Friday, March 29, 2013

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: The Age of Aquarius and Enforced Ideological Conformity


The Age of Aquarius, I have long been informed by some of the shining lights of the astrological community of seers, is bringing about a higher level of social consciousness and its translation into policies and practices that actualise the ideals of social justice and equity. But the concerns are more at the abstract level than borne of heart-felt compassion, and this is being reflected in the increasing ‘impersonalisation’ of delivery. 

As with all prophets, the astrologers who first foretold these developments were shrewd observers who divined the way the wind was blowing, for we have indeed been moving over the past few decades into a new era of social consciousness and associated action based on abstract notions of social justice in which the focus has centred on arbitrarily defined social groups. With it has come a concomitant degrading of the importance of the individual; determinism is back in vogue – you are a White male and can therefore take no credit for your successes in life (if you have achieved any); you are an ‘ethnic’ and/or a woman and it therefore isn’t your fault that you have made a mess of it (if that’s what you’ve done). But given interventionist policies such as race-based resource allocations and quota systems, Big Sister has been busy making it all right. Equality of opportunity has given way to equality of outcomes, achieved if necessary by creating a markedly unlevel playing field in favour of groups deemed to have been disadvantaged.

The dethroning of the individual in favour of the group as the quintessential unit of society in the new sociopolitical dogma has been attended by a discernible shift from ‘liberties’ to ‘rights’ in sociolegal thinking. A dichotomy that has been entering law texts speaks of ‘negative liberties’ giving way to ‘positive rights’; the pejorative ‘negative’ connotes disapproval. What does it all mean in plain language? In a nutshell, the ‘liberty’ approach is laissez-faire: to cite a classic English adage, “If it harms none, do as thou wilt”; say and do whatever you fancy, as long as it does not impinge of others’ liberty to do the same. This is not licence, for there are clear proscriptions on certain activities that are enforced by criminal law, while civil law gives people whom you may injure through your exercise of freedom of expression redress through such actions as defamation. Still, the list of what you are not allowed to do is short and precise. The ‘rights’ approach ostensibly takes a proactive approach to protecting people from the excesses of others, but has a nasty habit of becoming prescriptive by shifting the focus to what you are allowed to say and do, while retaining – in practice, considerably adding to – the list of no-no’s.

The downgrading of individual liberty in the context of the elevation of a ‘rights’ mentality largely based on group membership has ushered in a  new era of self-righteous intolerance towards  ideological dissent. The ‘liberty’-mindset maxim of “While I may disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it” (usually attributed to Voltaire, but apparently the words of his biographer) gives way to “I will tolerate what you say as long as it does not offend my ideological sensibilities, and if it does, I will use the law to silence you.”. The “I’m-so-offended” act – all too often not because of any personal nastiness but on behalf of some fashionable ‘group’ – has become the stick with which to beat non-conformists to the approved new social ethos. ‘Rights’ has become the Trojan Horse of encroaching totalitarianism.

‘Diversity’ has achieved catch-phrase status but it strikes me that the tolerance and mutual respect that ostensibly underpin the ‘diversity’ mindset are conspicuously absent among the powerful cliques that supposedly ensure it. Especially if you’re White and male (the worst of all ‘groups’), you are well advised to keep your opinions to yourself where those views deviate from the prescribed ideological line, unless the inevitable barrage of name-calling – racist and sexist – are water off a duck’s back to you. It’s even worse if you’re after a job in a public sector activity such as Education: you will be grilled about your sociopolitical views and will need to make all the right noises in the approved manner, or it’s “on your bike”. I learned this lesson the hard way when I returned to NZ a decade ago and tried to get a job in secondary teacher education. I soon learned to spot the [Bi]Kultural Kommissar on the panel and had one heck of a hatchet job done on me at one university. Not that the issue thrown at me had anything to do with the advertised position, but as with the inquisitors of the Middle Ages, sniffing out a heretic justifies any means fair or foul. ‘Diversity’ definitely does not extend to the right to express an opinion outside the parameters of the new dogma. One must conform, and be seen to conform, or else.

Do I believe in astrology? Not me, I’m a hard-headed empiricist. But I’m also an archetypal liberty-minded, free-thinking and free-speaking Sagittarian – definitely a problem in the Age of Aquarius.  

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc, BA, BEdSt, MAppSc, PhD is Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut. He identifies strongly with the emerging critically reflective but assertive secular conservatism gaining currency in right-wing intellectual circles and is profoundly disturbed by the growing threats to individual liberty in Western society. Feedback welcome: bv00@aub.edu.lb

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