Friday, August 25, 2017

Thoughts on Paternalism

This morning, as I was walking into work, I found myself looking appreciatively around the Newman building, the arts block which is attached to the library by a covered walkway (or "tunnel"). I very often do this. I try to avoid becoming blasé about the good things in my life. I looked around at all the familiar sights I love; the posters, the art-works, the decorative wooden plaques which list the auditors and Presidents of various UCD societies down the decades. (For some reason, they haven't been updated since the first few years of this century.) I also contemplated, with considerable relish, the relatively new inscription embossed on the wall outside the women's bathrooms: "As a story, so is life; not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters." (Seneca, apparently.)

I pondered upon chance and destiny. How much of our life is happenstance, and how much is chosen? Interestingly, I'd found myself working in an environment which is like an expression of my own personality, of my own fascinations. I've always loved environments that are self-contained, distinctive, little worlds of their own. Islands are the perfect example. An island always seemed to me like the perfect setting for almost any story, to the extent that it was almost a kind of cheating for an author to resort to it. (I really did think about such things, in my teens, when reading Lord of the Flies and similar works!)

It's not just islands, though. I've always loved fictional settings of a communitarian nature-- like the Enterprise in Star Trek, or Hogswart in Harry Potter, or Tar Valon in The Wheel of Time, or Gormenghast in Mervn Peake's series of that title, or the various colleges in Tom Sharpe's books.

I love working in a university. I like the fact that the campus has a definite geographical area, all to itself. I like the fact that it has its own post office, bus routes, emergency services, health centre, sports centre, cinema, restaurants, shops, bank, telephone switchboard, and so on. (And well might I say "so on"...I've been working in UCD for sixteen years, and there always seems to be more departments and units I've never heard of.) I like the fact that it has a clear hierarchy and settled procedures.

And I must acknowledge that I also like the whole idea of a paternalistic society. Despite having some libertarian leanings when it comes to free speech and other issues, I'm not at all in sympathy with the libertarian temperament, still less the anarchist temperament. I want society to have hierarchy, expectations, obligations, privileges, roles-- I don't want the shared life of society to consist simply of housekeeping. I want it to be much more than that. I want it to be more like the life of a family.

Admitting this is a bit dicey. I realize that I'm laying myself open to the charge of infantilism, or insecurity, or some similar personal failing. As I said recently, I'm becoming quite sensitive to such imputations, but I also feel the need to be honest. Nor can I imagine "outgrowing" these desires, which I take to be far too deeply rooted in my soul for that.

This is why I am drawn to the Ireland of De Valera and Archbishop McQuaid-- not only because I happen to be a Catholic and a nationalist, but also because of its paternalistic aspects. I like the idea that the state, and indeed civil society, are not neutral, but actively seek to foster particular aspirations. And it should be noted that dissident minorities are, in a strange way, a part of this shared life. Let me again quote a very appropriate Patrick Kavanagh couplet, regarding the liberal dissidents in the Ireland of his own day:

They are not Lilliputian cranks, as some outsiders deem;
They are the Official Liberal Opposition and part of the regime.

Of course, Kavanagh meant this disparagingly, but I don't see it that way. It seems perfectly natural and desirable that dissident minorities should have their own niche in a particular society.

So what about the Ireland of today, where the situation has flip-flopped? After all, Catholics and conservatives are now the dissident minority in twenty-first century Ireland, and to a great extent enjoy the role of "official opposition".

Well, if I'm really honest, I have to admit that I accept these terms. Political correctness is the religion of contemporary Ireland-- and, to my mind, it's better than no religion. Yes, in all honesty, I prefer that the universities and schools and media of contemporary Ireland should dispense political correctness, than that they should be pervaded by a genuine pluralism, a genuine neutrality. I don't really believe pluralism is possible; but, if it was possible, I wouldn't want it. I would rather have something to push against.

(Of course, all these statements have to be understood with certain qualifications-- for instance, abortion is unspeakably wicked and the fact that Official Ireland is pushing abortion so eagerly is quite simply a terrible thing, not in any way a good thing.)

I'm drawn to other paternalistic societies, at least in the sense of being fascinated by them-- societies such as Puritan New England, the Soviet Union (especially in its latter decades), Jonestown, and Orania in South Africa. I remember once hearing a Russian playwright bewail the post-Soviet era in these terms: "The communists banned us, but at least they cared what we wrote." I can absolutely understand that sentiment. When I learned about Mussolini's Italy in secondary school, I was very attracted to the idea of the corporate state.

Funnily enough, today we had a "library staff day", a whole afternoon in which we listened to speakers from the library and the wider universities give various presentations about their work. They were mostly very boring, but I quite liked being bored (just as I rather enjoy being bored by dull homilies). The first speaker was from Human Resources, and the second speaker was from Healthy UCD, a department whose mission is to promote health in the university. It was extraordinary how relevant his presentation was to this blog post, which I'd begun writing in my head hours earlier. He told us that his goal was to get us beyond seeing UCD as simply a place of work, that he wanted us to also see it as a place where we could improve our mental, physical and spiritual health. (Yes, he did say "spiritual".) 

It would be very easy to roll one's eyes at such a speech, and to mutter: "Hogwash!" under one's breath. Or perhaps to say: "Just give me more money and I'll take care of my physical, mental and spiritual health on my own, thanks." But I am not tempted to such a response. I cherish the fact that somebody was even saying this. The aspiration itself, aside from any actual realization of it, pleases me greatly. 

What does any of this matter?  As I've mentioned before, I'm experiencing a good deal of intellectual (and general) insecurity these days, so I really do question the importance of my own thoughts and emotions on such subjects. I can't present these ideas as a rigorous critique of some aspect of society, because they're not. They're from a particular perspective, my perspective, and that perspective is a minority one-- perhaps a minority of a minority, or more.

And yet, aside from the satisfaction of expressing them, I hope that they may have value. I'm surprised how often I encounter a thought of my own, one which I may have considered nothing but a quirk, and which I may have been rather bashful about, echoed in some unexpected place-- sometimes to considerable acclaim and agreement! So I have learned to be more forthcoming. I think human beings are rarely as idiosyncratic as all that-- it's rare that a feeling or an idea is unique to a particular person. I suspect that the feelings I describe in this blog post are shared more widely than may be suspected, despite all the rhetoric of unbridled personal freedom and personal agency that resounds in the world today.


  1. "Deep" meanderings. Reading this how you quite like attending even dull talks and things like that I was glad to affirm something in the same vein. Evidently we don´t have to be bored to be bored!

  2. I´m struggling in finding time and inner room enough to read good books at the moment. The blog and Co on the web are keeping me on track with the Idea of reading in joy in the meantime! In consideration of the Catholic Faith I reckon that some periods of boredom are nothing wrong at all. In my case at least I can say I need it. Wishing you a blessed week ahead too.

  3. Thanks Thomae. I'm glad I'm keeping your literary wheels spinning at the moment! And yes, boredom seems quite productive very often.