PETER KING says inconsistency is not incoherency
We live in fragments. There is nothing that is so large to be all encompassing. There is nothing that is dominant, nothing that is the essence. Of course, we humans are common in our biology, psychology and our mortality, but this is not what defines us as individuals. As individuals we are wholes that are also fragments. We are complete and entire while also being part of something that is beyond us.
We do many different things that make us the whole that we are. All of these things can be ends in themselves, worthwhile without any exterior validation. We watch and play sport, and we do so for no other reason than the enjoyment we gain from the activity itself. Some of us may feel that our sporting allegiances define us, but this is never all that we are. We might describe ourselves by our job, our profession or perhaps our employer. But we come home at night and are someone else – a wife or husband, partner or parent, brother, sister, friend or even enemy. We have political views and we may only wish to associate with those who we agree with or have some affinity to. We may ‘never kiss a Tory’, but we probably work with them, sit next to them on the bus or train, wait behind them in a queue and are taught or treated by them when we are pupil, student or patient. We have tastes in art, and we have tastes in music which might be very different from our taste in art. We can have diverse tastes, admiring El Greco and Rubens as well as Rothko and Twombly; we can listen to Bach and Anthony Braxton and follow it up with Laurie Anderson; we can read James Boswell and Edward Lear before moving on to Vladimir Solovyov; we can watch a sci-fi thriller and the next night lose ourselves in Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Is this inconsistent and incoherent? It might be seen to be, but I would say that this inconsistency is actually quite defining of what we are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The choices of what we listen to, read and watch may be different, but we each have diverse and often contradictory tastes, both at any one time and through time. As a teenager I read lots of war stories and fantasy novels as well as listening to punk music. I actively hated both Wodehouse and Eliot and all they stood for, and I had little time for classical music or jazz. Forty years later, I love both Wodehouse and Eliot and have no interest in going back to the novels of Sven Hassel or Michael Moorcock. But even now, as I have suggested above, I shift from the light to the heavy, the old to the new, the tuneful to the discordant, the easy to the difficult. These are all parts of what I am. They are fragments of my personality. None of them defines who I am; not one of them is me. But each of them says something about me, and each is as real as the any other.
My choices, I am sure, are not confected. I do not listen to certain types of music because I think I should or because it is what ‘people like me’ are supposed to do. I do not watch black and white Russian and Japanese films out of duty, but because I really enjoy them as well as finding them compelling and challenging. I will quite happily read Edward Lear’s nonsense verse while there is Anthony Braxton’s improvised jazz playing in the background.
So I do not see all this variety as incoherent or inconsistent. It is just how I, and, I believe, most others, live. It seems to me to be perverse to believe one should have such a consistency so that if one is a traditionalist in politics one must also be one in art and music. Not only does this forget that these, now traditional artists and composers, be it Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bach or Mozart, were considered outrageously modern in their own time, but it also ignores that different arts progress at different stages. To do this is to put artificial criteria over our individual choices.
There is a lot of debate and disquiet over the issues of difference and diversity. These terms can be used to impose categories on people otherwise unwilling to accept them. They might also be seen as the means to attack traditional values. I can accept both those points while also insisting that each of us is diverse and full of difference. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of us have contradictory tastes. I would further state that this is natural and to be relished. If we have different moods, why not diverse tastes that can accommodate those moods? I would suggest we accept difference and diversity for no other reason that this is just how we are. This does not mean that we have to accept these terms beyond categories that apply to an individual. We do not have to accept them in political terms and nor does one have to buy into a postmodern worldview. We can have diverse views, and remain traditionalists.
What I want to suggest is that we are made of fragments. Each of these demonstrate a particular feeling, attitude, mode of behaviour, even view of the world. Each fragment is, at it were, complete. It is entire and we can express it fully, whether it be a particular allegiance or an attitude towards a painting or poem. We can, of course, express negative attitudes and feelings regarding things we do not like or which we feel in some way oppress us or stop our enjoyment.
These are entire unto themselves: we enjoy Bach’s cello suites and that is it. We do not have to qualify our love for this music or justify it to anyone else. We do not love Bach because of his contemporaries or because of the period in which he lived. We can sit and listen and lose ourselves in its sublime qualities. Yet the following day we may be watching a game of football and lose ourselves in the tribe of fellow supporters shouting on our team. Later that day we may read Eliot or watch Saturday night television. We do not have to explain ourselves, and we would resent being made to. We do not question what we are doing either during or after, and the issue of consistency doesn’t enter our heads.
