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A New Inquisition?

Thursday, 9 December 2021  | Yarkov Halik

The recent public pillorying of Australian Cricket Captain, Tim Paine, for an incident occurring more than 2 years ago, and in relation to which Paine himself always admitted he deeply regretted, highlights the conceptual dead-end into which our society has driven. After all, what we can quite rightly demand of cricketers is that they conduct themselves on the pitch with dedication, and an excellent command of their craft, not that they be morally perfect. But even more importantly, the entire hullabaloo surrounding Paine’s misdemeanor highlights the crisis of notions of remorse and forgiveness.

A fundamental feature of modern societies is the manner in which they recognise the importance of making some kind of distinction between the individual as a citizen and as a soul. That is why it was such a great step forward when the monopoly exercised by the Medieval guild system over the vast majority of artisanal work was ended in the 18th century in Europe through the rise of ‘commercial society’. Reserving the right to practice the trades they controlled for those whom they considered ‘good Christians’, the guild organisations excluded Jews, expelled grievous sinners and denounced members they suspected of heresy. All of which meant that to work in a trade one needed much more than skilful craftsmanship. Rather, one had to adhere to an all-encompassing moral code. By contrast, commercial society defined a private sphere in which people could, so long as they did not harm others, reach their own judgments and live according to their own beliefs. In this way, it opened human enterprise to a diversity of talents, encouraged the sharing of knowledge and fostered what is probably the most important contribution of Western civilization: a social order founded on values of tolerance.

But the ‘long march towards tolerance’, as Philippe Nemo called it, actually began well before the Enlightenment, with the Scholasticism of the High Middle Ages.[1] This is because the Schoolmen developed an intellectually rigorous system of immanent discursive reasoning, thereby requiring disputants to listen to all the arguments, rather than making judgments on the basis of extra-intellectual criteria. From there, Scholasticism became the basis for a general method of rational enquiry that ultimately paved the way for modern science. Perhaps most importantly, it laid the foundations for a pluralistic society in which probity, the moral responsibility of individuals and a conviction of the innate perfectibility of the human species are primary values.

Now all of this seems under threat. That’s not to say the separation between private and public domains that allowed modern democratic liberalism to develop should give license to total permissiveness. Rather, it means we should avoid situations in which judgments about human behaviour are a fait accompli based on preconceived ideas. In short, there must always be scope for a process of deliberation or casuistry, because it is not obvious how justice should be applied in all cases. In other words, justice is a bit like the law - interpretation is required in order for it to be applied to particular situations. I hesitate to use the term justice, seeing that it’s been so abused lately, and also because most of today’s misguided social justice warriors fail to recognise the need for some kind of casuistry, that is, a process of reasoning. Reason is about mediation, weighing up alternatives and recognising not only that the broad scope of principles must be balanced against the particular circumstances of individuals but that a principle cannot be ‘automatically’ applied without doing violence both to individuals and principles. To put this in legal terms, a rational concept of justice presupposes a distinction between crime and guilt, between the concrete circumstances of an individual’s actions and a moral stigma that can be attached to them more or less permanently. Without such a distinction, one ends up in a situation where people are summarily tried at the court of public opinion without recourse or appeal. But this distinction, one of the European Enlightenment’s most important achievements, is itself only a variant of a far more fundamental one, which ultimately represents the basis for any notion of a just society. I mean, again, the distinction between private and public spheres, between the person and the role.

Returning, then, to that unfortunate cricket captain and the unrealistic standards of absolute moral purity expected of our sportspeople, it’s hard to see why, in assessing their entitlement to pursue their vocation, greater weight should be placed on their behaviour as a private person compared with any other professional, be they a teacher, a surgeon or an engineer. Obviously it has something to do with the status of sport nowadays as a ‘celebrity’ profession. But I think that behind this aspect lurks a deeper conundrum - the expectation that such people must be ‘role models’ for human character in general.

