I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.
Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.
We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.
So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.
Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.
As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.
And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.
Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.
It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.
Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.
I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.