Ten years ago Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote his master piece “A Secular Age”. Since then a lot has changed and it seems that not only is religion back as a spiritual, quiet force but also as a determing, clamant factor in global politics. Religous and quasi-religious narratives alike shape the identity of the people, such as the painting by Delacroix in the picture above has shaped the French narrative. We sat down with Professor Taylor to discuss the state of world affairs.
SLD: What motivates you personally to be a philosopher? And what is the societal relevance of philosophy these days?
Taylor: I am interested in issues that you can’t resolve with only philosophy, but where you need philosophy to arrive at a conclusion. Personally, I love philosophy that requires discourse from different areas to come in; ethics, histories, sociology and other ways of understanding human beings. Which brings me to your second question – it is this kind of thinking that we so desperately need these days. After the Fall of the Berlin wall, we thought the world was finally convinced of democracy and that we would never have to worry about it again. The backslides in Turkey, the US, the UK threatens what we know as democracies.
SLD: …when you say US and UK, both countries have a quasi-religious historical narrative. Does that play a role here?
Taylor: It does not, actually. Because you could also take France as an example, and their revolution and its main vehicle, La France. That kind of idea, agency, becomes very common. The people think that they are the bearers of a nation, strengthened by conflict. You get something like the same moral charge, or the hook a nation hangs on. Fast forward to today, and you have people who want to join your culture. It’s not that you as a native think they don’t belong here, they are polluting us. To some extent it is understandable the French don’t share values with Muslim immigrants who did not experience true democracy, who have not read Rousseau, so they’re a threat to France.
SLD: Shouldn’t we draw a line, though, between the French example and what the US and UK are going through right now? And what about the Turks and Russians, who are deliberately re-introducing a religious narrative into the public conscious?
Taylor: Well, Erdogan has integrated all nationalism from Atatürk’s Turkey and given it a certain extra twist. The Kemalist party is playing along with it, probably because of the overwhelming stream of opinions, but there is a certain similarity between the two regimes. If you look at Putin, you have a replacement of the Soviet Union to an extent. The sense of Russia’s millennium-long thrust of orthodoxy being under threat is nothing new. In this name, you can justify discrimination against unlike-minded people, making second-class citizens.
SLD: You referred to your personal interests as multi-disciplinary, social sciences…
Taylor: There are always different takes on academia, and certain schools of thought. The combined approach takes several disciplines and combines them together, because issues frankly are oftentimes interwoven.
SLD: Due to the lack of, and correct me if I’m wrong, interdisciplinary research, we don’t really know where narratives as we talked about earlier, come from and how they implement themselves into a community. What is your idea of the origin of narratives? And why do they continue to be so strong after centuries?
Taylor: We all need a narrative, both personal and collective. We want to know who we are. This is particularly necessary in a collective enterprise like a state. And we fight over narratives that determine who we are. Take the US – you have 2 narratives at war, the Obama narrative of “there were principles that were poorly applied, we need to refocus and become more united”, and the Tea Party narrative of “We had something great back in 1773 but now we’re under threat from socialists and atheists and so on”. Politics is drenched with narratives. What we really need, especially today, is to apply discipline and reason applied to these narratives, to debunk some of them, to have some stand out.
SLD: Is there a narrative that works and functions without the exclusive binary “them” and “us”?
Taylor: A lot of people in western democracies! You have to have some comparison of what you are and what you are not to arrive at the knowledge of who you are. But the comparison can also be what you were in the past! That is the case in the Obama narrative. The threat to this is that once you identify bad influences, not to scapegoat these onto other groups but rather come to terms with them.
SLD: Along the lines of Hannah Arendt’s outline in her book Vita Activa, would you agree that we need to re-organize our democracy along the lines of the political, the societal and the private? Especially now, that democracy has arrived (or was forced, rather) in a digital age?
Taylor: Yes, and that creates a crisis for us in the democractic world. If we lived under empires such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman or Russian ones still, we would have expected to have people ruled for us – everyday people were not at all involved in determining institutions. We have this myth or aspiration of democracy, which I call citizen efficacy. Both liberal democrats as well as populists are heavy subscribers to this efficacy. Le Pen, Trump, Erdogan are all playing on a lack of citizen efficacy, that the elites have taken away the citizen’s agency over determining government.