In other words, what in previous eras was the function of a theological code of social conduct is now today administered, at least covertly, by ideologies. It is now ideology, not religion, that dictates social mores, whilst the attribution of these mores to the particular person has become the business of a psychology. Presenting itself in the guise of a ‘universal program designed to remedy human frailty and the ills besetting it’,[2] contemporary psychology functions as ‘the most modern manifestation of technique, the now 200-year-old ambition of intervening with the “human” itself, with the human spirit and the secret in the human heart, for the sake of mitigating all those evils which, prior to these last two centuries, found their best refuge in religion’.[3] The problem, however, is that the current ideological-psychological system for the arbitration of mores has no place for one of the singular innovations of the tradition of monotheist spirituality: the idea of repentance and mercy. For those who baulk at such language, I will translate it into terms that are less loaded.

Repentance is simply the idea that the future can not only be different from the past, but can actually change what has happened. That is, we are not prisoners of our actions. Our deeds do not permanently disfigure our very being. We’re able to change, improve, make amends. Unlike pagan fatalism, monotheist spirituality sees humans as imperfect beings who can, through their own efforts and also through the encouragement that forgiveness provides, become better (rather than perfect). In short, the figure of the saint is more a paradigm than an actuality. To this extent, those crude pseudo-historical accounts of the psychology of religion have led people to overlook the reality that saintliness is no more than a regulatory idea; that is, beyond the religious hagiographies and theological legends, saintliness represents certain qualities that ordinary individuals might certainly aspire to, but that no actual human being could possibly be expected to embody fully and completely.

Unfortunately, contemporary ideologies of ethical life have no such subtlety or sense of nuance. An ideology is an all-or-nothing proposition. But when there is no room for moderation, ethical standards are liable to become quasi-mathematical propositions, taking on the severity of logical ‘axioms’ that brook no compromise. Nothing could be more brutal and damaging than the intransigent axiologies that now rule in our society; the dreadful human carnage they create is plainly obvious when one sees what happens to the self-esteem of young people on social media.

Where then does this all lead? To standards of behavior that are designed to crucify mercilessly anyone who transgresses them. Hence the protocols of political correctness, which are nowadays policed with the same kind of rigor once enforced by the Stalinist political system. For instance, in the former Soviet Union, there was an absolute standard for both public and private behavior, and this was ‘loyalty to the party’. The strict and absolutely unbending measures applied to anyone who contravened the conditions of this code of loyalty were applied not only to someone who actually transgressed; even those who might vaguely be suspected were subject to an extra-juridical condemnation that effectively made of them a ‘non-person’. After being accused, they would then be dispatched, efficiently, ruthlessly and without any form of legal recourse, to a penal colony for an unspecified period of time. Their disappearance from society was so absolute that it was as if they’d never existed. Now such a mechanism of total ostracisation without appeal has returned, it seems, and once again it’s administered in a completely unthinking manner through an all-powerful set of ideological prescriptions.

To be a sportsperson nowadays, it seems, is effectively to hold public office, not unlike a politician. What is not so apparent is the dramatic shift that has taken place in the last few decades to the rules around the appearance of our sports heroes in the public sphere. One of these rules, as I’ve suggested, is that there should be no separation between the person and the role. To wholly eliminate this separation is the goal of today’s social justice zealots, whose counter-Enlightenment fanaticism has initiated a New Inquisition, but with surveillance techniques that are sure to make the medieval version look like a polite party game.


Yarkov Halik is a former architect and teacher. He can be contacted at yarkovhalik@icloud.com.


[1]. What is the West?, 56.

[2]. Philippe Nemo, Job and the Excess of Evil, 44. Thus psychology is a technique which ‘masters and computes emotions, pleasures and pains, and the human existence that feels them’ (Nemo, Job, 63). It’s because psychology regards ‘the Beyond as a pleat to be unfolded from this world’ (Nemo, Job, 65) that it will always be unable to fathom the spiritual. The problem is that psychology is completely unable to acknowledge the existence of anything which ‘does not accede to the order of the world’ (Nemo, Job, 69).

[3]. Nemo, Job, 63.

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