Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Broken (Nihilist) Society?

The cut and thrust of politics is so painfully predictable that when a Tory, in this case David Cameron, notes that social background is only one part of the cause for low outcome (and that we cannot ignore the choices some people take on their road to, for example poverty) that the same old arguments are trotted out from the other parties in response.

Thus, Nick Clegg suggests that Cameron has 'debased' the argument, which is not actually a counter-argument and actually debases the concept of argument. Meanwhile, Denis Macshane rolls up saying its reactionary. Putting aside the reactionary nature of that instant reaction, what is interesting in the criticism is the complete failure to get to grips with the point being argued and instead to argue past it.

So, when Cameron says that we spend too much time looking for external factors for obesity rather than telling the fat brigade that they're eating too much, he is lambasted for his pure evilness. What surprises me most is that when a popular comedian makes exactly the same point no one appears to give a toss. In fact they laugh at the funny joke, and were you to prompt them the phrase "it's funny because it's true" would not be far from their lips.

I know it's just politics, but this tendency toward extrapolating and decontextualising speeches is a little bit tedious and even more so intellectually bankrupt. Instead of engaging with the arguments the response is to assume the electorate is stupid and misrepresent what is being said in as best way possible. This actually has a role to play in stoking the anti-politics that is rife in Britain today.

What Cameron chose to say about obesity, poverty and more crucially right/wrong, good/bad, was actually bang on the money, and his argument is one that, in my personal experience, transcends this Left versus Right stuff. We do have a culture today where judgement is frowned upon, where the phrase "who are you tell me what is right and wrong" is commonplace, and it has come about, dialectically, between competing forces of the Left and Right.

On the Right you have the indvidualism of the 80s (which although generally assumed to be economic was also cultural) , whilst on the Left there has been the pushing of ever greater respect for 'the Other'. So we now have the bizzarre situation where someone expresses their individuality whilst simultaneously never judging others because what is right and wrong for them may not be for others. Thus the glue that has held society together becomes unstuck.

As the glue has melted away 'society', if you can call it that, has gone from believing in something collectively to simply believing in nothing collectively, and so, 'society' becomes broken. Individualism in the 80s and moral relativism in the 90s has brought about nihilism in the 00s. Until we challenge that 'intellectual' underpinning - which is exactly what Cameron was doing yesterday - society will not be fixed.


Anonymous said...


Well said.
If you have not already read James MacMillan`s article in todays Telegraph I recommend it.
It supports your comments


Adam McNestrie said...

There is a reason that politicians and government have hitherto been shy of moralising politics in such a simplistic way. The whole process is fraught with difficulty. To gain a genuine understanding of agency, responsibility and culpability is fraught with difficulty even when we are dealing with the individuals closest to us in our lives; when politicians are dealing with people who are distant, or large classes of people like the obese, the dangers of misunderstanding and oversimplification are massive.

Simple moral schemes with their talk of individuals who are good or evil, who act in ways right and wrong, leave too much out. They eliminate the complexity of context so that they can say something strong and definite. People’s actions are partly determined by their histories, the institutions of which they are a part, the cultures into which they have been socialised, the economic system in which they have to survive. Talk of right and wrong tends to abstract from these things because they are complicated and messy and generally leave one with no one to blame.

To read more of my views link to my blog, Just who the hell are we? on wordpress.com at:

Tim J said...

What I found interesting was that Cameron's basic theme is that it is incredibly difficult to address social problems when everyone's initial response is 'You can't say that!'

And what was Labour and the Lib Dem's response? 'You can't say that!'...

Letters From A Tory said...

I thought it was one of the most radical, poignant and correct things that Cameron has ever said as a politician.

Good on him!

Morus said...

I am somewhat rotund, and categorically agree with him - of course I am this shape because of my diet and exercise regime.

Find me the idiot who disagrees and I will happily disabuse them.

"It's not a beer belly, it's a burgundy belly, and it cost me rather a lot of money"

Anonymous said...

How can we rid ourselves from this Adam McNestrie infestation? everywhere I go on the blogosphere I find his little adverts in the comments section. How do we make him go away?

Cinnamon said...

