Thursday, 22 November 2012

Dedicated followers of fashion

We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.
Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, on the importance of holding on to your credibility. As Chris Dillow argued recently, when an influential public figure uses the "C-word" to describe a person or thing, "credible" is usually code for some sloppy concept like "uncontroversial", or "ideologically acceptable", rather than a testable declaration that the person or thing is believable or convincing in some measurable way.

Sadly , "credibility" lends overtones of rigour, seriousness and gravitas to to some pretty banal value-judgements. In most cases, ideological acceptability just boils down to fashion, which leads me to today's modest proposal. The next time you hear some Very Important Person or current affairs guru pontificating about the credibility, (or otherwise), of some person, idea or institution, just mentally substitute the word "fashionable" for "credible." For example:
  • Joanne Bloggs is suddenly beginning to look like a fashionable leader in waiting.
  • The status quo is no longer a fashionable alternative.
  • The government has made progress in identifying a fashionable package of measures to address [insert issue here].
  • There is no fashionable alternative to [fashionable policy x].
  • No fashionable politician still believes that we can solve this problem by [insert unfashionable solution here].

Rowan Williams was talking about the specific issue of gender equality, which involves a value-judgement that's a long way from from banal and I'm not suggesting that the issue itself is in any way trivial. In fact, I'd say that treating people equally is way more important than the piffling side issue of how credible fashionable the Church of England looks. The nearly-ex-Archbishop did, however, came dangerously close to using the word "credibility" in a more meaningful sense, as noted by that credible publication of record, The Daily Mash:
Religion still main threat to Church's credibility
Because if you're not a believer, religion is, literally, incredible. There's a huge gulf between me and people with widely differing political beliefs and values, but there's almost always some common ground. I might not believe that your proposed solution to problem x would be effective, fair, or moral, but at least we both agree that problem x is a real thing. Even is one of us thinks that problem x isn't really a problem at all, we still both know that x is a thing.

Believers and unbelievers have no such common ground, being in fundamental disagreement about the very existence of the thing they're arguing about, hence the - sometimes bad-tempered - mutual incomprehension. Francis Spufford, batting for the believers, tried to bridge the gulf recently but, as I've written on several occasions, my incomprehension remains intact. To give a flavour of how far apart we are just imagine how surreal Spufford's observation about the existence or otherwise of God, would sound, paraphrased as a political point:
I don't know that any of it is true. I don't know if there's a Bank of England. (And neither do you, and neither does the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and neither does anybody. It isn't the kind of thing you can know. It isn't a knowable item.) 
I'm no expert in anything very much, so maybe it's just me being a bit thick, but how you can have a credible* discussion or opinion about an entity whose existence isn't merely unknown, but unknowable remains an impenetrable mystery to me.

And, finally, here's your inevitable musical bonus:

*in the dictionary sense


Update - see also: 'Church now less credible than concept of omnipotent superbeing, says Rowan Williams'.