Joan Smith is a columnist, novelist and critic. She is the author of Moralities, the highly praised Misogynies and five detective novels, two of which have been filmed by the BBC. She has written columns for The Independent on Sunday and The Guardian and her reviews appear in the Financial Times, The Sunday Times and The Independent. She is one of the presenters on What the Papers Say and a regular contributor to BBC radio. She lives in London.
Fresh scandals seem to erupt every day, involving American presidents and adultery, soap stars and sex, politicians and sleaze; are we seeing a lapse in moral values?
As the influence of church as state on our personal lives dissolves, in which direction can we turn? Are we lost in a moral maze?
Not so, says acclaimed columnist, novelist and critic Joan Smith. We are, in fact, witnessing a shift in values. If the twentieth century was characterised by the struggle between freedom and tyranny, the great battle of the twenty-first century will be between global capitalism and universal human rights. Revolution is in the air and we are on the cusp of a new morality.
So, in which direction can we turn? In an exclusive interview, we asked Joan for guidance.
Why did you feel the need to write Moralities now?
I’ve been considering it for about 20 years, but in the run-up to the year 2000, there were all kinds of political things happening, like the battle of Seattle, and a very important critique of capitalism and globalisation was developing. I felt that it was a response to the failure of politics, and that political parties really hadn’t kept up with the way our lives had changed, and the way our moral compasses changed. What I wanted to do was to sit down and write a book which would talk about the failures in the past but also look forward to what we might be doing in the future. I felt there was a new zeitgeist being created around me and that people weren’t writing about it enough. The media is obsessed with pessimism and things going wrong, it’s actually quite good to stand outside that sometimes and say, well there’s something else happening here as well.
What have been the triggers for the changes that you’ve been describing?
Shock and horror about the things that happened in the 20th century; the Second World War, the Holocaust. All kinds of things were put in place, like the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights and so on. I think there was a genuine feeling that the international community had to behave better in future and that these things should not happen again. I think a lot of people have been tremendously shocked to realise that they have happened again, particularly in the 1990s. You look at Rwanda, where millions of people were slaughtered, the world looked on. You look at what happened in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. I think people were looking at those things and thinking well, where did we go wrong? We saw what human beings were capable of in the middle of the twentieth century, we said it wouldn’t happen again and yet it has happened again. But, I think there is a growing feeling, particularly in Western Europe and the EU, that we do have an international role, that we do have responsibility towards other people. I think that’s a very exciting development.
You’re endeavouring to produce a new definition of morality, one which isn’t primarily concerned with sex. Why do you think we’re less concerned with sex in a moral capacity?
I've always been bewildered by the obsession with sex when you talk about morality. The word immoral until very recently tended to mean that you indulged in certain kinds of sexual behaviour which weren't approved of. I remember as a child growing up in a working class community where everybody seemed incredibly anxious about sex all the time. When I was 11 or 12, I had endless lectures from my parents about how terrible it would be to have sex outside marriage. My parents were not religious at all but the worst thing a girl could do was to have an illegitimate baby. I remember going to see the headmistress at school and saying, well if sex is so terrible and these things are so dangerous, why don't you explain it to us? Why can't we have sex education? I came to think that it was a deliberate ploy by a kind of elite. They kept everybody in this state of anxiety, while they got on with having all the sex they wanted, and ruling the world as well!
Do you think that established religion has lost its moral authority?
The Church was central to maintaining this kind of control, certainly in Britain in the 18th Century. The State did a kind of deal with the Church when it introduced a form of marriage which was policed by the Church. The Hardwick Marriage Act created a form of marriage which women had no exit from at all, but men could get a Parliamentary Divorce if they had an awful lot of money. In a way, the State appointed the Church as its agent to control our private lives. I think that was crucial to maintaining the status of the Church.
What's happened since the Second World War in the West is that people say well ‘why do we want the Church in our private lives?’ As a consequence and a parallel development, the Church has colluded with some of the worst fascist regimes in the 20th Century. The Vatican colluded with Franco in Spain, it congratulated him on a great Catholic victory at the end of the Spanish Civil War. It refused to denounce the Holocaust, it supported General Pinochet; its record on morality is absolutely terrible, and yet at the same time these people are telling us how to run our private lives?
What part do you think feminism has played in defining this new morality?
I think feminism has been at the centre of defining the new morality because in some ways the new morality has been developed by the people who suffered most under the old morality; that applies to women. When I was writing the book and looking at what happened to women in the 19th Century, and gay men at the end of the 19th Century, it was absolutely dire. People's lives were wrecked. When I was working as a radio reporter in Manchester 20 years ago, I was sent to interview the inmates of a mental hospital which was closing down. One of them was a woman who'd been put in there in the 1940s, simply because she had an illegitimate child. Women were ostracised by their families, they were shunned, their children were taken away from them. Gay men went to prison, they committed suicide. Inevitably, I think that the people that it bore down hardest upon are going to be central to both rejecting it and in proposing something different. I think that you’ll find gay rights campaigners, you’ll find environmental campaigners and you’ll find feminism at the centre of developing this new morality. To me it’s democratic; it's not top down it's bottom up and that's one of the most significant things about it.