SLD: Can you still appeal to a citizen’s advocacy and efficacy in a large state? Or do you target communities and groups? Is not part of the truth that many democratic systems struggle exactly because there are too many individuals?
Taylor: Some resemblance occurs thanks to great movements of organization that exists. After WW2, this responsibility was occupied by political parties to the left and right. Nowadays, you have grassroot movements that organize themselves in networks. Bernie Sanders 2016, Barack Obama in 2012.
SLD: The neighbouring empires – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian – you referred to have reconciled managed to have a de-facto ceasefire amongst them and managed to, arguably, last much longer. Are we yet to find and define this kind of pluralism in a globalized world?
Taylor: Within a single polity such as the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires, no. Perhaps as a global construct. The empires themselves worked because they weren’t democratic. In fact, the idea that nations need democratic rule was the very thing that blew up these empires!
SLD: There seems to be a decline in approval rates for civic liberties in regard to security – if people have to give up freedom in order to live more secure, they seem to be more willing than ever to do that.
Taylor: That comes from two reasons. With jihadism and increased extremism, we simply live in a world with greater threats. Secondly, our citizen efficacy is dwindling away, which I think quite paradoxically makes people more likely to give up on civic liberties themselves. However, the suspicion can always be aroused that the ruling elite isn’t always completely benign. This seems to be an obvious mobilizing principle for troublemakers.
SLD: Having talked about the pitfalls of a Turkish or Russian way of nation building, let’s turn to China – do they have an alternative model? Confucianism with its meritocracy certainly has its disadvantages, but there is in no way as much corruption as, say, in Russia or Turkey.
Taylor: First of all, China doesn’t have any deep democratic traditions at all. Xi is trying to sell his country as a competent and honest one. They’re having two issues with this: corruption is a much bigger problem in China than they are willing to admit; and as long as this happens on a regional level, the danger of rebellion and a threat to central power is admittedly large. If China were to introduce a serious reform to its judicial system, I think that could change things – a different possibility of recourse.
SLD: When we look back from China to the US, what is your prediction for the country? Stock markets and international relations are dominated by uncertainty – what is the consequence of that for the western hemisphere?
Taylor: There are two scenarios I see here: either Trump succeeds in creating enough jobs to satisfy his electorate and gets reelected. That would be unfortunate for the rest of the world, because we would be powerless in re-defecting from the previous course of US policy. On the other hand, if he does not succeed, I hope the electorate learns about the consequences of populism.
SLD: The debate about fake news and alternative facts shows that this country is just incredibly divided – and not just in the US, but also Europe. It seems that the core problem is that these far-removed divisions of an electorate does not connect to the reality we live in. What is your view?
Taylor: I completely agree. Naturally, I don’t have the solution for this problem, but it seems to be buried with the media. In the US, social media has broken up the binary of CNN and Fox News recently. Hillary Clinton was the biggest sufferer of this, because with this new way of tweeting and exchanging information, people forgot to pause and think about whether news they read on a feed are actually true. We need to reorganize media in a free digital society.
SLD: Over the last 10 years, we have seen a resurfacing of religious narratives. It’s not vanished, though religion today seems more as a political motivation than a spiritual one. Going back to the “them” and “us”, how will this play out in the future? What role does religion play?
Taylor: Within the great religions, you have a tremendous variety. In Islam, you have jihadism and at the same time Sufism in Senegal, which is the purest inward kind of spiritualism. In Buddhism, you have pure forms as well as politicalized versions of Buddhism that you can see in Sri Lanka or Myanmar for example. It is changing the centre of gravity from being an inward tool of grounding to an outward tool of mobilization…
SLD: …which brings us back to the way Erdogan and Putin are using religion to gain momentum…
Taylor: …exactly. Religion may as well still be a motivator for global warfare. In Indonesia, Islam is being fought out between a Sharia-oriented political movement and more inward-looking spiritual movements. The future of global religious discourse and perhaps conflict depends a lot on the evolution these trends take over the next decades.
SLD: Professor Taylor, thank you for your time.
(Photo Charles Taylor: private)