Helen Mirren is right.
The UK has become
brutal and cruel
In a recent interview Dame Helen Mirren said that one of the things she most liked about America was the absence of the corrosive cynicism so prevalent in modern Britain. While she loved her home country she admitted: 'The one thing I really don't mind escaping when I go away is the alacrity with which Brits like to put people down'.
As a minister I certainly found the endless criticism and small-minded jealousy wearing and cringed when I heard the fateful words: 'It gives me no pleasure to tell you this...'. I knew immediately that a personal disaster had befallen some poor soul in the parish and all the gory sexual or alcoholic details were about to be regaled with simpering delight.
Schadenfreude describes the malicious enjoyment some people derive from observing another's misfortune and it is said that only the Germans could have created a word for it. Don't you believe it – the Brits are infected with the tall poppy syndrome and our default reaction to the success of an acquaintance is: 'Who does he/she think she is?'.
I noted the other day that Dr Helen Wright, the head of an independent girls' school in Wiltshire was sounding off about the brutalising effect of online social networks. Along with our obsessive celebrity culture, it was making teenagers meaner and leading them to believe making and breaking friendships is like making 'friends' on Facebook. She was concerned that the ease with which 'friends' are made or dropped at the click of a button was resulting in girls mistaking electronic reactions for human emotions. Certainly these new forms of social media make not only teenage girls but public figures vulnerable to an underclass of the emotionally disturbed with access to a computer.
When Tory MP Louise Mensch opposed the phone hacking report because of its unfair treatment of Rupert Murdoch she was inundated with the foulest abuse on Twitter. Yet this may simply be laying bear a widespread, nihilistic state of mind which believes everything and everyone is rotten and total cynicism is the correct reaction.
One of the observations I made from a life in which I met a huge range of people both in and out of prison was that no-one is either as good or as bad as their public image. I cannot tell you how often I found that someone who had been universally described to me as a total cad, bounder and all-round bad egg was in fact perfectly agreeable. For example, many years ago when he was considered by the Church of Scotland to be entirely beyond the pale I was introduced to the Rev Ian Paisley by a mutual friend. I had no idea what to expect having only seen him make inflammatory speeches but I was amazed to find him charming, amusing, well-informed, and excellent company.
Moral rules restrain the worst in human nature and encourage the best
and, as we can see, kindness and compassion have now been replaced
by cruelty and sentimentality.
After his death, the reputation of Robert Maxwell was absolutely trashed and there was hardly anyone in the country without a tale to tell of his cruelty and dastardly deeds. But I worked for him for seven years and found him an invariably kind and generous employer and I always looked forward to my overnights in Headington Hill Hall.
I think Mirren is absolutely correct to comment that returning from abroad makes one all too aware of how brutal the UK has become with its all-pervasive incivility and cruelty. In 'intellectual' circles, verbal abuse is commonplace, insult is substituted for argument and anyone who dares to disagree is vilified as an ogre, a nutter, a fascist or all three.
Across the years I became used to everyone having an opinion on how I should run my church so it was a relief when the subject of teaching came up.
No-one at a dinner party ever told me how I should prepare a class for A-Level physics because very few people of my acquaintance knew anything about modern physics. Yet when 'climate change' appeared – a branch of physics so complex and with so many variables it is best understood via chaos theory – suddenly everyone was an expert. Not only that, if I dared to question one of Al Gore's more extreme pronouncements – which is what physicists are supposed to do – I was branded a (holocaust) 'denier'.
I became a non-person in the sense that 'all' scientists agreed with Al even though getting scientists to agree is like getting economists to agree and it is easier to herd cats. It is a level of abuse I have only encountered with religious fundamentalists and the entire subject has clearly been spiritualised and lifted out of the realm of rational debate. And yet the emotions involved are much worse in the UK than elsewhere because in the US or the continent people know the idea is based on inadequate computer modelling.
The internet in Britain appears to have unleashed a boundless reservoir of pathological bile which engulfs everything and everyone from the royal family down. Perhaps it has always been around, and certainly the British mob was historically brutish, so the social media may simply have provided a platform for what is already out there. But the uncontrolled internet has emboldened people to send vile messages to all public figures and bully the vulnerable with impunity under the shield of anonymity.
Civilisation has never been more than a thin veneer and it is unfortunate that British society in the late 20th-century binned Judeo-Christian moral values and put nothing it its place. Moral rules restrain the worst in human nature and encourage the best and, as we can see, kindness and compassion have now been replaced by cruelty and sentimentality.
After the death of Princess Diana an assembled mass cried empty tears for a stranger and the event became a televised excuse for an orgy of sentimentality. I felt for the first time in my life like a alien in my own country and wondered if a terrorist had spiked the London water supply and they had all gone completely bonkers. Theodore Dalrymple tried to analyse this weird episode in his book 'The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality', but I have to say that 15 years on it still gives me the creeps.
John Cameron is a physicist and former Church of Scotland parish minister
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