Can you describe what has replaced the sexual morality of the past? What matters to us now? How do we judge people’s behaviour? How do we judge people’s contribution?
I think it's very interesting the way that values and judgements have changed. I'm actually very much in favour of being judgmental, but about the right things. I don't care who people sleep with as long as they're adults and it's consensual sex. I think we have to take our responsibilities to children very seriously, probably more seriously than we have in the past. Once you divorce morality from sexuality you can start talking about really important questions. Britain is the second largest arms trader in the world, after the United States, how are we going to square that with Labour's promise to have an ethical dimension to our foreign policy? How are you going to tackle this problem that there are lots of people in this country whose jobs depend on making weapons of destruction? What is our relation to other states where the population doesn't have the rights that we do? What do we do about Heads of State who we know are oppressing their people? In the 1970’s this country went on selling arms to General Pinochet, that's not generally known but we did. There were orders for battleships and we went on supplying them. I don't think that's acceptable any more, but in the past the public was not involved in that kind of debate.
I think all of these developments are very exciting, but they are based on respect for human beings and respect for the dignity of human beings, rather than assuming that human beings are sort of infantile creatures who need to be policed and told how to live their lives all the time.
Do you think the fact that we live in a society which is, relatively speaking, ‘open’ affects how people think about these issues?
One of the things that's made a huge difference is freedom of information. We can now find out what is going on and what our governments are up to, particularly in the United States. One of the few things I admired about the Clinton Administration was its de-classification projects on foreign policy. While I was writing the book, Clinton de-classified something like 8,000 documents relating to the coup in Chile. Suddenly you could actually read all the cables, all the telegrams, all the minutes of meetings that Kissinger, Nixon, all those people were involved in. You could suddenly see how the Americans plotted the coup, how they chose who to support, how they actually shipped the weapons down to Chile, and how they did it. You can also see the cable traffic between the American Embassy and Baghdad and the State Department in Washington, showing that they knew from the very beginning that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous psychopath, a thug and a fascist, but they thought they could deal with him. It's very interesting to see that inside information. We got a bit of it here with the Scott report, we suddenly saw how the Thatcher government was desperate to sell arms to Saddam Hussein in Iraq only a week before he invaded Kuwait.
Who do you think will be upset by the ideas in your book?
I hope that quite a lot of people will be upset by the ideas in the book! There wouldn’t much point in having this kind of debate if people took it as read or assumed that they'd heard it all before. I think that the people who'll be upset by it are people who have an investment in the idea that power entitles them to something, that just because they are politicians or because they're pundits or because they have a position in the Church that that they automatically have the right to be taken seriously. It (the book) says that people have to justify themselves, and I think that's always uncomfortable for people in power.
Do you see people, particularly women, beginning to have different relationships now, compared to twenty years ago?
One of the things I was aware of when I was writing the book is that it's a predictive book in some ways, but it's also describing things that are already happening. I think one of the problems that we have in this country is just how old fashioned our institutions are and also how old fashioned our discourse is. The government, whether it's Labour or Tory, are always making these pronouncements about family life and marriage. They don't quite want to come out and say if they're a Labour government, because they know a lot of their constituency isn't, but they want everyone to be married with two children. If you look at the figures, over a third of children in this country are now born outside marriage. If you look at Scandinavia it's over half. What's happening is that people have moved away from that single template of relationships, and I think that's a very good and a very healthy thing, particularly for women. In the past there was an awful lot of private misery; women in violent relationships, unhappy relationships, stuck in relationships for economic reasons. All that misery was contained behind the bedroom door and the State didn't have to worry, nobody had to worry about it very much except for the people involved. People, particularly women, are not willing to tolerate that any more.
The other day I was looking at Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a very formative figure in my thinking. In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman
she was asking the question of what would women's relationships with men be like if they weren't based on necessity, if they were based on affection and choice. I think that's what we're beginning to find out.
How do we get from here to the society you describe, how do we realise it?
Ideas always come first, and I think that we're in that phase now, people are throwing up lots and lots of ideas. If you want to change the world you have first to be able to imagine it. That's what someone like me can do.
What's being created is a world in which individuals feel they have more power, and that they can call upon politicians to look at things in a different way and I think you can begin to see that happening. In British foreign policy, for example, the government has already negotiated an agreement with other members of the European Union over arms sales. This says that if Britain turns down an order for arms from a country, because of its human rights record, and another country in the EU says, ‘we'll sell them these battleships or these aircraft’, we can now complain to the European Commission. That's actually quite a change because it gets round the problem of the Department of Trade & Industry and the Ministry of Defence. They say - ‘if we don't sell arms the French will!’ You can see that this concern with arms trading, which I think is quite widespread in this country, is beginning to translate into government policy. I also think the influence of NGO's (non government organisations) has been crucial here. I think the influence of organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch is quite large, they're inviting a kind of engagement on the part of ordinary people.
I think there's a big question about how we translate all that energy which we can see on the streets on May Day, which we've seen in lots of locations now, how we translate that into a kind of political activity, but it's absolutely essential that we do. If we don't, it's clear that we're going to destroy the planet.