Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

Attitudes towards protesters show depth of our moral vacuity
All that is asked of potential moral role models today is that they complain, voice their emotion and make a public statement.

When Time magazine proclaimed that 2011 was the year of the protester, it lent its prestige to the recently constructed prejudice that believes a loss of moral and cultural purpose can be recovered through the actions of people on the streets.

Communities have always honoured those who made sacrifices to help others. Throughout history, acts of outstanding heroism and duty served as moral exemplars for others. In very rare instances, such deeds have been represented as saintly and memorialised by generations to come.

Today, little is required of potential moral role models. All that is asked is that they complain, voice their emotion and make a public statement.

The occupiers of St Paul’s Cathedral were still eating their Christmas pudding when Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, the third most senior cleric in the Church of England, told them their deed should be memorialised and turned into a spiritual legacy for the future.

“We are looking for ways of honouring what has been said when the camp moves on,” he said. One suggestion is to erect a tent in the church itself so that worshippers could come together and discuss how to make the world a better place.

Usually, rendering an experience sacred does not occur while it is unfolding. Such haste in pronouncing an act worthy of memorialisation betrays a loss of historical time. There is also something tawdry about a senior cleric promising a group of would-be saints that their acts would soon be honoured by Britain’s national church.

It is worth recalling that St Paul’s has traditionally served as the site of state funerals of British military leaders, including the Duke of Wellington, Horatio Nelson and the wartime prime minster, Winston Churchill. This is a church where those who have made an outstanding contribution to the life of the nation are celebrated and laid to rest. St Paul’s contains the tombs of such distinguished figures as the architect Christopher Wren, the scientist Alexander Fleming and the sculptor Henry Moore.

One does not need to be a worshipper of great individuals to find repulsive the suggestion that the current occupation should be sanctified as a national legacy for future generations. So what has driven senior church leaders and politicians to represent this year’s acts of protest as possessing such elevated moral authority? And why is it that political figures across the ideological divide find it difficult to question or criticise the groups of demonstrators that occupy urban spaces in many parts of the Western world?

For some time now, the disengagement of people from public life, especially the domain of the political, has become an inescapable fact. Politics is rarely upheld as an honourable profession. Even politicians attempt to distance themselves from their colleagues by insisting that they are outsiders. Moreover, cynicism towards the key institutions of society is not confined to a small group of malcontents. Mainstream opinion leaders, religious and cultural figures regularly articulate an anti-political world view.

Politics is rightly associated with interest. But the pursuit of interest - be it individual, sectional, class or national - is invariably associated with selfish, corrupt and immoral behaviour.

The inability to give moral and intellectual content to interest transcends the political divide. Left-wing activists rarely speak the language of the interest of class. Their dissociation of politics from interest is often matched by their conservative opponents, who are hesitant about explicitly promoting the interest of the nation. In both cases, the reluctance to explicitly pursue interests is a response to the difficulty of expressing such sentiments through the language of political ideals.

The Western protester is the progeny of the present moral impasse. One of the principal features of this protest is its self-conscious disavowal of the politics of interest. Protest is conducted through a rhetoric that seeks to represent the pursuit of interests as an act of the morally depraved.

More important, its refusal to formulate any clear objectives represents a roundabout way of indicating its distaste for politics. As a result it mirrors the anti-political stance of the establishment.

However, what has led to the cultural affirmation of the protester is that it appears to possess the resources for expressing a cause. At a time when society appears unable to motivate its citizens through an intellectually responsible idea of national purpose, a cause that can move people to act appears as a condemnation of its moral failures. It does not matter that the protesters are more suitably characterised as complainers or rebels without a cause. It does not matter that the protesters have no cause other than to protest. To the elites, the protester appears as the personification of a cause.

The moral impasse has led numerous opinion leaders to regard any expression of cause-driven activity as possessing a greater potential for moral authority than their own disoriented world view. That was why Giles Fraser, the former canon of St Paul’s, responded to the occupation of his church as a kind of second coming of the Saviour. Back in October he stated that he could “imagine Jesus being born in the camp”.

What kind of mind imagines the Messiah born in a protest camp in the year 2011? Such fantasies are symptomatic of a profound sense of moral exhaustion and loss of conviction. It is only from the standpoint of paralysis and despair that the protester appears to have any morally redeeming features.

Outwardly this was the year of the protester. But scratch the surface and what becomes evident is that most of the time in the West this was a case of protesters venting their anger at an open door. Back in 1919, the poet William Butler Yeats reminded us in his poem The Second Coming that the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. This is the year when the prophetic quality of Yeats’s premonition turned into a sociological commentary on public life.

First published by The Australian, 31 December 2011