A better afterlife

Another article I meant to note at the time was this, by Stefan Collini, in the LRB, about three reports on British aspiration, social attitudes, and inequality. The whole thing is worth a read, not least for the latter part about how stunningly, and increasingly, unequal the UK is. I’ve pulled out a couple of other interesting bits.

The first is about a report called Unleashing Aspirations: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, chaired by Alan Milburn. The report seems big on advocating “choice”, that magical thing we’re all supposed to want these days, rather than just “good”.

In one of those phrases we have heard so frequently that we no longer register their absurdity, the Milburn report says we need to see how parents “could be empowered with a new right to choose a better school for their children”. What does this actually mean? A “right” is something universal, something everyone in the relevant category — in this case, parents — has. But if all parents have a right to choose a “better” school for their children, won’t we have to maintain in each locality a number of ghostly “worse” schools to which no children are actually sent, whose function is to show that some schools are “better” than others? This rhetorical pattern has become depressingly familiar: each individual has a “right” to something “better”, where “better” tends, in practice, to mean “better than someone else’s”. Over and over, the Milburn report uses the rhetoric of a “race” in which “everyone” is “entitled” to have a “fair chance” of winning. But if there are winners there must be losers, and sporting metaphors such as this one are intended to deflect attention from the basic fact that the most important determinants of who ends up in which category are not the miraculously independent qualities of “ability” or “effort” on the part of the individual, but the pre-existing distribution of wealth and power in society.

The ideological function of this language is revealed most clearly in the metaphor of the “level playing field”. “We will not create a mobile society,” the Milburn report says, “unless we can create a level playing field of opportunities.” We know, or think we know, more or less what the phrase means. It’s a way of saying that everyone should have a chance to compete on equal terms from the start, without things being tilted either against them or in their favour. But language carries its own histories, which come to bear without our intending or even being aware of it. Sports that are contested on a “playing field”, we might point out, are nearly always between two teams; indeed, the metaphor suggests something as old-fashioned as class conflict. More important, what happens on the playing field, however level, is heavily determined by things that happen off it. Recruitment, wealth, facilities, time, training — there’s almost no end to it. Taking a spirit level to every inch of the pitch won’t do anything to even up a contest between Manchester United and a local pub team.

By the time the teams get onto their level playing fields, unfairness has already done the greater part of its work. Moreover, such sporting metaphors conjure up a very simple, end-stopped activity as a model for the vast complexity of social life. Becoming a successful barrister, say, is not like running a hundred metres or kicking a ball into a net. What is a “fair” advantage? Being confident and being able to speak clearly may be helpful qualifications for a barrister who has to lead in a crowded court, but we have to ask where these capacities come from, who is likely to have them, and so on. These are all familiar arguments, or at least they were. I’m rehearsing them here only because the relentless cultivation of individualism by governments of both parties over the past 30 years has begun to make them seem extreme or obstructive.

And this bit about an annual report tickled the atheist me (although the fact half the UK population believes in “heaven” is pretty depressing):

British Social Attitudes also inquires about many matters that are not conventionally thought of as “political”, and every so often one comes across a priceless nugget. Buried in a table in an appendix to a chapter on “Religious Faith and Contemporary Attitudes” are a remarkable pair of numbers: 48 per cent of the British adult population believe in the existence of “heaven”, but only 28 per cent believe in the existence of “hell”. The discrepancy between these two statistics is puzzling, even alarming. Heaven and hell, after all, stand to each other conceptually as do “on” and “off”. There have traditionally been Lib Dem kinds of places such as “purgatory” and “limbo”, but these have functioned only as detention centres where various dodgy or unlucky characters are kept until their full entry visas come through. What do those people “believe” who show up here as believing in heaven but not in hell? If everyone goes to heaven, then (other conceptual puzzles aside) doesn’t that turn us all into potential salvation-scroungers, deprived of the incentive to work for a better afterlife? But this is already over elaborate: all we know is that 72 per cent of respondents in this particular survey responded “no, probably not” or “no, definitely not” when confronted by the words “Do you believe in hell?” (Those who answered “no, probably not” presumably exercised some hermeneutic charity and took that answer to indicate a lack of certainty about hell’s existence rather than any uncertainty about their own beliefs.) Unfortunately, those who had already answered positively the question about “heaven” were not then asked: “So what do you think happens to those people who don’t go to heaven?”

Instead of seeing the difference as a theological one between omni-salvationists and selective-salvationists, perhaps we should see these responses as saying something about people’s place on a “kind-tough” range. A quarter of the population identifies as “tough”, believing that people should get what’s coming to them, while another quarter identifies as “kind”, wanting everyone at the end of the party to get a goody bag. And in this respect, the discrepancy between the answers, though theologically confused, may be deeply expressive of everyday social attitudes in contemporary Britain. Perhaps heaven functions as another metaphor for the kind of competition in which there are quite a lot of winners but absolutely no losers. Heaven is where the aspirational aspire to. Hell is a leftover from the old “closed-shop society”; “fair access” has become the new theology. Upwards is, after all, the direction in which we all want to move: everyone has a right to a better afterlife.

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24 Jul 2010 at Twitter

  • 8:11pm: Saw Inception. Liked it as much as I expected from the trailer but not as much as I hoped from your enthusiasm. Thought Tom Hardy was good.
  • 12:37pm: Young woman wearing white t-shirt w blue stripes, stonewash jeans, white socks. Just add leather jacket/ blue blazer for full late 80s look.