Tuesday 12 February 2013

How Not to Write About Catholicism

On marking the imminent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, this from Shiraz Socialist:
Perhaps covering up for child abuse, promoting anti-gay bigotry, spreading AIDS throughout the world, and explaining away his organisation’s hatred of 50% of the human race finally wore him out?

Anyway, the former Hitler Youth member (in fairness, he claims he had no choice) has decided to stand down. Pity his organisation (the Church, not the Hitler Youth) survives.

“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
― Denis Diderot

As far as I am concerned, there are two forms of identity politics.

The first is the most widely understood. It pertains to the politics associated with the so-called 'new social movements' that had their roots in 1960s radicalism. The women's movement, anti-racism, LGBT liberation - these are the paradigmatic examples as far as social movement scholarship are concerned. The notion subsequently expanded to include mental health, disabilities, and mobilisations of minority religions, ethnicities and nationalities. To do much violence to their variation and complexity, new social movement identity politics starts from a particular shared attribute (however defined) that has been overlooked, ignored or marginalised by established progressive politics (be they revolutionary or reform-minded), and their movement struggles to win positive political, legal and cultural recognition and change.

The second is less noticed and remarked upon, but is probably all the more ubiquitous for it. This is identity politics on an individuated level. It is bound up with distinction and identifying with a set of politics, people, styles and ideas, and flows from multiple sources. It is the cultural fuel that powers the consumer practices of advanced capitalist societies and finds itself replicated across all fields of social action. And in social formations such as ours; conflicted, anomic and alienating as they are, individuated identity politics can and frequently do assume pathological forms. Football hooliganism and gang culture. Ginger bashing and nerd-baiting. One Direction and Justin Bieber fandom. More generally, individuated identity politics have an affirmative quality. They act as a social-psychological crutch that can justify petty, spiteful, bellicose, moralising behaviour toward groups one doesn't like, and it's something we all do to greater or lesser degrees. In some instances behaviour of this kind can appear in radical garb too. Finally, it is worth emphasising that this behaviour is not about clarifying a difference or trying to convince people who are the target of such behaviour of the errors of their ways.

Which brings us to the Shiraz piece, above. I pick this not because I particularly dislike the blog, but because the post condenses the purest example of a particularly pathological form of atheist/revolutionary identity politics. We're likely to see variations on this theme in the lead up to the Conclave that will elect a new pope.

Now, I don't hold a brief for Benedict XVI. It is undeniable the Catholic Church has done many awful things and assumed theological positions that cause very real harm. But then again, it is simultaneously the largest organisation in the world attacking the zombie economics of neoliberalism; advocating for environmentalism; and promoting social justice. Yes, it's blemished and undermined by contradictory doctrine and complicity in existing frameworks of power, and how can it be otherwise, being as the faith is an expression of ruling interests and a religious articulation of the rising collective potentiality of hundreds of millions?

Catholicism therefore is a complex thing and deserves a nuanced approach. As a socialist I'd quite like to see many more Catholics in the labour movement, as I would Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Atheists, and so on. I assume everyone on the left might like that too. So, writers, bloggers and activists who might be tempted to do OMG PAEDOPHILES!!!! or ZINGZ CONDOMS!!!! baiting over the next few weeks might want to ask *why*. Is it out of a genuine, earnest belief that repeating well-trodden criticisms in the most fractious and insulting ways possible might win believers to our movement? Or is it about "feeling smug, superior, enlightened and oh so clever" (as I once put it)?

If it's the latter, allow me to invoke some identity politics of my own: what kind of left winger are you?


des von bladet said...

"Is it out of a genuine, earnest belief that repeating well-trodden criticisms in the most fractious and insulting ways possible might win believers to our movement?"

You can be expelled from the Church of Brightness (prop. R Dawkins) for doubting this.

cjcjc said...

It's a rather limited definition of "social justice" which excludes equal rights for LGBT people, don't you think?

I would not look to the catholic church as a "progressive" ally any more than I would look to the East London Mosque.

Phil said...

I would look to both of them as "progressive" allies in certain areas. I wouldn't have looked to my Dad as an ally in every area under the sun, and he was rock-solid Labour till the day he died.

