Moral Relativism? -- mourning Diana


The problem of ‘values’ pursued in classical sociology has always stressed the connections between ‘values’ in the sense of belief ystems, and actual ways of life of the believers. Ways of life affect beliefs (and can contradict them) in a number of ways, as well as the converse. What follows is a very condensed (and inevitably rather dogmatic) exploration of these points.

Social pressures towards moral relativism

To summarise a great deal of work very quickly, the ‘founding fathers’ of Sociology identified a number of aspects of ‘industrial society’ (or capitalism’, or what is now  fashionably called ‘modernity’) which threatened the value-base of  earlier forms of social life. They include:

1. A well-developed social differentiation (or division of labour) in work and in social life  --  e.g. the appearance of experts, specialist and

2. The generation of  substantial social inequalities of wealth, income and power, and the possible fracturing of societies into conflicting groups

3. Increasing social contacts between different societies and ways of life
(recently on a global scale)

4. The dominance of economic, political and administrative regulation (‘system’ requirements) over the social and personal lives of citizens (‘lifeworld’)


‘Postmodernism’ refers to a recent Parisian social poetics (Baudrillard (1983) and Lyotard (1986) are the classic choice as spokespersons) which predicts an extreme and unfortunate (and rather selective) combination of these trends. An explosion of cultural difference, driven increasingly by the mass media destroys the old bases of community and community values (and also makes redundant the old social sciences). Lacking any sort of restraint in community life, culture is left free to develop its own momentum, to endlessly develop and stock a ‘cultural supermarket’ of values and beliefs (in this case)  --  those seeking guidance can access equally easily information about Feng Shui, Buddhism, Californian mysticism, the Toronto Blessing, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Cornish satanism, or hypnotism, and will probably pursue these paths sequentially.
For Baudrillard, an initial cultural explosion will lead to an implosion, the celebration of difference will turn to a deep indifference, at least as far as ‘the masses’ are concerned (for professorial poets there was the attractive prospect of cultural experimentation without guilt). A cynical refusal to communicate would characterise the imploded society, leaving professional communicators  --  priests and teachers as well as advertising men and spin doctors  -- babbling competitively into a black hole. For Lyotard, there was at last a suspicion that the cultural differences he had initially hailed as liberating were dangerously consonant with the modern global cultural industry and its requirements for endlessly restless consumers with short attention-spans. He holds out only a weak hope that some kind of avant-garde cultural elite will pursue the ‘good’ sides of relativism (seeking the sublime).

Critical Theory

This tradition is rooted in the classical work of Weber and Marx and offers a stern germanic counter to the stylistic fireworks of postmodernism. Instead of an unlikely moral relativism, the work predicts a kind of secularisation. The analysis starts with the growth of a particular type of ‘purposive rationality’ in modern societies, one which stresses the effective calculation of means and ends instead of the considered application and development of ‘values’ (some vision of the ‘good life’). This sort of  hard-nosed rationality is rooted in the economic system, and it spreads also into the classic bureaucracies of modernity  --  the Civil Service. System growth takes on a life of its own, unconstrained by any values other than the effective pursuit of measurable goals (often things like growth for its own sake). As system dominates lifeworld, a public sphere for the debate and discussion of values diminishes  --  political debates focus exclusively on the efficient running of the economy, or on the best means to achieve cuts in public expenditure Other types of rationality (or Reason), based on the pursuit of the ‘good life’ for human beings (such as a fair and just society, one which minimises exploitation and so on) do not entirely disappear, but they are pushed back further and further into a purely ‘private’ or personal realm as system requirements dominate more and more of public or community life. This privatisation of values can lead to a dangerous outcome  --  a deep irrationality, with values informed by emotional commitments strengthened by occasional mass outbursts of emotional solidarity. This kind of outburst and its exploitation was a major factor in the success of fascism, where public policy was pursued to provide emotional gratification, and where mass myths developed at the heart of politics (such as the Nazi celebration of the mysteries of ‘blood, race and soil’ as the basis for German nationhood). The aggressive side of these emotional commitments became rapidly apparent to outsiders, of course.

