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Warning: Moral Outrage is Addictive

IT is just possible, I suppose, that Charlie Gilmour did not see the words THE GLORIOUS DEAD on the side of the Cenotaph, for youth is often not very observant, being so totally self?absorbed.

But if he did see them, it would be interesting to know to what he thought they referred. He is a history student and, even in this age of declining standards, he must surely have heard of the First World War. His apology is therefore not altogether credible. It is much more likely that he climbed the Cenotaph because it was the Cenotaph.

There is a certain kind of person, especially in youth, who is so intoxicated by his own sense of moral outrage that he believes himself entitled to ride roughshod over the sensibility of others.

That kind of person's moral outrage, which he believes to be essentially good-hearted and generous, gives him a much desired holiday from the usual tiresome requirement to control himself. He can behave badly while persuading himself that he is doing good. He can deceive himself into thinking that the destruction of a plate glass window or dancing on the roof of a car will lead to the betterment of the world, especially if he can get away without paying for it.

Moral outrage that leads to offences against public order is at least as dangerous among the privileged as among the truly desperate, because the privileged see in their own outrage a proof of their own generosity of spirit.

Charlie Gilmour, remember, is almost as privileged as it is possible for a young man in Britain to be. Fees of ?9,000 a year are nothing to him or to his parents.

He would probably have told himself it could not have been for petty personal or selfish reasons that he protested against the raising of tuition fees, therefore it must have been for the good of humanity. And the good of humanity is so important, and so noble a goal, that almost anything is justified in promoting it.

The great majority of protesters, of course, have not behaved badly, and we must never forget that protest is a right even of those with whom we disagree. It is not at all inconceivable that the best-behaved were those with most to complain about from the personal point of view.

There is another feature of the modern world that tends to provoke the privileged or relatively privileged to extreme acts, namely the belief that strength of feeling is proportional to the vehemence with which one expresses it. The louder you shout, the more bricks you throw, the deeper you feel. Many people do not want to appear moderate or lukewarm in their belief in justice. Therefore they seek to obtain a reputation for a passion for justice by destroying someone else's property.

Most such people will grow out of their folly. They will probably lament the misconduct of youth when they themselves in turn grow old.

But a few will become addicted to the sound of breaking glass, and violent confrontations with policemen, and become professional agitators.

A surprising proportion of them will have led highly privileged lives, but there is always something to agitate about.

First published in the UK Express.

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