Social justice isn't about having enlightened views about everything - and fighting for social justice isn't about demanding everybody hold enlightened views about everything.

Phil said...

I also liked your last sentence, Phil[BC]. You can be a socialist and also be an utter arse. You just won't be a very effective socialist.

Yakoub said...

I'm married to a lapsed RC, was best friends with an extremely devout Catholic at school, and know Catholics of all shades of piety and politics, including a former priest turned probation officer. Most are lovely. As for the Pope and his hierarchy of conservative ideologues, they suck! And you know, some Catholics think so too!

Gary Elsby said...

I don't particularly favour the entire Stoke City team or manager and I could rearrange that set up quite easily.
It doesn't mean that I am not a devout lifelong Stoke supporter.

The Catholic Mother church has many issues to contend with, notwithstanding troublesome family members such as the Church of England.

Twice I have seen the Pope and both times in Rome. Once was during Easter when brand Catholic comes out in all its glory.
From all round the world, devout (or not) come together under one roof to give praise for the hope and faith that the world's biggest religion gives, freely.

To knock the entire church because of it's stance on certain items is wrong and to criticise the incumbent lead for their own past is not right.

Faith, is the keyword here and to attempt the unbelievable task of undemining someone's last hope is deplorable.
If you have no faith, it does not matter. If you do have a faith and someone wishes to score a few on the scoreboard by removing all hope, then that is a sad existence on their part.

cjcjc said...

"Social justice isn't about having enlightened views about everything - and fighting for social justice isn't about demanding everybody hold enlightened views about everything.'

There must be some red lines though, surely?
Mysteriously though it always appears to be women and gays who are left at the back of the queue, doesn't it. Social justice for them (us) can wait.

cf. Lindsay German (on cosying up to Islamist groups) - we musn't make a "shibboleth" of gay rights, she said - or the current rape allegations within the SWP.

Alex Ross said...

I’d agree with the point that it would be good to see more religious people involved in left-politics (actually…just in Politics in general). I’d also like to see people being able to do so on the basis that they *don’t* have to put their religious beliefs to one side before they can get involved in the public sphere. Or, worst of all, that they *can* get involved…but…their religious belief will only be patronisingly treated as a distorted reaction to capitalist alienation yada, yada, yada…

However, I’m not so keen on this “smug, superior, enlightened and oh so clever” thesis –

1) Firstly, it’s just an assertion of purported psychological motivation, which can’t really be proven either way, but is just probably fun to level against people who you don’t like!
2) Secondly, even if it could be grounded in evidence, it doesn’t really tell us anything about who is right and who is wrong around issues of sexual freedom, gender politics and all the other important issues thrown up in these sorts of discussions.
3) Thirdly, I think the claim is rather limited in its frame of reference. It’s the same sort of accusation that Brendan ‘o Neil/Spiked Online make regularly (if you’ll forgive the linkage!) – but I think it actually says more about them than it does about the issue at hand. The Spiked people talk about “Smug Islington Liberals” all the time only because they are themselves part of the privileged, middle class, media circuit (as the RCP offshoot have always been) and that is the only thing they *know*. So actual conversations about, for example, the Catholic Church’s response to Gay Marriage that take place in workplaces, schools, religious communities etc. are ignored and the outpourings of some nefarious “liberal elite” poured over obsessively. Anecdotally, I’ve found that the main criticism levelled at the Catholic Church by people-not-from-the-internet has been over their determination to *impose* their religious mores on the rest of society – not driven by feelings of superiority.

Lastly, on the issue of being “Fractious and Insulting” – I’d start with The Bishop of Shrewsbury or Cardinal Keith O'Brien – both of whom made appallingly offensive comparisons between gay rights campaigners and the Nazis…

I’d very much like to be in a position where amicable, persuasive discussions could take place, but, as many Gay friends have told me, it was the Catholic hierarchy that transformed the issue of Gay Marriage from something they had only a vague interest in, into an impassioned equalities issue, by virtue of their unpleasant interjections…

A further point would be that if religious institutions want to get involved in politics, then they need to get used to the bear pit that is political debate – particularly online political debate!!

Mark Walmsley said...

