E Jane Dickson: All moral decisions are not alike or equal

Is it any wonder that government continues to dash between populist sops and bonkers authoritarianism?
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The Independent Online

It is not political correctness that holds me back, much less government legislation; it's a matter of social judgement, one of maybe a hundred such judgements I make, reflexively, in the course of a day. I accept that a belief which is important to my friend is unimportant to me - a necessarily reciprocal arrangement - and the friendship continues unimpeded. If, on the other hand, my friend were to evince an equally passionate belief in, say, white supremacy, I'd be more inclined to take a view on continued relations.

It is all part of the finely calibrated personal judgement system that makes us human.

The ordinary capacity for judgement, however, is just one of the things under threat by the Government's proposed Anti-Religious Hatred Bill which is underwritten by the relativist assumption that belief, any belief, is inviolate. To put it another way, it's not what you believe that matters, but how much (and, in a social policy driven by demographics, how many of) you believe it. And the proposed Bill, essentially an attempt to ring-fence relativism with absolutist legislation, is symptomatic of the Government's desperate confusion on the whole issue of personal liberty.

A law outlawing jokes about dirty vicars or mad mullahs is unlikely, for example, to improve the lot of the 100,000 or so women living in Britain who have been subjected to the practice of "female circumcision".

The term itself is a ghastly euphemism, lending an air of spurious religious respectability to a practice which is more properly described as female genital mutilation. The removal of the labia and clitoris, and the consequent stitching up of the vulva in pre-pubescent girls is a brutally effective way of ensuring virginity at the time of marriage.

The operation, widespread among the British Somali community, leads not infrequently to death from septicemia, not to mention medical complications such as incontinence and infertility. It was made illegal in Britain in 1985.

Last year a further law was introduced, making it illegal to take children abroad for female genital mutilation. The practice is not, it should be stressed, a part of Islam but a local custom in parts of Africa. Yet, such is the political sensitivity to cultural difference, that not one person has been prosecuted.

What kind of society, you have to ask, ignores the systematic abuse of children just because they happen to belong to a cultural minority? Is this cultural tolerance or is it racism? (Consider, for a moment, the reaction if an offshoot of the Church of England decided to celebrate its difference by illegally mutilating white children.) A judgement urgently needs to be made, but such judgements, judicial or social, play no part in our increasingly relativist scheme.

And it's a cod courtesy, an "I hear what you're saying" pretence of inclusiveness which satisfies no one. We listen, with absurd respect, to David Hockney et al banging on about the "right" to smoke in public places, for all the world as if this deserved any kind of place on the greater agenda of civil justice. We continue politely to argue the toss over whether a woman who gets drunk and has sex when she didn't really feel like it is as much a "victim" as the one who is dragged into an alley and gang-raped.

We have lost all sense of perspective, and is it really any wonder when the Government continues to dash, like so many plate-spinners, between people- pleasing sops and bonkers authoritarianism. Drunkenness is bad. But we don't want to offend the G&T set. So let's ban drinking; but, er, only on public transport. And don't be too disheartened, voters, because now that we've got 24-hour drinking, you don't really need to catch the last bus anyway!

Nowhere is the effect of Tony Blair's schizoid swing between relativism and absolutism more apparent than in education. On the one hand, you have the ludicrous, result-boosting ruling that one GCSE pass in IT (ie, the proven ability to log onto the Dick and Dom website) is equivalent to four in traditional subjects, because different life skills must be "equally" valued. On the other hand, you have a comprehensive state system where streaming is anathema. So the only possible solution is to set up an entirely divisive system of privately funded academies, effectively streaming pupils for life at the age of 11. How many babies must be thrown out with the bath water before we regain the confidence in our ability to make a reasoned judgement call, to relearn the patient, adult skill of recalibrating a system rather than simply overturning it in a fit of pettishness and rushing on to the next Big Idea?

On Saturday, the Royal College of Art hosted "The Battle of Ideas Festival" where Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent argued that the collapse of respect for traditional authorities of Church and State has resulted in a collective lack of nerve. Unable to trust our own instincts we have put ourselves in thrall to "celebrity gurus".

"Parenting coaches, life coaches, makeover gurus, super-nannies - all apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives," said Professor Furedi. Even the political classes, he continued, now defer to the authority of celebrity. "Like most of us, our leaders are happy to listen to Bob Geldof moralising about how to save Africans, or Jamie Oliver instructing us how to rescue our children from obesity."

It's a grim, post-modern twist on the old adage that, once you stop believing in God, you start believing in anything. Or, to be secular about it, if everything matters equally, then nothing is important.

The logical end of relativism is not tolerance, but bleak, beige nihilism.And the undoubted broadening of religion into a less defined and distinctly less stringent code of "spirituality" (tip: if anyone says to you: "I'm a very spiritual person," take it as given they are not) should militate further against the judicial ring-fencing of religion as proposed by the Government.

If Sharon Osbourne has a notion to declare herself Head of the Church of our Lady of Perpetual Youth, and decrees that all women over the age of 25 must undergo forcible plastic surgery, will she too be above criticism? We need to recognise that maybe Disney got it wrong. Sometimes, really, really believing just isn't enough.

e.dickson@independent.co.uk

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