A thought on heresy

I’ve noticed a pattern.

A way of thinking.

A way of believing.

That has scorched the earth we share.

And made it almost impossible to discuss anything.

There are many iterations of this pattern, but they all share one thing. A willingness to retreat into absolutes. Lines drawn. Hilltops claimed. It’s the dynamic of binaries. Us and them. Insiders and outsiders. Believers and heretics.

Heresy is written in dictionaries alongside words like dissension and dissidence, blasphemy and idolatry, scepticism and atheism, but it has two main definitions.

The most widely understood relates to religion. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that is against the principles of a particular religion; the fact of holding such beliefs”.

A broader definition describes what I call the secular understanding. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that disagrees strongly with what most people believeā€.

More recently heresy has taken on what I call the cult definition. It combines aspects of both the religious and secular interpretations but has a more sinister, authoritarian, tendency. In this version, it’s heresy “to disagree with, or question, any prescribed doctrine or articles of faith”.

The cult variant has its roots in, and more than a passing resemblance to, propaganda. It’s biased, often misleading, and “used to promote a political cause or point of view”.

It works by describing a set of values or principles, moral facts or correct thinking. These “articles of faith” are accepted and absorbed as ineffable truths. The faithful define who they are as people by committing, or more accurately submitting, wholeheartedly to these articles.

This creates a really simplistic binary. You either accept the orthodoxies, follow the path to acceptance and support, or you’re the enemy, a belligerent that can just “fuck-off-and-die”. Put another way, you’re either with us or against us. Think what we think or you will be destroyed.

It’s a seductive way of thinking. It offers security. Certainty. Your allies are easily identified. Your enemies clearly defined. What it doesn’t do, is allow for questions.

Anyone with a sceptical disposition, a natural curiosity, or even a question to ask, is treated as an unenlightened outsider. This makes enemies of even the most sympathetic minds. Condemning, dismissing, vilifying, shunning, threatening, or attacking, anyone who has divergent experience, a differing point of view, or a genuine concern.

Another thing I’ve noticed. This way of engaging with society doesn’t adhere to the traditions of the political compass, dissolving the distinctions between left and right. These positions still exist but only as insults. When the right-wing faithful condemn a heretic they’re “woke liberals”. When the left condemn what’s heretical, they’re “fascists”.

My conclusion, the binaries of faith and heresy have created a divide. You either believe or you don’t. Those that don’t are disappeared, erased from the conversation, vaporised like so many of George Orwell’s characters in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Disappearing people doesn’t make the questions go away. The concerns don’t just evaporate. The condemnations only entrench positions. From the heretic’s point of view, it’s the intellectual equivalent of the faithful jamming fingers in their ears, and chanting la, la, la, la, la, at the top of their lungs.

I wonder if the faithful realise their dogmatism is heresy to me? I don’t know. I’m not sure they care. They’re safe in the absolutes of their understanding. For me that’s a problem. It shuts down discussion, stifles debate, and hobbles intellectual development. Not just for the faithful but for us all.

What the faithful should realise, what we all need to understand, is that we’re all someone’s heretic.

A thought on Cummings

I think Dominic Cummings is a smartarse.

He’s been all over the news recently, trashing the government he was once part of, and tearing pounds of flesh from the Prime Minister he helped get elected. It could be argued that his testimony was revelatory, in a “we knew that already” kind of way. It confirms many of the things, anyone who’d been paying attention for the last year, already suspected. One thing is for certain, his evidence to the health and science select committee, was a damning account of Boris Johnson’s negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cummings in front of the science and technology committee.”
(Parliamentlive.TV)

Side note. I hope Cummings’ critique of Johnson raises more than a few red flags for those faithful to our dolt of a Prime Minister. Hopefully it will make them look at their foppish leader with fresh, critical, eyes. Unfortunately, as blind allegiances is all there is these days, that’s about as likely as Johnson remaining faithful to his new wife. Johnson’s supporters, it seems, have hitched themselves to his chariot, and are happy to drag their naked king wherever he wants to go. Thus spake the binaries of a political landscape Cummings helped create. Us and them. Be one of us, and tow that line, or be a “bed-wetting” heretic.

None of that’s why I think “Cummings is a smartarse”.

“I think we are absolutely fucked.”

If you listen to him talk. The tone of his voice. Those long sentences. Information heavy. Corralling. It feels as if he has the answer before the question has been asked. I don’t think Cummings is an idiot. Far from it. But I do think he’s a know-it-all. And in this instance, one with a narrative to sell. He’s cast himself here as a hero, battling a world of incompetence. The one with the answers. If only people listened.

Some take this “know-it-allness’ for genius. Personally I don’t see it that way. To me he’s just another smug smartarse. The way a first year undergraduate is a smartarse. The way Clark, in the bar scene from Good Will Hunting (1997), is a smartarse.

Good Will Hunting was written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and directed by Gus Van Sant. At its core Good Will Hunting is a coming of age story. Will, played by Damon, must come to terms with the traumas of his childhood, accept his genius, and earn the love of a good woman. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It won Best Original Screenplay for Damon and Affleck at the 70th Academy Awards.

The scene in question, the one with the smartarse Clark, starts on page eighteen of the screenplay, and finishes with one line of dialogue on page twenty-two. It’s part of the films set-up, and is the “meet-cute” between Will and his love interest, his good woman, Skyler.

“My Boy’s Wicked Smart”

Cummings and Clark both have the same paternalistic swagger. They’re self-assured. Certain they have all the answers. Possessed by the kind of conviction you only ever see in people with faith, or a privileged education. They’re the kind of people that go through life seemingly unencumbered by doubts. They’ve read all the right books, and retained all of the correct information. What neither of them have done is really examined that information they’ve read, reorganised those theories, and found something unique to their own understanding of the world. It’s all there in the way Will taunts Clark. “Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you gonna plagerize the whole book for me?”

It’s not hard to reason why.

These characters, one fictitious, the other real, both had privileged upbringings. They remain untarnished by the harshness of life. They’ve never known the kind of desperation you feel when deciding to pay your rent or feed yourself. Neither have they felt the cold that comes from not having money enough to feed the gas meter. The harshness of things hasn’t knocked the corners off their arrogance.

They know everything and nothing.

One thing’s for sure, Cummings has never butted heads with the likes of a Will Hunting. No-one has ever ripped Cummings open the way Will eviscerates Clark. I very much doubt if Cummings has ever been in that type of confrontation. Perhaps the closest, was the time Karl Turner cornered him “in the lobby of Portcullis House to protest at the aggressive language being used by the Prime Minister during Brexit debates in the House of Commons”.

“Get Brexit done.”

Turner is angry, and all Cummings has in response is a smartarsed “get Brexit done”. Throughout their exchange Cummings looks lost, the way Clark is lost, and “searching for a graceful exit, any exit”. Both characters fall back on what they know, and continue with their smartarseery. I get the feeling Turner wanted to thump Cummings, the way Will calls out Clark, “I guess we can step outside and deal with it that way”. Turner and Cummings didn’t come to anything, but we can all guess how Cummings would respond. Probably the same way as Clark, when he “decides not to take Will up on his offer”.

This encounter exposes Dominic Cummings for what he is, a sniper, a griper, a bitcher, and backbiter. He is not a fighter.

And that’s why I think he’s a smartarse.