Slightly Different Worlds

It is often said that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society. Surely openness and discussion are good things. If people discuss such a topic as whether they prefer cats or dogs, then usually people respect that other people view the world in a slightly different way. So, what makes religion and politics different?

In the week after the UK general election people have been talking about and venting their feelings about the results, there is often anger and bafflement. This anger is expressed by such sentiments as “How on Earth can people vote Conservative/Labour? what is wrong with these people?”. Upon discovering that friends and colleagues, supported the other side, there is a difficulty in accepting such a fundamentally different world view and moral stance. I used to be distraught that around a third of people vote for a government I despise, people on the other side express the same feeling. Surely such a large proportion of the population can’t be that misguided, I would argue that they are not.

I remember having a long, late night conversation with a friend who was of the right wing persuasion. We discussed what we both identified as the problems in society and the type of society we each felt that government should work towards, surprisingly they were virtually the same, we shared the same values, where we differed was in how to bring about this better society. Thus, it is perhaps not morality or principle that is the problem but the application of it.

I am in the advantageous position of having been an agnostic and then became a Christian. I can understand both positions. In religion there is a lot of misunderstanding between the theists and the non-theists. As with politics, this misunderstanding causes problems for people. There is much argument between the two positions. What I find is that the issues that Atheists and Christians squabble over not that important. The difficulties Atheists have with religions, such as the accuracy of the Creation story are, to me, rather low down the list of things that are important to me as a Christian.

Actually, the same problems exist both within the Christian community and the secular community. Both those of faith and none develop their own moral principles. Generally, both systems of acquiring moral principles are equally sound and the ethics of Christians and Atheists are similar. I acquired my moral principles before acquiring faith, those moral principles hardly changed since becoming a Christian.

Moral truths are a good thing, connecting with and understanding a moral principle is one of the great ‘yes’ moments in life that are cherished by us as individuals. I think the problem is with application. when the individual understands a moral, social, religious or political position, it does resonate deeply in our subsequent thinking. As these truths seem pure and universal, it is very tempting to apply them vigourously.  However applying any moral code to extremes, no longer is an expression of the moral principle. The principle becomes lost, fragmented and distorted through ruthless application, without resort to the original moral truth. It is this, which causes conflict and misunderstanding between religions and political creeds.

The bedroom tax as an illustrative example:

The U.K. has a state welfare system whereby, if someone is unfortunate to not have a job, the state pays you welfare to cover the minimal cost of living,  in a post-industrial society that minimum cost is quite high, as housing and food are relatively expensive. During my lifetime the U.K. has the problem of the ‘benefits trap’, whereby if you take on part-time or low paid employment you may be worse off financially than staying on benefits, especially if you have a family to support. Adherents, such as myself, of both left and right wing persuasion have long argued that this system should be reformed and that people should always be better off working than relying on benefits in the medium to long term. The last government stated that they would tackle this issue, which was great.

However the application of the reforms were damaging. The government introduced the ‘bedroom tax’. So, if you became unemployed and happened to have a spare room, your housing benefit (to pay for your shelter) was taxed. This meant that those effected struggle to pay for essentials of food and heating and have no money to invest in seeking employment.

To those of the left this seemed cruel and heartless. Why should the unemployed bear the brunt of the failures of the wider economy? People have died because of it. Hence many on the left of politics brand the right as compassionate.

People of the right wing persuasion are not uncompassionate. The principles of the right are that to reduce the state, so people pay less taxes, that people should not be reliant on state handouts, paid for by other taxpayers. That a stick and well as a carrot are necessary to encourage people into employment and contributing to society. People of the left don’t disagree with these principles as such, they just interpret them in a slightly different way. However it seems that advocates of both the left and right are incensed when the application of  principles causes a conflict with a universal moral principle. To the critic the moral principle is more important than the ideological application. Hence, the left brand the right as cruel.

This ideological wrangling, the differing interpretation of a moral code can seem more important that the pragmatic reason which better fits the intention of the universal moral truth. The bedroom tax is immoral. The U.K. has a monetarist economy. Such an economy requires something in the region of 3-5% of the available labour force to be unemployed, because full employment  leads to excessive high wages that would damage business and cause rampant inflation. It is more economically efficient to have up to 5% unemployed, so it is important to treat those unlucky enough to be unemployed for a time with dignity and respect.

Whilst it may seem shocking and repugnant to discover people with religious. It is important to not take the result of the application of moral or political views that differ from our own as scary or fundamentally wrong. The vast majority of people have good sound moral values. It is imprtant to discuss these things openly, the narrative behind the acquiring of such standpoints. By keeping talking to focus on the truth and realise that whilst we may live in slightly different worlds, to not judge others so harshly.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in they brothers eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye” Matthew 7:1-3 (KJV)

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A furry generation

In the news today was an article on the resurgence of people buying fur coats in Britain. I was surprised by this as in the 1980s and 1990s there were massive campaigns against this cruel, abominable trade. New fur clothing became taboo, the animal welfare argument in this arena had seemed to have been won, only for the issue to come around again,  Why?

