Magazine article The Spectator

What Can You Say?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Can You Say?

Article excerpt

It is hard to imagine that at the time when Britain entered what is now called the European Union, in 1973, there would have been such a fuss about the religious beliefs of Mr Rocco Buttiglione, the nominee for the post of Italy's commissioner. In a predominantly Catholic community, the views for which he is now being vilified would have been regarded as perfectly reasonable. Even after the philosophical ravages of the Swinging Sixties, there would have been no shortage of people in the political class who believed (like him) that homosexuality was a sin, that single parenthood was undesirable, and that within a marriage it was the man's place to protect the woman. Now, though, the MEPs whose endorsement Mr Buttiglione must rely upon if he is to be confirmed as a commissioner are complaining that his beliefs are unacceptable in an EU that wishes to homogenise and standardise everything - including, it seems, moral values. By the time you read this his stand on principle and the determination of the new EU president, José Manuel Barroso, to support him might have led to the whole new Commission being rejected. If so, Mr Buttiglione will have become the most prominent victim yet of a re-ordering of the whole system of taboos in much of Western civilisation.

Referring to the Buttiglione problem in a radio interview last week, Mr Neil Kinnock, Britain's outgoing commissioner, made an unintentionally interesting observation. He said he had spoken about the case with a Roman Catholic colleague who had drawn for him a distinction between 'belief and 'prejudice'. This is an object lesson in how matters that used not to be taboo have now become so. Principles that were strongly held on the basis of nearly two millennia of biblical teachings are now branded as 'prejudices' for the simple reason that they do not coincide with the self-indulgent way in which some modern people choose to live their lives; or, rather, with the way in which politicians eager for support believe that people wish to choose to live.

It could fairly be argued that the whole question of taboos once defined a difference between the main currents of political thought in this country and, indeed, abroad. Conservatives wished to keep existing, often centuries-old, taboos in place; liberals wished to scrap them. There was, inevitably, something to be said for each approach; but also something to be said against them. It is only in the last 40 years, for example, that it has become respectable to deal candidly with subjects such as mental handicap, or even cancer sufferers, outside families. Few would now disagree that it was offensive and stupid to stigmatise or ignore such innocent people by shutting them away, or refusing to acknowledge a terrible affliction. However, the liberal desire to break down the traditional family and allow an 'anything goes' morality might on the one hand appear to be a natural extension of personal liberty; yet it is a personal liberty all too often bought at the expense of the taxpayer. In a compassionate society there is no option, it seems, but for the state to step in and pay for families whose father has decided to abdicate responsibility for them; and this largesse has been extended to young women who make a career decision to become single mothers. The cost of breaking such taboos is, of course, more than merely economic: it results in higher crime, more poverty, more underachievement and an extension of the power and reach of the state. What is more, the removal of so many of the taboos that operated up to the immediate post-war period has not led to a society unencumbered by such baggage; the old taboos have simply been replaced by new, and often fiercer, ones.

That, too, is unsurprising. Taboos exist not solely because they reflect things that are deemed to be bad by the weight of opinion; they exist because they give a unity and a coherence, real or imagined, to a society. Nor, of course, do taboos have to be endorsed by some sort of democratic majority. …

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