I'm back - for a while at least. So no messing about...
The other week I had an interesting difference of opinion with a relative of mine. Bear with me while I set the scene.
The difference centred on a book I had lent him: Welcome to Everytown by Julian Baggini. Baggini is a populist philosopher, a middle-class liberal intellectual; he lives a very different lifestyle to most people in Britain. For six months he tried living as the typical UK person: renting a house in the most statistically average postcode, living off an average income, reading only popular newspapers, drinking in ordinary pubs, dining at the carvery, holidaying in Spain and watching only popular TV and films...
Everytown is an intellectual's take on Britain today, and especially our attitudes to the way things are. I thought Baggini's insights were interesting and more generous than might be expected - the main exception being his views on popular culture, which I judged as a fudge. In contrast, my relative thought the book was largely patronising - with the exception of Baggini's views on popular culture, which he thought were interesting!
That's a long introduction to the relative views of two relatives, neither of whom is necessarily right. But it got me thinking about why I disagreed so much.
For six months Baggini had exclusively consumed popular TV, films and books. (Examples being Pirates of The Caribbean, The X Factor and Harry Potter). To his surprise, he finds popular culture is better produced and of greater quality than his intellectual prejudices had credited. Much of it, he concludes, is superior to the second rate art-house nonsense that passes as intellectual quality.
So far, so good - I couldn't agree more.
But my relative interpreted Baggini slightly differently. His take was that Baggini was saying popular culture is no better or worse than great culture - it was just different! Now that is a completely different thing. In my view, Baggini skillfully avoids actually saying this, but it is not an unreasonable interpretation as he tries desperately to appear more open minded than I suspect he is.
The view that popular culture is no better or worse - just different - to great culture, is a mild example of what philosophers call relativism.And the problem with relativism is that what sounds reasonable in a few well chosen examples, begins to look silly as we apply the principle more widely.
My friend John, for example, might judge Zulu to be a great film (not unreasonable); Steve, on the other hand could say the same about Happy Gilmore (a truly dreadful film by anyone's standards). In the relativist view these two films, and the underlying judgements of John and Steve, are neither better nor worse, they are simply different.
But why stop at films, or indeed culture in general? Are not political systems relative to the historical circumstances from which we view them? And what about good moral standards, or fine food, or A-level essays, or responsible companies...
Once we allow that our judgements are merely relative, it opens up some very uncomfortable conclusions. In the hard-line relativist view, Fascism and Dictatorship are not intrinsically better or worse than Democracy - they are just different. Our judgement of Stalin and Hitler has become a matter of relative moral prejudices.
Returning to our disagreement on popular culture, my relative argued that the music of the Beatles was no better or worse than classical music. That may be so - I'm not the best judge because music is not my area - but it cannot be on the basis that it is 'just different'.
On that basis any amount of absurdity is possible. Mills and Boon novels become just different to Jane Austen; Perry Como is just different to Mozart; the film Porkys is just different to Citizen Kane. Really? Really, really?
For all that my friends and colleagues chide me for being an 'intellectual' (strange that it is now a pejorative term) I enjoy huge amounts of popular culture - I've watched Toy Story enough times to know the dialogue and I'm in much the same place with Gavin and Stacey. I'm also far from a connoisseur of high culture - I don't get opera and am pretty ambivalent about Shakespeare.
But that doesn't mean I think all culture is equal - frankly, it isn't.
The trouble with cultural relativism is that it dumbs down what are already low standards. A few well chosen examples may flatter our egos, but let's not pretend that Saturday night TV is an enhancing experience or that Harry Potter is the equal of Dickens. If we do, we are kidding no one but ourselves.