Old Manners

by David Wemyss (July 2011)

Here in Britain a few years ago a minister in the “New Labour” government observed with some relish that Latin and Greek were all very well as ornament but had nothing to do with the central themes of education. Yet reading Pliny in fourth year was the single most important thing that happened to me at school. But the pedagogic assumptions which I cherish from those days were dwindling fast even then, and now they are either unintelligible or actively reviled.

The proponents of academic selection in state-run secondary schools – and also the users of fee-paying private colleges – are usually just interested in consolidating the assumptions of a desperately thin and morally relativistic middle-class milieu by looking forward to maximising the position of their children in a diminished culture they can no longer recognise as diminished. Once you scratch the surface, they look markedly similar to the egalitarians whom it pleases them to despise (for insufficient cause).

Few people in either camp actually know what a privileged education would really be like, so few really want their children to have one. I suppose this encapsulates the way in which I’m attracted to conservatism but repelled by Conservatives.

A richly privileged education could never be available “inclusively”, but, in my experience, those lucky enough to enjoy such a privilege (I had no more than a few flakes of it) are often compellingly clear that it should be shared. It can only be shared realistically, though, by remaining what it is in itself. It can’t be shared in terms of a plan that changes out of all recognition the nature of the original privilege. But certainly it should be shared as well as possible.

The London Library in St James’s Square is a private library that flourishes in the spirit of its founders and its committed subscribers. By comparison, public libraries in the UK are judged nowadays in terms of performance management – is the “footfall” high enough? Yet public libraries were once like The London Library, and remained so until fairly recently – until the snare of public funding finally trapped them. Although British readers of the New English Review would probably love to retain the kind of old-fashioned municipal library Alan Bennett spent so much time in, we might as well demand public money for our private CD collections. In 2011 it isn’t uncommon for a large public library to have nothing by Charles Dickens.

Similarly, current spending cuts are forcing British orchestras to begin giving up on provincial towns throughout the UK. But the real problem is that, right from the outset, the public spending was political and populist. Its purpose was to be “inclusive” – to democratise access to a middle-class lifestyle. To suggest that its purpose was to react to disquiet that so many people go through their lives knowing nothing of one of the glories of western civilisation would be absurd. In fact, most politicians think classical music is elitist, which is why “outreach” work by orchestras is subjected to so much political interference. There’s no belief in a canon, so things happen for the wrong reasons, and they’re often just the wrong things.

I like to tell the story of an elderly lady – my cantankerous aunt, solidly working class – who, in the weeks before she died, heard Beethoven’s symphonies and quartets for the first time and said it had been the most wonderful experience of her life, and that she would have loved to have known this music earlier. “But I never thought it was for the likes of me”.

The privilege is Beethoven, not the middle-class milieu that would hijack him. However, by telling orchestras to keep him out of school visits or community concerts, instrumentally-minded educationalists and community strategists give the game away: they obviously have no notion that they’re democratising access to his symphonies.  

But who cares? These people always think you can get rid of inequality by sharing a travesty of whatever is supposed to have been unfairly exclusive. This is a typical manoeuvre on the part of those for whom it is already settled that sharing is bound to be a good thing, regardless of what actually gets shared. And good things are indeed to be shared. They will be in a plan.

Absurdly, something called community planning is now at the heart of enormous swathes of primary legislation in contemporary Britain, generating the vapid sub-plans and strategies that supply the dismal vocabulary of the civil servants who vote for it all in the first place. 

In other words, the public sector has become hopelessly ensnared by symptoms pretending to be cures: the pseudo-professionalisation of bureaucrats and the bureaucratisation of professionals, the ubiquity of plans and strategies, the craven acceptance of managerialism and performance indicators, and the banality of mission statements and “visions”.

A traditional rightward complaint about this civic kitsch would be that we were over-governed, but a better complaint would be that the loquaciousness of government is much worse, and that the language of rules and regulations is actually quite bearable until it is turned against language itself. 

In a strange kind of levelling that flings itself out across the whole of society, one hears oneself more and more saying things that other people say – even though they are completely empty. 

A few months ago I overheard a conversation about the pop singer Peter Gabriel’s remark that, if the world could only have one father, it would choose Nelson Mandela. The first speaker thought this was repellent. The second rather glibly assumed that what was supposedly repellent was Mandela’s earlier status as what some people would call a terrorist, along with the controversies surrounding his second wife Winnie.

But the first speaker demurred, saying she didn’t know enough about Mandela to offer an opinion about his moral stature (although she clearly had some doubts). Her problem was with the remark. She had been almost viscerally struck by its hollow ring. While she had no difficulty with people making a case for Mandela if they wanted to, she could not imagine feeling remotely at ease – conversationally – with Peter Gabriel. It was the talking about it that was the problem. A curiously deep problem. 