Critical theory thus aimed to preserve Reason against both the slow colonisation of systems thinking and the deep irrationality of mass affect. In its most recent form, this appears as Habermas’s  (1987) counterfactual assertion’ of the potential of unrestrained speech, devoted to the pursuit of the better argument, and always able to raise doubts about the validity claimed by the statements of others. Habermas (1976) contrasts this kind of ‘ideal speech act’ with the ‘distorted’ or ‘strategic’ communication so commonly found in public life, which represents specific interests as universal ones, and often allows no challenge to its validity claims.

Case-studies 1:  Mourning Diana

What best characterises the public reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales? For some commentators, the extraordinary scenes signified a new spirituality, with a delightfully playful (postmodernist?) combination of Christian ritual and Elton John. (This seems to be part of an interesting argument developed by Dr G Davie at a presentation at Exeter University, 4th December 1997, for example) Strange combinations occurred of British national ritual and most un-British public applause during and after the ceremony itself. For others, a new sense of community emerged as everyone joined together in mourning, forgetting their differences – even Diana was ‘one of us’. Specialist commentators on cultural politics, like the eternally optimistic Martin Jacques (1997) , combined both themes, seeing the mourning public on the march as a New Social Movement based on feminine virtues like compassion and the open recognition of emotion, and a generational rejection of royal tradition and elitism. Moral relativism, and the heartlessness of Thatcherism were both decisively rejected in what Jacques referred to (with a playful intertextual reference back to the 1960s) as the ‘floral revolution’. Things, he assured us, would never be the same.

For other commentators, however, darker notes were detected, best of all, perhaps in Christy (1997). The role of the media were noted in amplifying and shaping the public’s grief. Some psychological commentaries detected guilt and aggression in the public mood, as demands were made, of Royals and ordinary mortals, for ‘proper signs of respect’. It was necessary to cry, for example, or to observe a respectful silence in the neighbourhood during the funeral. The suspicion grew in some quarters that this was one of those dubious public spectacles after all, where unfocussed emotions were released as a kind of irrational substitute for public debate.

Spokespersons hastened to add their spins – -- Tony Blair extended his role as a politician of the heart, claims were made for young princes as successors to the Diana heritage. After all the mediated mourning, at least commercial life seemed to continue, unreformed,  just as before with a massive exercise to market souvenirs. ‘Values’ were expressed in a characteristic manner  --  in private, en masse (the two are complementary), as a temporary holiday from ‘real life’, and, eventually as a form of consumption.

Case Studies 2:  British Higher Education

One of the main reasons for turning to specific cases is to show the complexity of actual social life (a theme at the heart of proper sociology, but sadly lacking in either Parisian poetics or critical theory on the grand scale). Nothing could be more contradictory than higher education systems in terms of their values. It is common to think of education as offering a set of values, ones sometimes defined in terms close to those of critical theory, especially Habermas’s ideal speech act, perhaps (the perfect university seminar?) --  yet the practices of educational institutions often contradict these values. Higher education often relativises as well, for example, as young people encounter members of other societies or other subcultures with quite different but seemingly equally adequate ways of life. In close proximity, it becomes impossible to rank order such differences. The very academic subjects studied can encourage a questioning of values which once were held without question, of course, as students learn to philosophise or theorise. In the (urban, cosmopolitan) academy above all, young people can best experience that relentless drive of modernity poetically described by Benjamin (see Clifford 1988) -- propelled into an unknown (social) future, facing backwards, aware of past identities yet unable to conceive of a future based upon them.

Parisian postmodernists are not the first academic specialists to have been led to relativism by following theory to its logical (but perhaps not sensible) conclusions, or to have found in the position of the university professor the perfect example of leisured dilletantism and  a sophisticated ennui. The impact of these trends and practices on more ordinary people is rarely discussed or analysed, however, in favour of little more than a hope that, eventually, some resolution will occur.
Notions of the ‘good life’ haunt the loftier debates about the role of the academy. Our own institution apparently has a ‘vision statement’ which mentions that ancient goal of a ‘concern for truth’. Yet increasingly, actual institutions are colonised and dominated by calculative rationality  -- the requirements of rational budgeting and marketing, the mechanisms for targetting and recruitment, the advocacy of ‘closer links’ with the economy. These links can be found explicitly in vocational curricula, where the pursuit of the better argument has to be limited by the ‘needs’ of the job market. Less explicit, but as powerful, is the penetration of rational technique in modes of teaching and learning  --  the specification of objectives, the calculation of the most effective means to achieve them, the apparatus of ‘study skills’, the paraphernalia of measurable ‘outcomes’. Finally, the systemic needs of effective grading and classification can produce a deep instrumentalism, and the triumph of strategic or distorted communication among students and staff. None of these techniques are interested in ‘truth’ of course: it is not a concept in calculative-rational discourse.

