Richard is currently a Research Fellow in the Social Inclusion Unit at Macquarie University in Sydney. Prior to taking up the post in Sydney, Richard held a position as an Honorary Research Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast, following doctoral studies on the nature of identity narratives among the major loyalist paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. Richard has also worked on a number of knowledge exchange and community transformation and coherence initiatives with former loyalist combatants and prisoners in Northern Ireland, and has published a number of articles related to the history of the loyalist paramilitaries, current transition efforts, and methodologies for working in sensitive and politically di
In response to Jamie Bryson’s ‘Traditional Loyalism in Modern Society’
Jamie Bryson’s latest comments on this website illustrate, for me, the dangers of a rather limited thinker with a big voice. To me it reads like a suicide note that fills the reader with despair and frustration. The only flicker of hope I felt came from a small voice in my head that said his ‘argument’ (I use that term rather loosely) is so absurd that most people of good sense would ignore it and move on. But as long as ill-thought out, irrational, tribalistic and thoughtless drum-beating fills the airwaves (or the internet waves, in this case), it’s feels somehow incumbent on those with a modicum of good sense to resist the temptation to sigh and move on, and to actively contest it.
The truth is that there is a logical, coherent, and powerful argument to be made about the preservation of traditional values. On this evidence, however, Mr Bryson certainly isn’t the one to make it. There are so many parts of Mr Bryson’s commentary I could take issue with it’s hard to know what to include. So as far as possible, I’ll try to counter on terms that he uses himself. I also won’t dwell on the rich hypocrisy that runs through the piece – save to say that I thought it a shame that Mr Bryson dilutes what weak arguments he does make by lamenting the name-calling of the ‘tree-hugging’ left while throwing a few choice insults around himself.
Instead I’ll deal with some of the ‘substance’ of Mr Bryson’s comments. And that word – substance – is probably a good place to start from. In short, there is none. Instead, what Mr Bryson has offered is repetitive, vacuous, and entirely lacking in argument, to say nothing of sense. Mr Bryson says loyalism is based on ‘God’s word’. But what is that, exactly? Nowhere do I see a reference to what ‘God’s word’ is, and certainly not an argument as to why God’s word conflicts with socialist values. I suspect if such an argument was made it would be pulled apart at a number of points, not least because ‘God’s word’ (in the literal, Biblical sense) also tells us a number of social practices that have since thankfully been eradicated – among them slavery – are correct and appropriate ways of behaving. I’m not a theologian but I also wouldn’t have much difficulty in constructing an argument that says those words were never intended to be taken literally. Instead we could argue that what should be preserved is the central message of those words – in the New Testament, of course, that message is love. The means with which we live in true accordance with that message is, inevitably, a matter of adapting to the times in which we live.
Which leads to the second or many problems with this piece. Mr Bryson talks about the ‘founding elements’ of the tradition, and how socialists and ‘tree huggers’ are selling those elements out. My view is simply that they have another understanding on what those founding elements actually are. Protestantism broke with Catholicism in part because it rejected the old, exclusive and hierarchical way many Catholics had of seeing the world. It was a tradition birthed by thinkers, by people who wanted to challenge and change the way society and religion worked. Those men and women often risked being burned at the stake for speaking out, and for taking on authority and accepted ways of doing things.
Great men like John Knox, the 16th century founder of Presbyterianism, or John Calvin, the great French religious reformer, were deep thinkers who sought to understand the demands of faith in the political and social contexts in which people lived. The Scottish covenanters who did so much to increase the influence of Protestantism in Great Britain, were also political radicals who challenged authority and developed concepts of democracy, equality and contracts between ruler and ruled that are the lifeblood of (whisper it quietly around Mr Bryson) the ‘modern’ world that Mr Bryson seems to dislike so much. These men and women, while still steeped in religious tradition, were the liberals of their time – and many of them died for it. Years later, many died again fighting to preserve that essential liberal creed – the belief that all are equal before the eyes of God – during the world wars of the twentieth century.
Since those founding times, of course, the tradition that has emerged has become rich and complex, but at its heart still stands the enduring commitment to and belief in equality and respect for alternative viewpoints – and, importantly, the value of rational argument. These were ideals that, if we buy in to James Webb’s fascinating Born Fighting, were part of the fabric of life for the clans and tribes that had inhabited Ulster and Scotland and fought with such determination against the English for liberty and the freedom to live in accordance with their own beliefs and values. And in that tradition too the Scottish covenanters refused to have bishops thrust upon them, and dissented, time and time again. They were the men and women who took on authority during the great revolutions of the 18th century, in America, in France, and, like it or not, during the Irish rebellion of 1798.