A lot of people are fat however because they are middle aged and/or disabled. Women who have had kids usually get a little portly, and obesity is as old as humanity itself. In fact I think conservatives are more likely to be obese simply because of the age range... wonder what makes Mr. Cameron diss his own supporters?

Diets have been proven not to work long term, the success rate is 15 out of 10000 dieters keep the weight off for 5 years+(US govt. figures). Are the 9985 people who don't make it all hopeless, despicable losers just like alcoholics and drug addicts?(and here the blame game also never seems to work either, rehab rates in both cases are similarly low, hmmm... )

The other tragedy is that Mr. Cameron confused instilling personal responsibility with busy-bodying and is asking the impossible as well(or else).

We're in deep trouble economically and this fool blithers on about fatsos as if he hadn't a care or a clue in the world.

Mrs Blogs said...

Ok but why do some people escape being told to take responsibility. For example business who always object to any kind of helpful food labelling.

Sainsbury's traffic light system is by far the simplest to follow for busy shoppers. But of course the Tories are against that.

The Tories recently talked out a bill to ban adverts for food high in fat, salt and sugar being marketed to kids before the 9pm watershed.

Electronic goods with no off button only standby.

Firms which don't invest in their workforce.

the CBI who always lobby hard against any measures designed to ensure workers can balance work and life.

Exercising and cooking healthy meals requires time and energy.

Duncan Bannatyne recently took tobacco companies to task for flogging ciggies to kids in africa. Ken Clarke was apparently up until recently on the board of one such.

City financiers who played fast and loose with the world economy.

Personal responsibility should apply to that lot too but of course its always conveniently left out.

dizzy said...


Stu said...

Dizzy, posts like this are the reason you are a successful blogger with a wide readership, and I am not :-)

Having said that, is the 'glue that has held society together' really dependent on our collective philosophical viewpoint? How would you characterise the moral standing of the new Conservative Party?


Windsor Tripehound said...

Cinnamon said...
A lot of people are fat however because they are middle aged and/or disabled. Women who have had kids usually get a little portly, and obesity is as old as humanity itself. In fact I think conservatives are more likely to be obese simply because of the age range... wonder what makes Mr. Cameron diss his own supporters?

This must go down as one of the most stupid posts I've read - and I have read a few.

I'm elderly, and fat because I eat too much. My wife's elderly, and slim because she's more careful with her diet. She's also had a couple of children and she's a conservative too (and suffers from arthritis).

Cinnamon's is exactly the kind of "thinking" that DC is criticising; "It's nothing to do with me gov'ner, fate/society/martians forced it on me"

undecided said...

what don't you get dizzy?

for responsibility to flourish a supportive framework is needed both at the individual and societal level.

responsibility is a partnership between the individual and society and government... i agree with mrs blogs...

the consumer organisation which? highlighted the ways in which food companies undermine parental messages to their children on healthy eating.

why should parents have to spend precious time and energy fending off irresponsible behaviour by companies.

subprime lenders etc...

if we're going to point fingers and say what needs to be said let it be pointed equally at all sections of society not just easy targets like the poor.

dizzy said...

Businesses are not individuals

Blue Eyes said...

You are right, as is DC. The problem is in finding a common ground of "right" and "wrong" which most people can support but which doesn't alienate others. As DK points out on his blog, not long ago consensus was that homosexuality was "wrong" and therefore punished quite severely by the state. Mainstream opinion is now that it is none of the state's business.

undecided said...

Oh yeah, businesses are run by robots ...no individual human beings there.

dizzy joins the hair-splitters convention

dizzy said...

errr I'd say more like undecided missed the point

undecided said...

Dizzy, you lecture me too... explain a little further...?

I noticed recently that Tesco have started putting individual items of fruit right by the crisps and chocolate bars with the sandwiches etc... on this issue at least they see that they have a role to play here in helping individuals make other choices.

That's my point.

Cinnamon said...


Being obese has many reasons, and a short look at the statistics should tell you that this is the wrong dead horse to beat[1]. If only 15 out of 10000 slimmers make it and stay slim, then badgering people to eat less is pointless -- it doesn't work, never has and never will. Cameron set himself and everyone else up to fail.

Cameron is simply engaging in rabble rousing here, the best way to motivate people into personal responsibility is with with good examples, because people who know what is right can work out on their own what is wrong, and then you don't have to police and micromanage them.

