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Angela Tilby: Affirmation culture is not helpful

05 August 2022


“THE culture of unconditional affirmation is corrosive” — discuss. It is a serious question. We are creating a culture in which everyone expects respect from others, but fewer are willing to give it.

An example: Harry Wallop, a business columnist for The Times, wrote last week about conversations that he had recently had with business owners who had taken in young staff. It seems that many new workers have adopted extraordinarily casual attitudes to work. There was a young worker who had refused to turn up because it was hot and his dog needed him; another just reported “Work isn’t my vibe today.”

Attitudes to the workplace have been changed by the pandemic, of course; but, in the current job market, bosses simply did not feel able to point out that being paid usually requires certain duties to be performed. Staff expected respect and affirmation from their bosses, but did not apparently feel any reciprocal obligation. As they saw it, the boss was lucky to have them at all.

It is the same affirmation culture as drives politicians to flatter their supporters. So they speak of our huge national potential, of releasing our talents, of our being recognised world-beaters. Yet our productivity does not improve, and our health service, our schools, and our transport infrastructure continue to decline. No one dares face us with the more plausible view: that we are, in fact, a small offshore island that has been living beyond its means for decades, and, unless we work harder and smarter, changing our habits and perhaps lowering our expectations, we face an increasingly bleak future.

The Church has its own version of affirmation culture. When I was involved in training ordinands, I became aware of how insecure some felt, how they expected to be affirmed unconditionally in their decisions, preferences, and life-choices. It required a degree of tact and sensitivity that was often beyond me to offer challenge. The concept of “constructive criticism” was too much.

I think that this preciousness is corrosive, and, instead of supporting people in their moments of vulnerability, it makes them more vulnerable than ever. If everyone is wonderful and amazing, if every lifestyle choice is to be celebrated, if conformity to rules and requirements are matters of personal choice, then the gospel is reduced to me and my feelings about me.

Becoming a person, becoming a Christian, is something no one can do alone. To grow spiritually and in character, I need less to assert my identity than to learn to receive it in truthful dialogue with others and through the grace of God. This is at one and the same time unbearably hard and infinitely liberating. Yet, without it, we remain stuck looking at ourselves in the mirror of self-regard. It is not a good look. It is not good.

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