Two shivers ran down my spine last month. One was when I read something by a columnist in The Daily Telegraph commenting on her reaction to the news about the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter. The other was the account of the three teenage girls buried alive in Pakistan to maintain the “honour” of their tribe. But I was brought back to some semblance of hope and optimism by the Canadian philosopher-historian-sociologist, Charles Taylor whose great book, “A Secular Age”, I’m ploughing through at the moment. It is a rewarding but demanding read.
Taylor, among other things, reflects in his book on the way our sense of morality has evolved over the centuries, indeed over the millennia, in which we have tried to live and work together as human beings in this world. Out of this reflection comes an awareness that while these two specimens of accepted “moral” behaviour that so disturbed me – the one a specimen of a primitive and backward tribal custom, the other a specimen of ultra sophisticated 21st century civilization – may always be with us as forms of behaviour, they can ultimately be consigned to the category of barbarism to which they belong.
Liz Hunt, writing in the Telegraph, wondered how good a “mom” U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin could be if her pregnant daughter Bristol was in some way not being given the choice of whether or not to bring her baby into this world. Taylor has devised a term, “social imaginary”, to represent the kind of images, visions, ideas we all have about our time in this world and they way we should live together. Think of what we mean when we say “I can’t imagine myself doing this that or the other” and you get an idea of where he is coming from. We think of ourselves “putting theories into practice”. Well he is using “imaginary” instead of “theory” because, he says – and he is probably right, – people live and act more on the basis of what they can imagine themselves doing than on theories. For many in the western world the “imaginaries” (theories) they have can, tragically, with the greatest of ease encompass the killing of unborn living human beings. This imagining allows, for example, that 17-year-old Bristol Palin, might take the life of her unborn child if, as Liz Hunt puts it, “becoming a wife and a mother at such a young age” just didn’t fit in with her other plans.
Such a killing might not be an “honour” killing of the horrific kind reported from Pakistan. It would pure and simply be nothing more or less than a “convenience” killing. But why should we be any less disturbed by it than we are by the killing in tribal Paksitan? How different in fact are the western social conventions – enshrined in law in so many societies now – which readily accept the killing of the unborn from the conventions defended by the politicians of the province of Balochistan who in the Pakistan parliament defended the punishment of the three teenagers? Their claim was that the practice was part of “our tribal custom”. What was the girls’ crime? They refused to marry the husbands chosen by their families.
What light does Taylor’s theory of “social imaginaries” throw on all this? In essence we see that while the two societies in which both these acts take place – the ruthless and relentless slaughter of the unborn in one; the terrible but much less frequent honour killing of young girls who want to assert their independence in the other – look worlds apart they are in fact no different from each other in real terms. They are only different in the “imaginings” of those who perpetrate them.
The encouragement I get from my reading of Taylor is in his reflection on how the process of change takes place in these “social imaginaries”. In it we can see how mankind and societies have moved from the social acceptance of forms of behaviour to non-acceptance and even revulsion and horror at the same behaviour.
The tribal chiefs of Balochistan are clearly at ease with the practice of their tribe – as were many of the “great and good” of the 18th century with the practice of slavery and the brutality of the slave-trade. Many of the “great and good” of our own time have no qualms about the mass slaughter in progress in hospitals and clinics across the western world. Indeed, for many, contributing to it could just be part of what “being a good mom” might be about.
What Taylor’s thinking suggests is that all this need not always be so and that moral sensibility does change if our “social imaginaries” can be changed. William Wilberforce effected the change in social imagination of his time and this was what brought the slave trade to its knees. Slavery sadly still exists but the “civilised” world at least has set its face against it and seeks to eradicate it. Sadly also, human beings will continue to kill each other, born or unborn, – probably until the end of time – but we can hope for a time when our imagining and our vision of how our society should be will always seek to prohibit such slaughter.
And a further consideration which I glean from Taylor seems to deepen the hope that we might have that rather than being on a slippery slope to more and more of this mayhem, we may in fact be climbing to a new flowering of the civilization of life. The practice of abortion is not new. What is new – at least on the scale on which we have it now – is the legal sanction of the practice. It is now carried out in the name of every member of those democratic societies in which it is legalised.
But this very sanction has the effect of bringing the practice into deep and potentially disturbing focus and therefore can be the very catalyst which may bring about the moral revulsion which should be the natural and rational response to such slaughter of innocent life. A Royal Navy which protected the slave ships crossing to and forth across the Atlantic in the 18th century revolted the British people thanks to the work of William Wilberforce and his friends. In the 19th the Royal Navy became the agent for the abolition of that brutal trade. This is a process of change which can be brought into play again. Indeed it is already in play. We can hope that the day will come when the conventional “wisdom” which says that it is moral and proper for one human being to chose to terminate the life of another in certain given circumstances will have no place in the social imagination of anyone.