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Margaret Thatcher and the myth of pitiless indifference

April 12th, 2013

They say you will always remember where you were when you found out that Princess Diana died. I was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of a mate’s house in London.

I wonder if the same will be said for Margaret Thatcher. On this occasion though, perhaps I should have paid attention to what was said to me at that moment, rather than my exact location. Upon hearing the news, the very next thing that I was told was: ‘Its probably best to avoid facebook for a few days.’

Wise words. Sadly unheeded.

The most controversial/divisive/polarizing (etc, etc) British Prime Minister of the 20th Century certainly lived up to her tabloid headline legacies if my facebook chums are at all representative of British society.

It’s quite disorientating when you’re used to a stream of ‘lol’s’, hilarious cat pictures and amateur weather reports to suddenly have to deal with words like ‘genocide’ and ‘odium’ and, in some cases, status updates that go on for over 500 words.

There was passion. There was vitriol. There was a smattering of sentimentality, but even that was executed with feeling. People really care about this woman’s life, even if they hated the woman herself.

And what was missing? Well, on Monday there weren’t many ‘Keep Calm and carry on’ spoofs, 90s music videos, nor even the usual plethora of half eaten sandwiches  that people so kindly photograph and instagram for me on a daily basis. The banality and trivilaity of 21st century existence suddenly exploded into real human emotions. It was like people came alive again on Monday 8th April.

I know what you’re thinking. Its what I thought too. It all goes to prove that God exists, doesn’t it?

Oh, that’s not what you were thinking. How embarrassing! Well, let me explain my train of thought then.

According to the prevalent philosophies of our age, we really shouldn’t get so worked up about things. There is no such thing as moral evil that we should take offence at, and actually no such thing as moral good that we should celebrate and take pride in. At a popular level, a moral life is one in which you listen to your heart, hold on to what you believe or follow your dreams. Underpinning these pearls of wisdom, are the slightly more sophisticated ideas of 20th century moral philosophers.

AJ Ayer argued just before the Second World War that all morality was totally subjective. Statements like ‘giving to charity is good’ and ‘murder is bad’ are essentially just expressions of people’s opinions along the lines of ‘I like Marmite’ or ‘I’m not overly fond of the colour mauve’. In effect then, Bob Geldof is no better than Anders Breivik. They simply have different tastes.

Jean Paul Sartre, writing at a similar time, redefined a good life as a life lived with force and vigour, devoid of any objective moral checks. According to Sartre, I define my own meaning and my own morality. The most important thing is to make sure that I use my freedom to act with commitment and passion, and not just to fade into the background. Try to relieve 3rd world poverty or gun down a few dozen people? Following this train of thought, both courses of action would be equally ‘moral’, in that ‘morality’ is a myth and both decisions would forcefully impose your own version of meaningfulness on the world.

And then a little more recently, we have the New Atheist movement, whose proponents have joined forces with Ayer and Sartre in cheerfully explaining away any sense of moral obligation that we’ve been led to believe in. Our sense that some things are ‘right’ and some things are ‘wrong’ is a product, like everything else, of the evolutionary development of our species. Our more kind and empathetic ancestors proved to be better survivors than our more selfish, violent predecessors and so human beings have this general feeling that helping old ladies across roads is good and stealing milk off school children is bad.

Which brings us nicely back to Baronness Thatcher.

Why are people so hot under the collar about this lady and the decisions she made? It would make sense for miners from Yorkshire to have strong feelings about this, but I’m not facebook friends with any miners from Yorkshire. Why are people who were barely alive when the Iron Lady bid her tearful farewell to Downing Street so irate about what she did or did not do?

The answer is simple. Their responses give us a glimpse of the truth we all know but so many have tried to hide. Our actions and decisions matter. Humans have real value. There is such a thing as right and wrong.

The moral relativism and evolutionary extrapolations of the last 100 years have deadened us to moral evil and the value of human life. No question. We might have never heard of Ayer, Sartre or even Dawkins before but their effect is overwhelming. For most 21st century Westerners, life simply doesn’t have any meaning. Not really. Not beyond, eating and drinking, for tomorrow we die. And this leads to countless directionless, meandering lives lived with no sense that they have any real consequence. It also leads to a general atmosphere of utter apathy.

Then, every now and again, something comes along and shakes us out of our carelessness and frivolity and reminds us that we’ve been tricked. An event or personality appears that provokes an emotional reaction that shouts that our actions do matter and our lives are important. They can be forces for good or forces for evil. Not forces for ‘whatever we decide is good’ or forces for ‘the things we’re not very keen on’ or even forces for ‘what we’ve been programmed by natural selection to value or despise for the continued promulgation of the human race’. Real good and real evil. And if there’s real good and real evil, there must be someone beyond us who decides what fits into each category. It is impossible to conceive of a moral law without a moral law giver. Therefore there must be a God and he must care enough about human beings to set us codes of behaviour.

Richard Dawkins wrote this in his book ‘River out of Eden’:

‘The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

It’s a very good summary of the only sensible conclusion to questions of life’s meaning if you remove God from the equation. However, try telling that to Morrissey, Glenda Jackson and Elvis Costello. I don’t wish to side myself with any of the specific verdicts of her life- I don’t really understand politics and still hold to the apparently slightly outdated view that you shouldn’t speak ill of the recently deceased. However, without making any judgement on Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, I think I can be pretty sure about one element of her legacy and it certainly can’t be described as ‘pitiless indifference’.

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