I once spoke to a group of people in local government who revealed that they had become so weary of the culture of managing language that to varying extents they had actually reinvented themselves as mildly racist or homophobic or sexist – just to make a bit of conceptual and emotional space for themselves, or, as one of them put it, “to feel I could breathe properly”.

But then they would encounter tales of dreadful racial harassment or homophobic violence, and recover (almost as if by surprise) their sense that, needless to say, not a single one of them was remotely disposed towards unkindness in these spheres. Nevertheless, their naturalistic sense of themselves had buckled under the weight of the doctrinal. They couldn’t help but think that their words were bound to comply with doctrinally-settled conditions for what they were bound to say in order to be who they (thought they) were.

Yet I couldn’t quite formulate there and then how enormously important it was that, under that weight, words just gave way. The spoken word became an alien presence performing the macabre antics of something malignly other.

Sometimes the managers of language say their approach amounts to no more than an extension of good manners. I’m tempted to agree. Like a modern extension added insensitively to a beautiful old building, it is an ugly and graceless defacement impeding easeful style. In conversation, easeful style tugs on the formative tissues of liberty. I trust old manners to be enough, as surely as I want to live in an old house. In fact, I think old manners are definitionally enough. 

But although the authority for “politically correct” judgements is only a few decades old, it has already swept aside centuries of ancestral authority for the insight that immediacy in speech is deep and natural and right. It has also swept aside the concomitant assumption that, when words are unkind, it is because of the unkindliness of the speaker. It can’t be – or shouldn’t be – because they are words proscribed recently in the name of kindliness. 

Yet after you’ve been hectored to the contrary, you can never recover your original Edenic condition. Sin begets sin, said Macbeth, and, once you’ve heard the dismal idea that words are no longer to be trusted to do their naturalistic work but are to be judged for their tactical potency or political acceptability, you can never un-know what, in a better time, you wouldn’t have known. 

A snare has been set for our lives, a snare of the kind that tightens with resistance. You can insist provocatively and theatrically that you are going to go on using an offending expression because the offence is a sham, but it’s too late. In a way, the hectorers always win. But this is less about the words that are proscribed and more about the revised meanings of the words that are used to justify the proscriptions.

Here then is what is so abysmal about what might otherwise seem like a faintly comical mania for trying to make people nicer by the management of language, or by turning education into social engineering. Managing language works, but it doesn’t make people nicer. It just changes the meaning of nice, and drains the word sanctimony of any meaning at all. And our ordinary intelligence is nowhere near sharp enough to keep track of what is going on.

People use the same words as I do but don’t mean the same things. For example, when I expressed concern recently that our window cleaner was not long out of prison – not that I didn’t intend to give him the benefit of the doubt – a colleague was most imperious. The man had paid his debt to society, had he not? That should be an end of it, I was told. It was wrong that I had even been able to find out about his past. Shame and stigma were to be cancelled out by contractual egalitarianism.

In fact our words have been limited perfectly well over the centuries by good manners, rightly contingent upon each person’s gifts of education and reserve. I say rightly contingent because – I repeat – easeful conversation tugs at the formative tissues of liberty. Rich speakers feel comfortable with their upbringing, and so, being deeply immured in a genuine tradition, they are uniquely confident about improvising and innovating. They may go wrong sometimes, but that hardly justifies the aggressive enforcement of third-rate linguistic parlour games set up by committees of political activists.

A sound human understanding lies in speech that does not “grasp at finitude” (Kierkegaard). Language is thinner and paler when it would storm the barricades. Wittgenstein remarked that music had come to a full stop with Brahms, and that even with Brahms he could begin to hear the machinery. In the present age we can hear the machinery in language, and in the very experience of speech. But what if knowing how to go on in a conversation isn’t like collecting your (regulated) thoughts and then getting on with saying them?

Of course the committees of language-regulators would say that what I have written here amounts to little more than that correct speech should be left to the poise and deportment of those who have been well brought up. For the avoidance of doubt, that is indeed what I am saying. The really interesting thing is whether we can look forward to a culture in which – at least to a moderate extent – our children might yet be built up and edified once more, not merely engineered for servile citizenship.

David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011 at the age of 56. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having had four academic papers published in the British theology journal Modern Believing between 2003 and 2008, he is now developing a portfolio of essays in cultural and political criticism.


To comment on this essay, please click here.

To help New English Review continue to publish interesting essays such as this one, please click here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

The perfect gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend