisely stated: increasing complexity gives rise to diminishing marginal returns on investment; when those returns become negative, the society has a progressively diminishing capacity to withstand stress, and is vulnerable to collapse.

Essentially at point C3 there is no benefit from the increase of complexity (C3-C1) – hence the collapse from C3 to C1.

This thesis is built upon four working assumptions:
– human societies are problem-solving organisations;
– sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
– increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
– investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

What happens is that, as a complex society initially develops, there is a very high return on investment in complexity – the resources made available through that adoption of complexity are far higher than are used up through the complex organisation itself. However, over time, the ‘low hanging fruit’ are used up, and for every increase in complexity there is a lower and lower resource return until there comes a point where simply maintaining the existing complexity has a negative impact upon available resources – in other words, the resources are more efficiently deployed through a less complex system.

Tainter gives a number of different specific and small-scale examples where this decline in marginal returns applies, for example in terms of the return on research and development investment, or medical research, but his next chapter applies the theory to understanding three different examples of collapse. The most telling example, to my mind, was that of the farmers in the latter stages of the Western Roman Empire, who were taxed more and more heavily in order to maintain the apparatus of the Roman state, and who eventually welcomed the barbarian invasions as a release from what had become Roman oppression. A Roman structure of high complexity had been viable for as long as there were increasing resources made available – and this was accomplished through conquest. However, once the limits of conquest were reached (either with the German tribes, whose relative poverty made their conquest uneconomic, or through coming up against another Empire strong enough to resist Rome, eg the Parthian) then that model of development became untenable. The accumulated resources available to Rome were drawn down, its capacity to absorb shocks to the system was eroded, and thus the collapse of that form of complexity became a matter of time. As Tainter writes, “Once a complex society enters the stage of declining marginal returns, collapse becomes a mathematical likelihood, requiring little more than sufficient passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity”. As a complex society enters into this terminal phase, the advantages to retreating to a previously existing level of complexity become more and more obvious, and local communities start to shift their allegiance: “…a society reaches a state where the benefits available for a level of investment are no higher than those available for some lower level…Complexity at such a point is decidedly not advantageous, and the society is in danger of collapse from decomposition or external threat”.

Next time, I’ll start to link these generalities with the specifics that we face in England generally, and on Mersea in particular.