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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The liberal London tribe: Parsons or Merton?

It will take me a little time  to decode the implications of  David Goodhart's latest piece in the FT.  I think he has just declared war on liberal tolerance, but maybe that is an overstatement. I find the following sentence very odd though: 

"In 2004 I wrote an essay about the tension between diversity and solidarity, based on what I thought was the uncontroversial assumption that people are readier to share with people with whom they have something in common."

The set of people that I  (and David) share nothing in common with is empty, so to make sense his "something" must be a matter of degree. But he says nothing whatsoever about when the threshold is crossed  that means that  sharing something can  for all practical purposes be regarded as  sharing nothing. It seems to me that the great virtue of of liberalism is that it gives us some guidance, albeit mainly formal,  as to where that should be.

Anecdote time. Once when I used to regularly travel on the London Tube I was sitting in the late evening in a relatively empty carriage. The only other occupant of my section was a rather sozzled business type who was sipping from a can of beer. At the next stop two teenage girls sat down. I guess they were tourists and they began talking to each other in Italian. The business type got up, went over to them, and aggressively started to berate them for having the temerity to speak Italian in his presence in his country. Clearly they were terrified so I told him to shut the fuck up and leave them alone. Miraculously he did. Perhaps nobody else being there made loss of face more bearable. I felt I was lucky. It could have got nasty.

So who shared what with whom? I don't speak a word of Italian and the girls didn't seem to have a word of English between them. But gratitude doesn't have to be expressed in words. We all understood what happened because we shared some basic notions of human decency, let's say we endorsed  good old liberal values to do with not gratuitously threatening young foreigners who are doing you no harm. 

Unlike David I do want to say that Falangist, sorry, I meant Faragist, complaints about nobody speaking English on the train should be seen for what they are. And what they are is very ugly. As a citizen you should have a reasonable expectation that the person that sells you a ticket speaks English, that the announcements on the train are in English and that the guard that tells you you have the wrong ticket speaks English (in some countries  German, English and French or German, English and Dutch). But you don't get to dictate what language the other passengers use when holding private conversations with each other. You bought a ticket to get from A to B not to have an aural experience that satisfies your prejudices.

And what did I share with my own countryman,  the aggressor? At that precise moment not much, but I'm prepared to believe that when not pissed he was an entirely adequate husband and father. Hell he probably even took good care of his dog.

By the way Goodhart's piece is also notable for referring to Talcott Parsons. I wonder if that is a first for an FT article? Perhaps though he might have got more mileage out of Robert Merton who, as far as I'm aware, first made the distinction between cosmopolitan and local roles and identities.

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