Making folks despise each other in order to make them better people has never yet been a recipe for success.

As for the 'has nothing to do with me' -- you're wrong there, I agree with that principle, but I'm not seeing it applied, but abused by Cameron.

Taking it out on fat people and holding them up as prime examples of negative role models along with drug addicts and alcoholics is school bully tactics. Socialists and communists do this kind of thing -- all that is missing now is a public stage for repentant fatsos to climb upon to selfcriticise and apologise to the

In other words, Cameron once again has shown himself to be an intellectual fly weight.

His time as PM is going to be 'fun' -- maybe it's possible to be even worse than Brown? Well, we'll be finding out, alas.

[1] Dieting itself is not without dangers, people can seriously harm themselves for life, and the NHS mops up a lot of that too. The entire thing is simply a bad hand of cards, this game has no winners. There is a good reason why there is a huge dieting industry and lots of pharmaceutical research. If it was as simple as eating less, people would not end up on the shrinks couch or in the grave over it.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Blogs be a dear and fuck off. Who is the government to tell me what I can and can't eat? Why do I need "traffic lights" to tell me certain foodstuffs are good for me or not?

I have a brain. I'm also overweight and exercise a bit. Sometimes. When I feel like it. My life, my choice.

I don't need Gordon Brown or David Cameron to tell me what to buy, what to throw away or whether it's all my fault. Kepp your sticky beaks out and leave us alone to get on with our lives

Rachel Joyce said...

An excellent post, Dizzy. Totally agree.

Windsor Tripehound said...

Cinnamon, try responding to what Cameron actual says rather than your own nonsensical reading of it.

He says that people should take responsibility for their own actions - a concept alien to the left

Tim J said...

One thing I genuinely don't understand. If, as cinnamon seems to be suggesting, eating less doesn't make people thinner, and fat people therefore do not bear responsibility for their weight - why on earth are there so many more overweight and obese people today than ever before?

Is the enormous increase in calorie intake entirely unrelated to the enormous increase in bottoms?

There may be some people who are genuinely incapable of losing weight, even if they did triathlon training. I very much doubt that this applies to more than a handful.

Oxbridge Prat said...

The moral status of corporations was sorted out by Edward Coke in 1612: [Corporations] may not commit treason, nor be outlawed, nor excommunicate, for they have no souls.

asquith said...

For fuck's sake, McNestrie, stop promoting your blog.

canvas said...

OK, Dizzy, how are Cameron's words helpful?

Why should Cameron be 'allowed' to pontificate and moralise? Because he is a politician?

OK, I say it is wrong and evil for MPs to continue to milk the taxpayers...

It means that I am judging most MPS as greedy.

I say MPs are wrong to be so greedy. Does that mean I am right to say they are wrong?

What will happen now? Will MPs change their behaviour because I judged them? Doubtful...

I don;t think I need a politician to preach to me about right from wrong.

DiscoveredJoys said...

It would be a lot easier to encourage individual responsibility if we had small government which had only a limited remit.

Unfortunately 'big' government only wants to get bigger and insinuate itself into more and more areas of our lives. For example national basic health care (still) seems like a good idea, but this has been inflated to include diet, smoking, drinking, fertility, tattoo removal and lots of tedious advice delivered in a nannying voice.

Basic unemployement benefit (still) seems like a good idea, but this too has been inflated into a whole raft of confusing benefits and allowances.

As long as this scale of state intervention is provided as a background to peoples' lives, they will often not take individual responsibility - as it is 'not their job'.

Stu said...

@canvas: Everyone is 'allowed' to pontificate. It's called free speech. Cameron happens to a have a podium which was democratically given to him by the Conservative Party, so he is able to pontificate slightly louder than the rest of us. Otherwise, why should Dizzy be 'allowed' to pontificate? Why should you?

Surely if you "don;t [sic] think [you] need a politician to preach to me about right from wrong" then you can just ignore Cameron's speech and move on with life.

Cameron's words are helpful because they outline the sort of things you might expect from a government if you vote for the Tories under David Cameron. Otherwise I don't see what relevance your thought experiment has?

