The history of progress is the history of giving offence

From Telegraph blogs, August 1, 2011

Andrew Rawnsley had an interesting piece in yesterday’s Observer in which he reflected on why there were so few politicians among Britain’s public intellectuals.

As he wrote: “In challenging times which cry out for fresh ideas in both government and opposition, we are very short of enlivening political thinkers.”

He was writing about the public outrage over the ideas voiced by two public figures, Steve Hilton and Maurice Glasman. Hilton is director of strategy for David Cameron, while Glasman is a Labour academic who was ennobled by Ed Miliband. Both have attracted headlines in recent weeks for just a handful of the many ideas they have suggested, in Glasman’s case a re-thinking of immigration policy, and in Hilton’s a series of suggestions such as the abolition of mandatory maternity pay.

Rawnsley makes the point that, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them, it is good to have people raising new suggestions and discussing them. But this doesn’t generally happen as much as it should.

Open societies have many advantages over closed ones, but one of the strongest is their ability to mutate. Like genetic mutations, most new ideas are junk and many are actually disadvantageous or dangerous, but occasionally one idea will arise and spread throughout the population.

In theory technological change should accelerate this process, yet it could have the reverse effect: outrage is all too often the default (media-led) reaction to dissent, and outrage is the enemy of innovation and the search for truth. Ideas posed by Glasman and Hilton will never have the chance to be proved because they offend an almost religious set of values now firmly in place across the West – where racism, sexism and discrimination are among the seven deadly sins. This can be partly blamed on the process described by Allan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind, whereby the attacks on the great works of Western civilisation, and the moral relativism that discourages students to seek the truth, has created a generation (on both sides of the Atlantic) cursed with a strident certainty about the world.

Yet pretty much all the people who significantly changed the world said outrageous things that offended people; this goes not just for the major figures, such as Socrates, Jesus or Darwin, but for the smaller ones too – I’m thinking of people such as Thomas Aikenhead, the last man to be executed for blasphemy in Britain. The history of progress is the history of offending people; anyone who is quick to write off challenging ideas are “offensive” is the real reactionary here.

What do you think?