Concluding Thoughts

The relativism celebrated by postmodernism is better thought of as a special professorial and  poetic case of the privatisation of values described in critical theory. In that context, the apparent re-emergence of emotional commitments and visions of community in events like the mourning of Diana is a worrying trend, not one to be celebrated.

Looking back now, in January 2000, the impact of the cult of Diana seems all but diminished. There is to be some sort of permanent Diana memorial, it seems, but there has been no floral revolution, no feminisation of British society, and, in a retrospective millenial edition, two Observer journalists re-published accounts that were openly and courageously critical of the event:
Ferguson (1999) mentioned a 'public enforced outpouring [of feeling]...[with]...attendant censorship of any views not deemed to be sufficicently black-bordered...lunatic aspects [of crowd behaviour], the visions and the portents...and [a] more subtle worry...the number of  sane, intelligent,compassionate people...who are obviously moved absolutely beyond words...I honestly hadn't understood how many people truly treated Diana as an icon. And I don't know how healthy it is for so many to have adored someone they had never met,and, it appears, lived their lives vicariously through her'
The Observer also reprinted Pearson's (1999) account of the famous Diana broadcast on public TV (on Panorama, a prestigious BBC current affairs programme, 20th November 1995): 'Most were transfixed by adoration...[but Pearson saw a]...queasy blend of therapeutic self-evacuation and prefab epigrams masquerading as current affairs...Nothing was left to chance.Candour was never more candid...The programme was ...spliced together from different sessions, almost from different takes, you might think...The interview was instantly hailed as a blow against the Establishment. Maybe so; but it was also a cheapening of public discourse that...will hurt everyone in the end. TV like this makes bulimics of us all: we gorge on it, throw it up and end up wanting more'

Postscript 2
In April 2004 I found a piece by W Merrin on the media-event of the death of Diana, and I have made some notes on it -- click here

Returning to higher education, attempts to turn to ‘values’ by organisations already dominated by purposive rationality seem doomed, whether they be companies trying to bolt on some culture or educational institutions trying to put values back on the curriculum (in a nicely modular timetabled slot, of course). At its most pessimistic, critical theory sees a source of resistance to the colonisation of the lifeworld only in the fading memories of those who lived it before the latest incursions. The notion of the university as a place trying to preserve or create the basis for the ‘good life’ could end in irrelevance and nostalgia, or, worse, as a kind of façade, clothing a thoroughgoing educational culture industry: nothing as dramatic as a collapse, more a hollowing out and numbness, perhaps: less abeunt studia in mores than  stat magni nominis umbra*.

* apologies for any  obscurity -- less study reveals  itself in a way of life than only the shadow of a great name remains


Baudrillard, J (1983)  Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e)
Christy, D (1997) ‘Mourning has Broken’, the Guardian,  September 12th 1997
Clifford, J (1988) The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Culture, Literature and Art, London: Harvard Press.
Ferguson E (1999) 'A tragedy,yes,but don't tell me I must cry', the Observer,  December 19th 1999
Habermas J (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action vol 2 Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J (1976) Legitimation Crisis, London: Heinemann Press.
Jacques, M (1997) ‘The Floral Revolution’, the Observer,  September 7th 1997
Lyotard, J-F (1986)  The Post-Modern Condition: a report on knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Pearson A (1999) 'The Princess on Panorama: TV to make bulimics of us all', the Observer,  December 19th 1999
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    Guess what? Similar moral panic and applied luvviedom after the death of D Bowie, even linking it all to the Diana syndrome. This is the second piece by S Moore on Bowie -- yesterday, she assured us he was not really dead - -like Christ then?Sentimental shit is good and human etc,and nothing at all to do with the commercial music business:

