This touches on something which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – namely the reaffirming of liberal identity by the world around you. A few weeks ago I read a review of a play called ‘The Faith Machine’. It sounded like a subtle, complex piece which took standard liberal themes (such as the wickedness of religion and the superiority of First World attitudes to homosexuality) and turned them on their head, offering different viewpoints. Specifically, the review seemed to indicate that the play argued that humanity needs faith in something. Heck, even the Daily Mail raved about it, expressing much the same sentiments as the first review (which was from The Guardian).
So off I went, roping in my friend Matt. I’m not sure he has yet forgiven me. The play was absolutely nothing like I had imagined. It wasn’t complex in the slightest and instead was a one-note bore which served only to reaffirm the superiority of the liberal audience watching it. It offered up grotesque caricatures of Americans to laugh at and dismiss as they launched into idiotic diatribes about ‘terrorism’. It featured hysterically po-faced observations about ‘globalisation’ and religion which you would expect from the pen of a 16-year old particularly lacking in self-awareness. Worst of all, it featured a ‘heroine’ who was so smug, hectoring and caricatured (she reads LOTS OF LIBERAL NOVELS! She ADOPTS AFRICAN CHILDREN! She’s been HORRIFIED BY WHAT SHE SAW IN IRAQ!) that it was impossible not to root for the other characters, most of whom were imperfect but trying to do the right thing.
In short, it was utterly dreadful.
What really struck me, however, was the fact that everyone seemed to love it. I was sitting beside a couple of students who were whooping and clapping hysterically at the end. One of them even made a disparaging comment about me and Matt due to our less-than-enthusiastic reaction (okay, we may have laughed at a few ‘profound’ moments). We looked on Twitter afterwards and people writing about the play were universally raving about it and celebrating how it ‘really made (them) think’. I was dumbfounded. I don’t think there was any point in the play when anyone who fancied themselves as a liberal sort would have felt remotely uncomfortable, felt that something they believed in had been credibly challenged. Perhaps these people were all Daily Mail readers who were having dramatic conversions but I doubt it. Instead, like the films Ellen Jones writes about in this piece, they were people who were leaving having had their egos stroked and their worldviews confirmed.
I have been as guilty as buying into this as anyone but more and more I try to force myself to seek out views and opinions which challenge me. I am infuriated that there is an entire industry of columnists (Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Morin, Grace Dent, Barbara Ellen, Deborah Orr, Patrick Strudwick etc) who build careers on reaffirming the views of their readers (and some of them do it very well and are very entertaining). Can we imagine anyone reading anything by these people and feeling challenged anymore than we can imagine any of their audience reading Melanie Phillips and thinking ‘oh well she has a point there’? The high priest of this was of course Johann Hari and I’ve written enough about the response to his misdemeanours and how people seemed more interested in ‘agreeing’ with him than in any accuracy or integrity. Faith in your superiority has become an industry; a self-serving machine.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying things which present views you agree with, of course. ‘The West Wing’ built an entire series on doing this very well (though even then, it frequently offered shades of grey and a messy morality where sometimes good people did bad things for the right reasons etc). If, however, we wish to avoid descending into a comfortable, smug sense of superiority to the world around us we need to actively seek out new information and new opinions (and, again, I am speaking from experience here – I have certainly been comfortably smug). Ones which we will not feel comfortable with. We need to avoid celebrating bad works of art and bad journalism merely because we ‘agree’ with it. We need to engage critically with the world around us and avoid the attempt to shut this down by painting it as ‘being negative’. By keeping an intellectual hunger, a sense that we might be wrong about things and a belief that other people have valuable insights to offer us even if they are distant from our own, we keep ourselves grounded, aware and (I think) humane. Perhaps you do need faith in something more than yourself and your own rationality to aspire to this, I don’t know. I certainly would not have been caused to dwell on it after ‘The Faith Machine’.