So isn’t it pretty ironic that Mr Bryson should use the phrase ‘the reformed religion’ while so aggressively critiquing the concepts of ‘modernizing’ or ‘adapting’, and so ultimately the very notion of change upon which the Protestant tradition was truly founded?
And there’s something else that confuses me. If Protestantism is in fact none of these things, what differentiates it from Catholicism? This rather odd piece of chest-thumping actually seems to have made the case for a version of Protestantism that is not substantively different from the Catholicism that I’ve no doubt Bryson detests with every fibre of his being. Is it really all as tribal as Mr Bryson would have us believe?
To put it most kindly, therefore, Mr Bryson’s words are an inaccurate portrayal of that tradition. But one might also argue that Mr Bryson’s words are a betrayal of much of what that tradition represents and what many fought and died for. Instead of basing his argument in fact, Mr Bryson is using the siren call of ‘identity’ to justify his hatred against anything he doesn’t agree with.
Which brings me on to the next point. Identity is itself a complex phenomenon. It isn’t something we are born with, and we all have many different identities, some of which are important in some moments (my identity as a man feels important when I hear statements like ‘all men are rapists’). There are days when a loyalist feels that side of his or her identity more than others – the Twelfth, or during Remembrance services. Likewise I can assure Mr Bryson that if he had been born on the Falls he would not be writing as he is now. We are all influenced by those we grow up with, and we continue to be influenced by all those around us, all the time, consciously or subconsciously. And our identities are constantly changing because of those influences. None of us are the same person we were ten or twenty years ago. None of us hold entirely the same views on everything as we did back then. What this unavoidable reality means is that there is no single loyalist ‘identity’. Indeed, if we are again to stay true to the democratic principles at the heart of loyalism, there ought to be (and in reality are) many different loyalist identities.
All of which might be too nuanced or complex to work with. But before returning to beating the drum Mr Bryson, I’d urge you to stop and give thought to my last argument. Even if you disputes what the Protestant tradition really means, even if you refuse to see identity as something complex and changeable and susceptible to lots of different influences, perhaps you might accept that holding fast to illiberal, intolerant and exclusive creeds in the name of preserving what is good about the past just won’t get loyalism very far. The steps towards advancing as a people, raising our quality of life, making a better future for our children and making our society better have always, history has shown, been made by those who could take what was best about their culture and tradition and adapt it to the world they lived in. Who could find ways to connect with others of different creeds, who could find the core humanity that lies in us all, no matter what our beliefs, life goals, dreams or values.
What you propose, Mr Bryson, in the name of ‘standing up for your beliefs’ is, in fact, a form of killing those very beliefs and the people who live by them. You won’t protect what is best about loyalism by climbing into a bunker and erecting walls. You won’t protect what is best about loyalism by refusing to explain it in terms that other people can understand. No, instead you’ll ensure loyalism dies, becomes an irrelevance, is sidelined and ostracised by politicians, businesses and even a lot of regular folk.
Nor can you protect what is best about loyalism by denying the value of progress and wanting to unpick what society has become and return to some sort of stone age era where we piss around our territory and steal women and food from opposing tribes. I for one value modern medicine, I value the fact that our kids have the chance to go to school. I value the computer that allows me to read your views and respond, even though I now live far away. I value the fact women don’t die in childbirth. I value the fact that with some exceptions we don’t generally go around killing others and causing suffering in the world because of what we believe. And yes, I even value the fact that Mr Bryson has a platform to say what he believes.
Those are the things Mr Bryson would give up by clambering into that bunker. If every human had his attitude we’d never have left the cave. So not only is he betraying Protestantism, not only is he refusing to see the complexity in the world, not only is he betraying society and progress and everything that helps him get by in the world, he is betraying loyalism. When we refuse to adapt we die – that is a fact that human history has shown in a thousand different ways. And what Mr Bryson is proposing is a suicide note for loyalism, for Protestantism and for a people who are thoroughly decent, who have fought and suffered, and who deserve a lot better.
If Mr Bryson would only stop checking under the bed for those red boogie men long enough to think a bit he might realise that too.