The article was published in a British newspaper, which contained a lengthy comments section which was filled with criticism of this phenomenon on animal welfare grounds. The comments section was later taken over by trolls. Internet trolls have been around since the early days of the internet, I’ve never quite seen the point of deliberately creating arguments and seeking to rile people up, when this surely has a negative effect on the trolls well being.

In the comments section, there was also genuine debate. Having dabbled on internet forums, these are often places where much misunderstanding occurs anyway, even without the trolls. I think that this is due to people not knowing the background of the commentators and many false assumptions are made. Perhaps especially in a generally British forum where sarcasm levels run very high, which is harder to detect in a solely written format. These misunderstandings are perhaps due to different positions on spectra.

The spectra of opinions on animals welfare are perhaps much like any other spectra. You have the two extreme ends, with small but passionate minorities: Those that believe all farming of animals is wrong and those that support all animal farming with no regard for animal welfare. Both of these extreme positions are coherent and defensible as creeds and you can respect adherents for the moral consistency. However the majority of people, probably, like myself, lie somewhere in between. Unlike a normal bell curve distribution, there are peaks at the two extremes. So when those in between people debate without knowing each other misconceptions arise. It seems that people adopt lifestyle positions without researching the facts, how they act and what they believe become different, which is much harder to defend in an argument.

In the case of fur, it has many similarities with the meat and dairy trade. There is traditional hunting of animals for their pelts to provide clothing for those who live at high latitudes, from sustainable populations of prey animals. I personally approve of this, but with the wildernesses of Russia, Canada, Scandinavia and invasive possums in New Zealand, it cannot provide enough fur to satisfy the demands of the world fashion market. Fake fur has been developed, so this should be the mainstay of the market. Fur lasts a long time, so I think vintage fur clothing can be re-sold. What I strongly object to is the intensive farming of animals for their pelts, in cages where often the animals can’t even turn around. The issue is that the farmed fur trade is very much near the extreme end of low animal welfare and one the vast majority generally find unacceptable.

A difficulty for my position is distinguishing ethically sourced fur from the cruel stuff, again much like the meat and dairy sector. This was the argument in the 80s and 90s; As you couldn’t source the fur, you had no idea if people were openly supporting cruelty to animals or not, so the argument ran that it was better not to wear real fur at all, rather than risk offense.

Some would argue that it is simply the fashion industry. This being the industry that profits from people buying more clothes than they need, made affordable to those in the Western world by being manufactured in sweat shop factories, akin to the Victorian mills of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Has models who are unhealthily thin to be coat hangers and tell young women that making yourself thin is somehow acceptable. This is one of the reasons I’ve never really been into fashion and happy to wear somewhat raggedy clothes on an everyday basis. Really, I don’t understand why there aren’t more charity shops for exchange of clothes, as much fashion clothing is often only worn a couple of times. Being a chap, my choice in charity/ vintage cloth shops is relatively poor.

is it perhaps a generational thing. I wouldn’t suggest that the younger generation are less moral, but maybe how morality is expressed has changed. I am often disappointed with my generation in failing to achieve all that much progress in moral issues against corporate power. However what my generation did perhaps achieve was the acceptance of individuality. My generation cherish individuality, the freedom to pursue our dreams and to be ourselves. Listening to people in their late teens and early 20s, I am so impressed with their acceptance of other peoples sexuality and diversity of lifestyles, they seem to feel less obliged to do things they don’t want to. To some extent this only came about because my generations challenged traditional views and those people that rigidly adhered to them.

Perhaps this individuality has been taken to an extreme beyond the motivation behind it’s development.  my generation did view the world as a society, there was a feeling that we wanted to make the world a better place, here we failed.The younger generation have come to accept more that the world/ corporate power can’t be changed. There is less a sense of the possibility of the mass of the democratic public simply saying no to something in sufficient numbers with enough vigour to bring it about. That people feel that there is no longer a society to look after if you are able, a sense of local and international community. That one can perhaps only act at an individual level or within a peer group. Hence, whilst there may be as much despair at people wearing fur, people are perhaps less willing to challenge people who wear it. With the powers that be, monitoring us all on the internet and in our daily lives with CCTV, everyone is perhaps too afraid to challenge immorality.

What happens if no-one challenges immorality, if there is no cost to anti-social behaviour. I believe in animal welfare because I believe how people treat other sentient beings reflects on how we treat each other. It is only a small step between keeping an animal in a cage to having no qualms about a child being injured whilst working for a pittance in a factory on the other side of the world. Isn’t it time society stood up again for something? Fashion should be about fun, style and looking good, not draping yourself in the skins of mistreated animals.