I keep being puzzled by the passion of believers — or perhaps I am puzzled as to why I’m not one, and what life would be like if I were. Doesn’t life have anything more to offer these people than a passionate attitude towards or against something? I’m not speaking of Christians in this context — the ones I know keep their passion to themselves.
I started on this theme in the last sentence of yesterday’s post: if someone I met socially began to harangue me about the need to keep emissions down, or save the ABC, or protect whales, or get rid of the Abbott Government — because doom faced us if we did not do so — I might remind the speaker of the Great Horse-Manure Scare of 1894. But the passionate one would tell me that This (whatever it was) was Different. Passionate people are, at least in my experience, uninterested in hearing about evidence that is contrary to their passion.
And they seem to like other passionate people of the same persuasion. You can see this on social media, where wild statements about this or that get ‘Liked’, and enthusiastically endorsed with similar words. It is a mistake to present an alternative view: you are instantly derided. I find this kind of passion dreadfully boring in politics, but it is the stuff of social media, of the electoral battle that never ends, and of a good deal of what passes for news.
To take an example from yesterday’s news, our present Government has to deal with a large public-sector debt. Opinions are divided as to whether the previous governments overdid it in spending to avoid the Global Financial Crisis, but we did avoid the crisis in large part. We have a substantial debt as a consequence, and also because those previous governments committed themselves to later expenditures based on assumptions about likely income that have since proved to have been wrong. Again, opinions differ as to whether or not the previous governments should have had those assumptions about likely income. But the fact is that we have this large debt.
Now many of the passionate seem to me uninterested in this fact, especially if there are reductions in public expenditure for services or activities that they think are important. Some of them seem to think that somehow the debt has been caused by, or worsened by, what the present Government is doing, though it seems hardly to have had time to do anything expensive. How quickly the debt should be paid off is a matter for the Government, and unless there is a sudden great increase in government revenue, it has to be done by reducing expenditure.
The passionate don’t like this, but if it has to happen the cuts should be made in Defence or on parliamentary salaries or somewhere that does not interest them. Why don’t I feel like this? I simply don’t know. I never have. Perhaps I had an untroubled childhood (though I don’t remember it like that), or was never the victim of bullying or capricious decisions by others (though I wouldn’t agree about that either). My two grandfathers were both from the skilled working class, and my aunts and uncles all rose to be members of the educated middle class. Have I had an easy life, and don’t know what it is to be poor and miserable and a victim of injustice?
Maybe not, but I have my doubts that the passionate all had such troubled upbringings. Maybe they did, but if so I would point out to those I know reasonably well that they seem to have done OK in the rush and tumble of life — do they really need to maintain all this passion? And with the passion comes confidence and assurance that They Are Right. I was struck by this when a chance encounter brought a former associate and friend into view, and we had coffee and conversation. What had we been doing since we last met? And all that. I mentioned that I now had a website.
‘Oh yes,’ came the reply. ‘I stopped reading it once I realised that you had become a climate sceptic!’
Whoops! Now this former associate is skilled, intelligent and hard-working. But (and it was true when we worked together) along with those virtues is a conviction about History and Being on The Right Side of It. Climate sceptics are plainly On the Wrong Side. The two of us managed to have a perfectly civil and enjoyable conversation for an hour or so, but we did not depart from safe ground.
As I see it, the story of humanity is on the whole one of progress, with education for all and a basic equality of respect for one another important ingredients. But there are many other important ingredients too, and the mixture differs from time to time. I’m less sure about what the right mixture at any time is, or ought to be, than was the case when I was young.
Perhaps I’m just a Grumpy Old Man. And it is unfortunately true that I am growing less tolerant and more suspicious of the passionately confident.