"Making folks despise each other in order to make them better people has never yet been a recipe for success." I didn't read that in the speech, I must say. I thought Cameron was walking a very fine line between two opposing points of view which seem intractably at each other's throats. Compromises are needed in any approach that's going to be realistic. Exaggerating his words and suggesting he went far further than he did won't help the argument, it will hinder it.

Cameron didn't take anything out on fat people - he said that it is not always, particularly stress on not always, helpful to place them beyond criticism. This is not a war cry against fat people, this is a realistic look at how society treats its misfits, and a pragmatic approach to solving some of the problems.

Too many high horses about today.

canvas said...

Cameron's words aren't helpful. They are annoying and it's not his place to preach and moralise. It's his job to represent and act on the will of the people.

DC of course has a right to his own personal views about what he considers right and wrong - but that doesn't mean that he has the right to engage in social engineering.

Did DC say alcoholics can blame themselves for their problem? Well, they can't. It's a disease. DC could say 'alcohol abuse' needs to be looked at. But alcoholism is a disease. Does DC think people with disabilities can blame themselves too? DC should tread carefully. His words this week were annoying and narrow minded.

People are who they are. If DC wants to be helpful he should talk about improving education.

Anonymous said...

Canvas: I don't think Cameron was moralising or preaching, He was merely stating that people (i.e., you and me and every other bugger in the country) are responsible for themselves. It's not someone elses fault that fat people are fat, it is not necessarily someone elses fault that poor people are poor etc etc.

Cameron is calling for people to acknowledger their own responsibility for their own actions. 11 years of this execrable governments infantilising and overbearing nannyism has lead far to many of us to shrug and say "not my fault, society is to blame".

In this life you look out for number one because, realistically, no one else will.

Anyone reading far too much into what Cameron said yesterday is either fat or too fucking lazy to get off their ample behinds and DO something about it.

James said...

Did DC say alcoholics can blame themselves for their problem? Well, they can't. It's a disease.

Its an addiction.

There was only one person that picked the drink up in the first place.

There was only one person who when they realised they had difficulty in putting it down again, did nothing about it.

I understand severe addiction to alcohol means a user cannot go cold turkey, but in the name of god, they got themselves into the situation in the first place.

Who else forced them to drink and to keep drinking until their body was dependant on alcohol? Nobody. So why should the one person who did it be absolved of the responsibility?

I have no desire to be told what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' by anybody. However I see no problem with the message being 'take responsibilty for you own actions'.

Anonymous said...

It's about time people were told that they will have to make an effort to deal with their own problems rather than sitting back drawing benefits and shoutin that the Gov "has don nuffink for me".

If you're unemployed yes you should get some benefits to pay for rent/mortgage and food. But it shouldn't allow you to buy fags, mobile phones and cable TV.
If you can afford that on benefit you're getting too much. You should get paper envelopes stamps and and a few pens. then a kick up the arse and told to get a job, any job.

Same for addictions. If you make an effort to get off it the state should help you back. If you want to sit back shoot up and mug grannies to pay for it you should be locked in a room and forced to go cold turkey. Sod your hard childhood it's not an excuse.

monoi said...

"...the response is to assume the electorate is stupid and..."

It has proven to be a winner for so long, why wouldn't they ?

As for mrs blog for example, obviously part of that electorate, she does not even realise that she proves Cameron's point. If you are too stupid to know what you buy to eat and need some gimmick from businesses which you have a choice to use or not but blame them anyway, you certainly should not be allowed to vote.

Cinnamon said...

Windsor Tripehound:

You're missing the point that Mr. Cameron is foolishly asking the impossible.

No-one yet has a recipe how to solve obesity and drug taking, that is because no such recipe exists, 'loserhood' is (and always will be) part of the human condition.

I don't think a leader who has idiotarian Don Quixote-like leanings is a good choice.

Because if he is selling us snake oil now when he doesn't have to, what BS will be come out with when the chips are down?

Anonymous said...

Did DC say alcoholics can blame themselves for their problem? Well, they can't. It's a disease.

typical example of the kind of thinking that has got us in this mess. Addictions such as those to alcohol and opiates require a sustained period of use before they onset physically. So-called 'psychological' addiction can onset faster, but one man's psychological addiciton is another's 'lack of will power'.

Thus, yes, it is their fault. They had the drinks. They can choose not to do so again. Many do.