Vexed: Ethics beyond Political Tribes, by James Mumford

Jane O’Grady wishes this study of ideological inconsistencies had gone a bit deeper

July 2, 2020
Pro-choice and pro-life protesters
Source: iStock

Nowadays a person’s beliefs are likely – and are certainly expected – to come in what James Mumford calls a “package deal”, which, like the bumper-stickers of some American cars, constitutes a “badge of identity”.

He describes pulling up at traffic lights somewhere in the US: “On your right is a car juxtaposing ‘Liberals Take and Spend. Conservatives Protect and Serve’ with ‘Pro Guns. Pro God. Pro Life’. On your left is a car displaying a rainbow flag alongside ‘Buy Fresh Buy Local’, ‘No Nukes’ and ‘Co-Exist’.” Each of these sets of slogans is assumed to be “ideologically aligned” and to inexorably fit together. But do they? Taking three “package deals” associated with the right and three with the left, Mumford sets out to demonstrate that, given their internal inconsistencies, they often don’t.

He argues that the left’s commitment to inclusivity, for instance, is ill-matched with its tendency to advocate legalised euthanasia. An automatic “right to die” would give old people the added burden of having to justify their continued existence, and exacerbate guilt and anxiety. But, although he is eloquent and thought-provoking on how low the old rank in the victim hierarchy, most of the inconsistencies Mumford diagnoses have long been exposed.

Trumpeting “family values” and parental responsibility is indeed discordant with stinting on the wages, rights and security of workers, but that is a much-made argument. And, given that anyone lacking the Americans’ pioneer history is already bewildered and appalled by their laxity on guns, why labour the point that it is inconsistent to oppose tightening gun laws while promoting “the rights of the unborn child”? Admittedly, though, it is interesting to learn how contingent and chancy that coupling is. According to Mumford, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Republican Party supported the right to abortion; Ronald Reagan legalised it in California in 1967. It was only because they needed the Catholic vote that he and Richard Nixon started opposing it.

Among the book’s true-life anecdotes is the recent sexual encounter between the American actor Aziz Ansari and a young woman, which they interpreted very differently. But what this illustrates is a point that has been made for 30-odd years: “sexual liberation”, to use a quaintly old-fashioned phrase, has often been worryingly sloppy in its boundaries and, in practice, more to men’s advantage than women’s.

Mumford, though British himself, seems mainly to address a conservative, and perhaps American, audience. He never tackles the lack of “joined-up thinking” that afflicts the sort of people I mix with – people who fail to ask whether the hijab may not be a form of the slut-shaming they condemn, or whether supporting gay marriage is compatible with Muslim principles, and who vilify Trevor Phillips (former head of the British Equality and Human Rights Commission) for raising such questions. What trumps what? The campaign to preserve the countryside ran, for a time, uneasily in tandem with promoting open borders, but is now considered an “unwoke” cause. The issue of “intersectionality” – the way one person may simultaneously embody several minority categories – focuses almost exclusively on the incremental enhancement of oppression suffered by someone combining such categories. Surely what also needs to be tackled is how victim categories should be prioritised when, as so often, their combination internally conflicts rather than dovetails in harmony. Should “we” oppose or support the banning of the burqa, for instance? Because Mumford doesn’t deal with such pertinent questions, Vexed fails to be properly vexing.

Jane O’Grady is a co-founder of the London School of Philosophy and taught philosophy of psychology at City, University of London. She is also the author of Enlightenment Philosophy in a Nutshell (2019).

Vexed: Ethics beyond Political Tribes
By James Mumford
Bloomsbury Continuum, 216pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781472966346
Published 5 March 2020


Print headline: Inconsistencies of identity badges

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