“Cant is, among other things, a defense against unwelcome thoughts. ‘Clear your mind of cant,’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘It is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.’ Easier said than done, especially nowadays, when the instillation of cant, as well as the prevention of anything else, is the main business of education.”
In “The Age of Cant,” Theodore Dalrymple performs the public service of pointing out the obvious, which in itself is a refutation of cant. The habit of denying the reality of what is in front of your face has reached pandemic proportions. Do yourself a favor and look up cant in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word has a long, honorable and mutating history. Here is the meaning closest to what Dalrymple intends: “phraseology taken up and used for fashion’s sake, without being a genuine expression of sentiment.”
My wife works for a school district in which an administrator has been arrested for sending nude photos of a woman’s former boyfriend to her at work. The formal charge, a felony, is “unlawful distribution or promotion of intimate visual material.” The legal phrasing is slippery and amusing. I’m naïve enough to expect those working in public education to have the morals of Hard-Shell Baptist deacons. I haven’t yet seen a public statement from the jailed administrator or his attorney, but his defenders on social media and elsewhere, including other district employees, have not only denied he did anything wrong but in effect are saying: “Oh, well. They’re just dirty pictures. No big deal.”
The more stubbornly Irish members of my mother’s family used to make excuses for the ubiquity of alcoholism by calling it “a good man’s fault.” Sydney Smith condemned “the pernicious cant of indiscriminate loyalty.” We’re waiting to see if this guy does the honorable thing and resigns, whether proven guilty or not.