Figures are hard to come by but huge numbers of Catholics in, for instance, Ireland are turning their backs on the church because of the abuse scandals and Ratzinger’s response. These are people who, just through attending Mass, are familiar with and proud of the positive social contributions that Phil is talking about. Some of these people, whilst not looking for a new tribe to join, are in the market for some new expression of their social impulses, are perhaps even starting to expand their definitions of freedom. Are they not there to be courted by the political left and used to win elections? The vitriol of the new atheists always bugged me as a missed opportunity for this reason. Insulting the framework they grew up in is a pretty unlikely way of winning them over.

Phil said...

Des - I'm not a Dawkins fan.

cjcjc - It's a tricky one. I find Catholic doctrine on LGBT issues as problematic as you do. But what I am arguing is more a case of accepting people as we find them and seeking to persuade them from there. The stances critiqued in this post rules out any engagement from the get go.

Phil said...

Exactly, Phil. Socialists and labour movement types shouldn't be in the business of putting up barriers between people who want to work for a common objective. The step of a real movement is worth a thousand programmes, as an old beard once said ...

Phil said...

In what is a coffee-spluttering moment, I agree with Gary's entirely reasoned and sensible contribution!

Phil said...

The Lindsey German comment will haunt her forever, CJ. The question is a tricky one but I see it as a matter of adopting strategies of persuasion rather than alienation. You will never get some people to accept deep down that homosexual relationships are "proper", but it's about tackling it so it doesn't matter.

One example springs to mind is one of our local party grafters, who is also an evangelical Christian. I know that he doesn't accept equal marriage or gay relationships on a moral level, but nor does he preach about how wrong he thinks they are. But that doesn't stop him from socialising or campaigning with local activists who happen to be gay.

Phil said...

Hi Alex, all sides are certainly capable of a pathological form of identity politics. It's not the preserve of liberals, socialists or whatever. Just look at the nutsoid American right, for instance and its absurd arms race around who can say the most shockingly reactionary things. I don't mind so much as it's breaking their movement ...

My point is that large numbers of people use their beliefs as identity markers, and I expect better from self-professed lefties (especially those who have pretensions to lead the working class) who use them in a way to affirm their identification with a particular "tribe" than to think about strategic ways of building the relationships and movements necessary to push through the sorts of social change we would like to see.

You're spot on about Spiked btw!

Alex Ross said...

Hi Phil,

I tend to agree, although I’m sort of torn on this.

In terms of my workplace, I think that the non-combative and engaging strategy on LGBT rights pursued both by our unions and our equalities team has bought real dividends – given that we’re a uni with an exceptionally religiously diverse staff and student population.

Sometimes this is strange terrain to navigate. The other day I got admonished by a Nigerian evangelical colleague after our database feed got corrupted, resulting in male and female first names and middle names being jumbled up on the same records. After I pointed this out as an obvious system error, he suggested (with all sincerity) that I was maybe being intolerant towards transsexuals!!

OK, so he’d completely got the wrong end of the stick as to what a transsexual is, but it certainly doesn’t meet the stereotype of hateful bigotry so often directed at African Christians!

However, I’m not going to condemn people for robustly (and sometimes rudely) standing up to those who *would* deny them their basic rights and liberties. And I certainly wouldn’t want to sacrifice that principle in the interests of some broader idea of unity.

I guess it comes down to, firstly, targeting individuals and not whole communities – especially not in the sort of “button-pushing” manner that plays on bigoted historical stereotypes. Secondly, you generally** have to enter into an argument with the object of persuading someone rather than simply affirming your own political identity (so…yes…I think you have a point wrt identity politics).

** Exceptions granted for "beyond the pale" people for whom it's more fun just to be rude!

Red Deathy said...

Actually, I suspect the hostility to catholicism in the labour movement comes from the large number of "ethnic catholics" already within it. After all, if they ahven't been formally excommunicated, they're still technically members of the club, and allowed to be rude and critical...

Phil said...

Beyond the pale people deserve all the contempt that's coming to them!

Mat said...

Good, thoughtful article.

I like to refer people to the Faithful Citizens report that Demos produced a few years ago.

In short people who identify with a faith community tend to share "our" views on social justice.