Jill Segger

Beyond cultural timidity and moral confusion

By Jill Segger
April 29, 2009

An internationally renowned concert artist busks in the Washington DC Metro; a UK government employee is exposed after playing with the idea of posting scurrilous falsehoods about political opponents on a Labour website. Readers of a nervous disposition need not recoil – this is not an exercise in surrealism. These apparently unrelated events have something to tell us about the cultural and moral uncertainty which is creeping into and undermining our common life.

Last January, the Washington Post set up an interesting experiment. Joshua Bell – one of the world's most accomplished and admired violinists - agreed to dress down in baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans to play in an underground station in the US capital.

For three-quarters of an hour, Bell played at L'Enfant Plaza station in southwest Washington. He performed several classical works, including JS Bach's sublime D minor Chaconne for solo violin. Over 1000 commuters, consisting largely of the professional class - L'Enfant Plaza is in the heart of federal and administrative Washington - passed by without stopping, even for one moment, to listen or to wonder.

Because the normal cultural signifiers were absent, it appears that none of the rush hour passers-by recognised the astonishing quality of what they were hearing. They had not paid for expensive tickets; they had not bolstered themselves with mutual self-congratulation about their concert plans with their peers; they had not undergone society's preparatory rituals for an artistic experience and so they did not recognise one when it was offered to them, out of context and without charge.

As a great teacher once offered life-transforming words in a provincial synagogue; so here, a great artist, in the street rather than in the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, played truth with the capacity to lift the soul. But if such uniquely generous and liberating events are to take root in those to whom they are freely offered, there must be openness to the unexpected, humility and – strange though it may initially sound – self confidence, on the part of those to whom the gift is given.

Such self-confidence is grounded in purity of heart. And that blessed state of being requires clarity of vision and the courage to permit the inner Light to illuminate our responses, however out of kilter with the prevailing mores this may make us appear.

If we are to depend for the security of our status upon the approval of whatever may be currently admired – and here it is wise to reflect that whoever marries the spirit of the age may soon be widowed – we will stifle the potential for truth which is hard-wired into us. It is the anxious desire to be 'cool' or to be perceived as moving in the mainstream which keeps us from being not only signs of contradiction, but also spiritually, emotionally and intellectually healthy individuals.

When Gordon Brown’s media adviser, Damien McBride, exchanged emails with a Labour blogger in which he proposed to smear the personal lives of senior Conservative politicians and their partners, he brought disgrace upon the government, the Labour Party (of which I am a member) and – most importantly – upon the very idea of politics as an honourable, though tough, occupation.

Politicians of integrity were diminished by association and cynics found much in which to rejoice. Because cynicism is essentially lazy and its practitioners often prefer easy outrage to analysis, the health of our democracy is further undermined. What McBride did was, quite simply, wrong. But it is in much of the language surrounding his actions that we may see a reflection of the moral timidity into which we have fallen.

The word used by politicians from the Prime Minister down and by many media commentators as they deal with the fall-out from this sordid incident, is that weasel-word of our times - 'unacceptable'. It is unacceptable to pick one's nose at the dinner table or to jump the queue at the supermarket checkout. But the bearing of false witness, defamation of character and abuse of power are neither social solecisms nor bad manners. They are profoundly immoral acts.

Damien McBride has been described as an “attack dog” – a term which carries a subtext of admiration for testosterone charged aggression and vitality. Moral clarity requires that he should be described as a man for whom advantage came before honour or integrity.

If we fear to speak the truth, we will diminish our capacity to recognise the truth. The relationship of thought with speech is complex. As we think, we speak. As we speak, we may come to think. Corrupt the process at any point and the slide towards amorality and dystopia will not be far away.

The purity of heart which enables us to respond to the unconventional or unexpected with integrity is the same quality which enables the clear-sighted conscience. Conformity and concern about image are the enemies of truth.

Quakers frequently exhort each other to “live adventurously” and “speak thy truth”. Our culturally timid and morally confused society has never been in greater need of these maxims.


© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill undertakes regular copy editing for Ekklesia. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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