Magazine article IPA Review

The Flight from Virtue

Magazine article IPA Review

The Flight from Virtue

Article excerpt

THE LANGUAGE IN WHICH WE DEBATE MAJOR SOCIAL PROBLEMS IS DEPRESSINGLY INADEQUATE.

IN 1983, the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in the course of an interview, delivered one of her characteristically positive and forceful opinions. "We were taught," she declared, "to work jolly hard. We were taught to prove yourself; we were taught self-reliance; we were taught to live within our income. You were taught that cleanliness is next to godliness. You were taught self-respect. You were taught always to give a hand to your neighbour. You were taught tremendous pride in your country. All of these things are Victorian values. They are also perennial values."

The comments which Thatcher made then (and repeated on other occasions) caused a considerable furore, whose content was largely predictable, given her standing among the British intelligentsia.

Amid the confused and angry rhetoric, one could discern three strands of criticism: one, that Thatcher had dared to espouse prescriptive values; two, the nature of the values themselves; and, three, that she had dared to defend and embrace 'Victorian' values.

After all, we all know that all values have equal weight, and that they are all totally subjective. We all know that politicians are obliged to operate in a value-free environment, and may on no account attempt to impose their values on others. We all know, besides, that the so-called Victorian values were the merest hypocritical veneer on a society characterized by greed, exploitation, sexual subterfuge and bourgeois cant; a society whose ruling class, moreover, assiduously attempted to impose its values on the poor workers.

This is a caricature, but not entirely so. The huge shift in attitudes toward values affects us all. Language is the key, and our daily speech gives us away. Almost without thinking, we use words like `inappropriate behaviour', rather than 'wrong' or 'bad'; we try to avoid being 'judgmental', or to make assessments based only on mere `value judgments'. We shy away from attempting to enforce our own values on others, whether they be lying politicians or graffiti vandals or louts with ghetto-blasters. We tend to turn away from displays of rudeness or incivility, even petty crime in progress, rather than do something about it.

But Thatcher, in her intuitive way, started something. Despite the initial scorn and vituperation, it took less than a decade for politicians of all persuasions in Britain, the US and Australia to espouse 'values' of one kind or another, whether 'Victorian', or 'family' or `community'. In many ways, the measurable difference in this area between Thatcher and, say, Bill Clinton is surprisingly small. Insofar as all this is a response to an inarticulate understanding on the part of our societies that something is deeply astray, it is welcome; but the ensuing debates have lacked clarity.

A recent book, The De-Moraliaation of Society (Institute of Economic Affairs, London), by the distinguished student of 19th-century English intellectual and social life, Gertrude Himmelfarb, offers some of the clarity we need. STULTIFYING LANGUAGE: Our difficulties ith language, the way our present moral language stifles thought and action, are a symptom of the problems which Himmelfarb addresses. Indeed, the book begins with an illuminating note in which she points out that Mrs Thatcher's phrase `Victorian values' would have seemed odd-perhaps meaningless-to the Victorians themselves: they would, of course, have talked, unflinchingly, of 'virtues' rather than 'values'. The book effectively takes Thatcher's comments as a peg on which to hang a good deal of argument, while implicitly defending Thatcher's position. (Himmelfarb tactfully avoids noting the irony by which it was a notoriously uncerebral, but notably intuitive, politician like Thatcher who brought the phrase, and the subject, into modern political discourse.)1

The book itself is a series of sketches or essays, each addressing a particular aspect of Victorian moral life. …

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