However, these fragments do come together into a whole. This whole is an entire person. We have a complete life that we take to be continuous and coherent and which we know consists of a multiplicity of parts, each of which can satisfy some aim, need or desire. We are seen by others as a whole and are expected to act as such. But this whole is, in turn fragments of a greater whole. We are entire as ourselves, but we can come together in a larger whole we call ‘community’.
What I particularly object to in politics is principle. I tense up when someone says that they act according to principle and I automatically wish to support someone accused of lacking principles. This is not because I have no principles of my own – I like to think I am reasonably principled in the manner I behave. But I make a distinction between the personal and the political. I want to be moral and, despite failing often, I work at being so. And, of course, I want others to be moral as well. What I do not want is for anyone, myself included, to feel enabled to impose their principles on society through control over political institutions. What I object to is not that a politician has principles but that they wish to impose them on everyone else, regardless of what these others may think. In other words, I do not want my principles to be swamped by those of someone else.
Any society is made of diverse and different individuals who believe in many different things. These views may well be irreconcilable. A society may consist of traditional Roman Catholics and radical feminists, and progressive liberals and reactionary conservatives. All of these views are legitimate and we must assume they are sincerely held. People naturally disagree on a whole range of issues such as abortion, immigration, gender, the proper roles of governments and markets, the environment and globalisation. While we hope that we can talk with those with disagree with, it will often be the case that we cannot agree. Some views are simply irreconcilable and all we can agree on is that we differ.
What we need then is some means to ensure we can be left to differ in peace. We might take the view that we accept the majority view, and there is some sense in this. But this does not end the issue of principles. Even if there is a majority in support of an issue, why should we assume that an argument is determined solely by the number of its supporters? A Roman Catholic will still believe they are right to oppose abortion, even if they know they are in a minority. A traditional conservative will not agree with radical views on the fluidity of gender merely because there appears to be a majority of parliamentarians who will vote for it. A majority does not negate or diminish the principles of the minority.
Politics, then, is essentially antagonistic. It is made up a diverse collection of views, deeply held and based on clear principles, but which cannot be reconciled. The proper response of government here is not to impose one view at the expense of the others, but to find a means of balancing these irreconcilable views in such a way that society remains peaceful and stable. This means developing and maintaining institutions that protect different views and maximise the ability of individuals to express them freely and safely.
This suggests that the only purpose to governing is governance itself. Governing is indeed an end in itself. There is no end to governing in either sense of the word ‘end’. Governing does not stop and there is no presumption that we will reach a higher or better state, whether we express that as human perfection, utopia or the end of history. Governing is necessary to hold a balance between antagonistic ends sincerely held by free and competent citizens. It is about protecting those institutions that allow for those views to be expressed in a manner that does not coerce others.
Government then does not believe in anything other than its own maintenance. The reason this is necessary is not because a society believes in nothing, but precisely because it believes in many diverse things. Just as there are irreconcilable ends in a society, so there are within each of us. We act inconsistently because we hold diverse views and act according to the context in which we find ourselves. We try to hold them in balance, but they are not necessarily reconcilable. We can only hold them serially and not concurrently (without making ourselves unwell).
However, it is this serial nature, that at any one time we are committed to a particular end, that allows us to lead untroubled lives. Each fragment of ourselves is complete unto itself and we can live with it. To be consistent is to lack imagination. It is where we do not feel or think. People who are oppressed or coerced appear consistent because they have views imposed upon them. They are told what to believe, what to think and how to act.
We are made up of regrets as well as triumphs, of things half done, things we wished we had done or not done, paths not taken or only part taken, things left unbuilt. These are all fragments, which we did not complete. Yet they stand there as memories or regrets. These too are now complete, in that they cannot be completed or added to. They can only be lost further or retained as they were left.
Think of a valuable pot that has been smashed into a thousand pieces. It is irreplaceable, and we feel we should try to save it, so we painstakingly put back the pieces back together again. From a distance, the pot may look as good as new. But when we get closer we can see the multiple fractures and how the pieces have been joined together. It is skilful work, but we can see that it is not the same. And there may be weak points or even bits missing. But it is still a whole, it is a pot – and it may well now have a different form of beauty that comes from being in this reconstructed state. We can sense its vulnerability and its complexity. We can better sense the love that went into its making and in its preservation. This is how we are, skilfully put together from many, many pieces. We may be scarred and there may be gaps but we are, in our own way, more or less complete.
PETER KING is former Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University, and the author of over 20 books, including Reaction: Against the Modern World (2012), The Antimodern Condition: An Argument against Progress (2014) and On Modern Manners (2019)