I don’t miss the nastiness of the Left

I don’t miss the nastiness of the Left, by Giles Fraser.

Before I tentatively dropped my ballot paper in the box, I feared that making the jump from being a Labour voter to being a Tory one was going to mess with my head far more than it actually has. I expected disorientation, a sense of not knowing my way about.

But, so far at least, the reverse is true. Indeed, some of the landmarks of this new ideological architecture are so familiar, it feels like something of a homecoming.

Among the most familiar and welcome of these landmarks is the presence of the Christian notion of original sin. Theorists of Conservativism don’t always use this language; they are more likely to speak of a suspicion of human perfectibility. But it amounts to pretty much the same thing. The Left believes itself to be participating in some grand project of human improvement, an ambitious endeavour that points towards a comprehensive moral transformation of society. Conservatives don’t believe in this because they have a much more heightened sense of human fallibility. …

Properly understood, original sin was simply a very particular way of speaking about human brokenness, and an understanding that this brokenness was deep in the marrow of human life.

We evolved from single cell animals. There is an ancient reptile brain still deep within, concerned mainly with food, sex, and survival. It is selfish, and not very nice. It is overlaid with a mammal brain, and quite recently a social human brain, etc. etc. Original sin is about those thoughts and impulses from the older parts of our brains that are in conflict with the more moral, social, and recent parts. We are each a loose collection of sub-personalities, and they don’t always agree on everything. Where do our thoughts, impulses, and emotions come from? Somewhere deep within, out of sight of the conscious gaze …

The first animals with modern consciousness?

The historian Tom Holland commented: “Purity spirals are what happen when societies saturated in Christian assumptions abandon that most democratic of Christian doctrines: original sin. If perfection on earth is possible, then boo to those who are less than perfect.” …

Augustine’s idea of original sin is that human beings are constitutionally incapable of the sort of moral perfectionism asked of them by Pelagius. The Adam and Eve story is a way of introducing the idea that our lives are shot through with moral failure like a stick of seaside rock. This is why Christianity is absolutely not a story about human beings being good and then going off to heaven, but is a story about the need for us to recognise our constitutive brokenness and our need to be fixed of it by nothing less than outside help i.e. God.

Even leaving these big theological narratives on one side, it is surely obvious that a political philosophy that recognises human weakness is going to be a good deal nicer a political environment than one that whips people on to ever greater demands of moral stringency and then condemns them for failing to live up to what is expected.

It is this Pelagianism of the Left that makes it so nasty a place to be, with its constant monitoring of micro-aggressions, and denunciations of those whose shade of socialism differs, one from another. A kinder, gentler politics it is not. …

That’s probably why people on the Right often feel like they are a good deal kinder to each other than people on the Left. The search for total innocence becomes persecutory to those who do not achieve it. The acceptance of fallenness, though, is properly inclusive, a recognition that we are all in the same boat, all stumbling about getting it wrong, all children of Adam helping each other along in the dark. …

Conservatism, then, is the politics of human imperfection.