Frank Furedi: 21st Century Heresy Hunting

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Frank Furedi is a commentator, author and sociologist whose recent work explores the nature of authority and mistrust. He is a leading voice in discussions of fear, risk and the unknown.

Contemporary society is more comfortable with values in the plural than with a value that everyone can embrace. Instead of “the truth”, society prefers to lecture about truths. The celebration of non-judgmentalism and difference can be interpreted as a self-conscious attempt to avoid having to make moral judgments. On most issues we are free to pick and choose our beliefs and affiliations. Educators continually inform university students – especially in the social sciences and humanities – that there is no such thing as a wrong or right answer. Instead of an explicit moral code, Western society seeks to police behaviour through a diffuse rhetoric – such as appropriate and inappropriate behaviour – that avoids confronting fundamental existential questions.

Paradoxically, the absence of moral clarity encourages an illiberal climate of intolerant behaviour. In a world where moralists find it difficult to clearly differentiate between right and wrong it is important that some kind of line is drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Without a moral grammar to express ideas about right and wrong ethical guidance often has a forced and artificial character. Too often evil is represented in the caricatured form of the serial killer or the paedophile. The Holocaust has been plucked out of its tragic historical context and transformed into a generic metaphor of evil. It is joined by environmental pollution as a highly visual representation of moral depravity. The very few examples of unambiguous evil – paedophilia, Holocaust, pollution – are constantly seized upon to map out acts of potential moral transgression. Discovering new taboos is part of the job description of heresy hunters today. Not being against the Holocaust is probably the most ritualised and institutionalised taboo operating in western societies….

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