Sunday, November 24, 2019

'Little Hope of Return to Kindness or Decency'

“To begin with, irritability and bad manners are on the increase everywhere.”

Boilerplate sentiment applicable to any age. Ease of communications makes ours seem more barbarous than most. Thuggishness often remains dormant until germinated by the seductive warmth of the internet. Self-righteousness + anonymity = boorish behavior. It requires no effort, miles from your target, to speak or act on impulse, especially when you judge your opinions as self-evidently correct and beyond challenge. The author of the passage at the top may surprise you: George Orwell writes in his “As I Please” column in the Tribune on this date, Nov. 24, in 1944. He begins:

“There have been innumerable complaints lately about the rudeness of shopkeepers. People say, I think with truth, that shopkeepers appear to take a sadistic pleasure in telling you that they don’t stock the thing you ask for.”

Naturally, I thought of this. Orwell attributes some of the outbreak of rudeness in England to the war, and no doubt he is correct, in part. By war’s end, some 43,000 civilians in Britain had been killed in German bombing and rocket attacks. The first of the 1,500 V-2 rockets that eventually would hit England, mostly London, had landed just two months before Orwell’s column was published. Civilians lived in dread. Orwell blunts his argument by dragging in the depredations of “capitalist society,” as though good manners flourish only under the benign influence of socialism. Two centuries earlier, in The Rambler #55, Dr. Johnson reminds us of an essential human truth:        

“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”

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