Flowers and messages left by fans in front of the David Bowie mural in Brixton. Photograph: Han Yan/Xinhua Press/Corbis

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Time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth. Did that happen? I think it happened, as I reacquaint myself with the nausea of the first fag in a while. Grief is so physical, isn’t it? The discombobulation, that slightly floaty feeling in your legs, a gutful of dread. I know what grief feels like, thanks very much. And I grieve for David Bowie. It’s not a competition. It’s not just about “music”. Or my lost youth. My youth went the day I gave birth at 26 and I understood that everything was about the next generation. And Bowie was always about what could be. A rift has opened between those who know and those who don’t.

Tributes to David Bowie have been flowing from all over the world since his death on Sunday. Madonna recently did her bit during her Rebel Heart tour, performing Bowie’s Rebel Rebel in Houston, Texas

I consider myself lucky to have so many compadres of all ages who do know. We are a little afraid of that knowledge these days. We are vaguely aware that we won’t live for ever, but somehow we thought he might. In some new incarnation. We are in denial, maybe.

But it’s not the denial of the naysayers, who function in a most peculiar way. There is a constant refrain of discomfort about public mourning from the zombified bourgeoisie who are fearful of crowds. Fearful of feelings. The joyous celebrations in Brixton were spontaneous. Still the bitter mumblings about the “Dianafication” of England. I wonder if some of these people take Ubers to random funerals and then correct the mourners on the permissible level of emotion. I guess they learn this stuff in public school, where they are taught to confuse empathy with incontinence.

Certainly I got ticked off by several such types when Diana did die and I went to her funeral. I adored her – not because I thought she was Gloria Steinem or a closet republican because she wanted her son to be king instead of Charles – but because she was so brilliantly disruptive. She simply would not accept the royal script: that Charles would keep a mistress and barely see his children. She made her distress clear. She did not want to breed in captivity.

So in 1997, when she died, I had to tell the editor of the paper I worked for at the time that people were genuinely upset. Because they were. Not in a stupid way. Many I spoke to were crying for her, her sons, and for their own losses. They articulated that clearly. This was signalling a cultural shift. Candles and flowers. A Protestant country looked like a Catholic one. Or, sometimes, it was like being in India. For one week, more anti-monarchy feeling gathered than had ever been present in all the hours I spent sitting in meetings about the need for a new constitution.

At the service in Westminster Abbey, when Earl Spencer made his dissident speech to the royals, we thought we could hear rain. It was the gathering applause outside. Nonetheless, people like me were “hysterics”. Saint Christopher Hitchens claimed this mass grief was compulsory (it wasn’t) and called it “a one-party state”. The so-called left is fairly disgusted by the feelings of ordinary folk. Just like the right. This is passed off as a kind of iconoclasm. How very radical not to care about the death of a young mother in a car crash.

So I feel the same about people deriding those who are mourning Bowie. I don’t care if you don’t care. More fool you. For some, a hole has been ripped in the universe and we are lost, and we will be for a good while yet. We are afraid. For he was so damn smart and yet formed in the laboratory of creative social mobility, which we fear is also gone now. If we cannot reconstruct it, we just don’t know where the new visionaries will be grown.

That’s the social part, but the personal part is well … not just his life. We have his life to replay over and over. But his death, the turning of his ending into something full of awe and humanity, is breathtaking. Most people in the last days of cancer cannot get dressed, let alone produce sounds and vision that sear our souls. You see, we are troubled by what we now feel he was telling us and what we chose not to know. We are troubled by the fact that, in talking of his death, we are talking of our own. He once said: “I think ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person that you always should have been.” Yes.

“Aint that just like me,” he sings. The last line of Lazarus. How many of us ever know what we are like or how to die?

It’s a pretty big question for a mere “pop star” to pose. So I am still reeling in that grey space he spoke of, between audience and performer. I am not coping, to be honest. Nor are many other people I know. I have never felt like this about any other public death and doubt I will again. What if there is never anyone else like him? My sadness does not mean I don’t care about Madaya or Istanbul. But this grief is serious and rational.

Bowie was incomparable. Leave us be with it. There is always one damn song that can make you break down and cry. I am sorry if you never heard it. Because I did.