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The virtue of inconsistency

The political polarisation of recent times has seen a resurgence of tribalism of the worst kind. Social media has encouraged the rise of ‘cancel culture’, by which people can be publicly shamed by online mobs for the slightest slip-up. The internet has enabled the most repulsive kind of virtue-signalling. A kind of naked intolerance and cultic bigotry, aided by the growth of noisy online echo-chambers, has taken hold of the public discourse. The time has come to push back against it.

The truth is that human beings are flawed, and life is complex. One must accept that not everyone will agree with us on everything, and that there is not a ‘correct position’ on every issue. One must make allowance for the fact that one may be wrong, and accept that, in a civilised society, there must be space for dialogue and disagreement. 

The problem is that some people, particularly on the left, are convinced that they are possessed of absolute truth, and are entitled to impose it upon others. The utopia can only be brought about through conscripting everyone into the progressive agenda. It was Karl Marx, after all, who envisaged a socialist society of the future as one in which the individual would be brought into complete harmony with society. 

The internet has enabled the most repulsive kind of virtue-signalling

The problem is that every advanced society will have people disagreeing on various issues, and the only way to ‘resolve’ these disagreements once and for all is to suppress all differences among people, using totalitarian means. That is why every single Marxist regime has been a totalitarian dictatorship. All of these observations were made by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski in his criticisms of Marxism, particularly in his magnificent essay ‘The Marxist Roots of Stalinism’ and his magisterial three-volume demolition of Marxist theory, Main Currents of Marxism.

In his 1964 essay, ‘In Praise of Inconsistency’, written when he was still a Marxist (albeit an anti-Stalinist), Kołakowski makes the observation that no society will be able to fully reconcile all of the opposing values shared by its members. Key to the maintenance of a free society, in which pluralism and diversity of views is possible, is the acceptance that we must all compromise on our values to live alongside each other without recourse to violence or tyranny. It is impossible for anyone to be act with complete consistency with regards to their values, for this, in practice, leads to fanaticism and totalitarianism.

One must accept that not everyone will agree with us on everything, and that there is not a ‘correct position’ on every issue

“What is required of a citizen? Consistent loyalty to the state or government. Therefore a consistent citizen will always be proud to cooperate with the secret police, knowing it to be necessary to the existence of the state, to its glory and growth.” As Kołakowski goes on to explain, society thrives on inconsistency. If people were to act in consistent adherence to whatever they purport to believe in, human civilisation would be impossible. Human fellowship is only plausible because we have learnt to make compromises both big and little so as not to destroy the fragile bedrock upon which our commonwealth rests. 

“The race of those who vacillate and are soft, the inconsistent people…continues to be one of the greatest sources of hope that possibly the human species will somehow manage to survive.” Eloquently stated as ever, I must nevertheless take issue when Kołakowski claims that we who thrive on inconsistency are ‘soft’. Those who profess absolute certainty about things which are objectively uncertain, far from being ‘strong’, are too weak to face up the messy reality of a world which is built upon inconsistency. 

It is impossible for anyone to be act with complete consistency with regards to their values, for this, in practice, leads to fanaticism and totalitarianism

As Christopher Hitchens puts it eloquently in his memoir, Hitch-22: “It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. …Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option. …To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded”. It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.”

Roger Scruton, in his brilliant book The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope (2010), argues eloquently and persuasively in favour of a society where men live together in a spirit of mutual acceptance of each other’s differences. Such a view of society is incompatible with the worldview of those that wish to conscript all of society into this or that cause, or this or that political ideology. It is a view I wholeheartedly endorse.

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