It’s been forty years since the first topless page 3 model in the Sun newspaper. There was a debate on Radio 4 between Bea Campbell and Jennie Bristow this morning, which I thought was illustrative of an important wider point.
Bea Campbell argued that the Sun’s page 3 sends the wrong message to men and women. In retort Jennie Bristow argued that if you didn’t like it you didn’t have to buy the Sun.
Now I think you can only make this argument if you don’t believe in culture.
My argument is not that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is an inherently ridiculous position (I don’t like aubergines, you say “don’t eat them”. Fair enough). My argument is that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is a ridiculous reply to arguments of the form made by Bea Campbell.
Ms Campbell offered a claim about the negative effect that the page 3 institution has on everybody, the men who see it, and the men who interact with those men, and the women who interact with those men. Now you could say “page 3 is liberating” or “page 3 celebrates women” or “page 3 is harmless” and although you would be wrong, you would at least be taking seriously the implication of Bea Campbell’s argument : that how we treat each other matters, that our idea of each other matters and that these things can be profoundly influenced by how individuals behave and what we collectively acknowledge as acceptable. In other words, it makes the assumption that beliefs and behaviours are communicable.
So it is interesting to me that Jennie Bristow sidesteps this debate and takes refuge in an argument borrowed from economic liberalism: you have a right to make free consumption choices without interference. Now this is an important position, but it does not preclude debate about the effects of individual consumption choices (nor about the systems of production and culture which determine individual consumption choices). I submit that this strategy of ignoring possible debate culture is particularly characteristic of my intellectual generation, and I think I know why.
Culture used to be a real thing, by which I mean part of the lingua franca of public discussion, but the theorisation of culture was commanded by post-modernists and critical-theorists who abdicated all responsibility for making arguments which were comprehensible to the rest of us, and who systematically degraded collective faith in truth and reality. Years of this have created a diminished intellectual public sphere, ripe for colonisation by fundamentalists (religious and economic) and scientism. Hence the current idolisation of ‘evidence-based’ policies and decisions, as if an ‘evidence-base’ will save you from the need to have ideological commitments, and the celebration of limp claims about society and human nature by those with a scientific background.
In the arena of religious debate, witness the shallowness of theology from the ongoing Dawkins vs the Fundamentalists sideshow. In my own field, Ben Goldacre wrote recently about the phenomena of adopting a posture of disbelief in psychological phenomena until neuroscientific correlates can be demonstrated (something I called elsewhere neuroessentialism). Similarly, the recent Common Cause report, while having many important things to say, displays an almost child-like awe for the “large body of evidence” supporting various claims it uses in its argument about charity campaigning.
Scientific evidence does not save you from having to think about situations for which we do not have direct evidence, nor does it save you from discussing values. Why would you act as if it did? Surely only because you thought you had nothing else to reply on. We let the post-modernists convince us that there are no forms of reasoned debate, no methods of mutual approach which are not entirely arbitrary. The scientists demonstrated that truth is not arbitrary in the realm of the measurable, and now we are inappropriately welcoming them in to fill the void left in the rest of our intellectual lives.
Culture exist, ideas exist, what we believe matters and can be discussed and changed. We have a collective responsibility to consider these things. This is not the age of “if you don’t like it, ignore it”, this is the age of “we are in this together”. All of us.