Without a need for rules
“Everything is possible and almost nothing is certain”, said Vaclav Havel in 1994. The then Czech president was trying to capture the mood of the times; trying to define a view of the world described as postmodern.
The Wikipedia page on postmodernism quotes the Italian medievalist and semiotician (and excellent novelist!) Umberto Eco who characterised “the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, I love you madly, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland.”
The world where authorities speak in absolute terms and seek to exercise arbitrary authority is no longer accepted. The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to come to terms with societies where the bishops say something is so and the people respond by saying “so what?”
Authority is no longer something assumed, it is more in the nature of respect; it must be earned. Moral strictures are ignored if they are seen as irrelevant, or simply wrong. Ireland was once a country where condoms were smuggled from the North; now clerical condemnation of contraception is a generally viewed as no more than an anachronism. People will behave in a way they believe is appropriate.
Questioned about his book The Pope’s Children back in 2006, David McWilliams reflected on the postmodern morality of Ireland:
“The value system is ad hoc, people make up things as they go along?”
“Yes, it’s a la carte. It’s a la carte morality, which I would agree with. You have two ways to live your life: You have rules or discretion. As long as your discretion is based on a certain general view of what’s right and wrong, and I believe they have that, then jettisoning the rather strict rules that have governed this country over the last hundred years isn’t probably a bad thing. If you look at what has happened in terms of violence in this society, it’s not the people I portrayed who are perpetrating violence. They seem to be rather well behaved people”.
People will make their own choices; they will grant authority to those whom they respect. It is a messy and difficult way of doing things, but it undermines all hierarchies, and allows space for creativity.
The Irish Blog Awards encapsulate the nature of the postmodern world (having been only ever nominated once, and even then having failed to make the long shortlist, there’s no personal interest!). The initiative of an individual, their authority derives from the respect they have earned. There is no official body; no hierarchy; no exercise of curial power; rather there are people who are mature enough to make their own decisions, to live without need of ecclesiastical dominance.
“Everything is possible and almost nothing is certain”: reports from the Blog Awards ceremonies suggest it would not be a bad slogan.
And now I’m left feeling more optimistic about the world.
McWilliams’ observation about rules and discretion is acute. I think it captures a specifically Irish attitude of long standing – as a society we have a tendency to break the rules if we think it sensible or convenient, and we expect others to turn a blind eye accordingly. It makes us a flexible people able to respond to opportunities as they arise. But it is also extremely dangerous – arguably this attitude accounts for much of our present misfortune – corupt politics, effectively unregulated banks, lunatic development, and the hiding of abuse. I’m no better than anyone else – I’ve long recognised it as a defect in my character I must confront, though I value flexibility, informality and lack of heirarchy as much as the next man.
Getting older one leans slightly to the right, well maybe not slightly. People make their own choices you say. They seem a rather well behaved people says David MacW. But you know as well as I do that this is a misrepresentation, not a deliberate one I have to add.
People all over the world are generally well behaved. Generally. Here in the West, specifically Ireland, we have this “ad hoc morality”. But it is not real freedom. The apparent freedom of will is tightly bound. Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to sit in a bar of an afternoon talking and debating about everything, including religion, politics, morality. Lots of places in the world one cannot do that.
We are bounded by debt, envy, greed, individualism, family ties, the golf club, common law. As long as the system generally works, it will continue. But threaten those who have much to lose and the system is in danger. I would posit that this is such a time in Ireland. The government was quick so keep senior bond holders happy. Not so quick to help those involved floods last year.
I am a happy individual, but keenly aware that my freedoms, such as they are, may disappear in a flash.
Maybe our situation arose from years of people being dominated by institutions. People bought into the credit bubble, and its catastrophic consequences, because they were told by those in high places that negative equity could not happen; because the likes of Seanie Fitzpatrick told them that the world was looking on in astonishment when anyone half wise was looking on with scepticism. They were told that our headlong dash into hedonism (and bankruptcy) was good for everyone. They believed because believing was part of the culture.
Being subject to hierarchies and authorities meant there was always someone to blame always someone responsible for one’s plight- listen to the radio phone ins and it comes through very clearly. Maybe postmodernism brings freedom, but also the burden of responsibility. Get rid of the structures and there is no-one on whom to be dependent. Perhaps it’s a scary prospect.