Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Puritanism and What it Does to Us

Britain seems to have become a deeply puritanical place. And deeply hypocritical, too, although they usually go together and people prefer not to notice the latter. In fact hypocrisy is more or less general and we try not to notice.
I say that Britain is especially puritanical because anything that can be used to move popular condemnation of anyone, is so used. Politicians know that, rather than looking petty and spiteful, they will be regarded as strong and demotic.

The press follow them partly because they are no different, and partly because they know it sells to the public.
It is much more than the racism industry, much more than the broader 'offence' industry. These have been created deliberately. It is a general thing. Anyone who does or says or thinks anything heterodox or unauthorised or surprising to the hearer will be skimmity-ed, pilloried, publically and gleefully humiliated by spineless creatures filled with loathing, burning envy of those able to think and brave enough to be free, and the act of hounding out of their job, their house or their sanity of people who are not like them will be applauded as something good. It is easy to make people base and foul, and it has become the accepted thing to be. Ghastly. Spain is less horribly putrid in this respect.

In Britain, which is influenced in these matters by the USA, in ways spread only, I think, by the contact most people have with its popular culture, and to some extent by interference between their media and academics, there is a constant shifting of the moral quicksand, and a constant vigilance for the first one to miss a step. It is not surprising that people should take their own values to be, if not universal, at least basically right and accepted by a majority. It isn't even surprising that people should pose as thinkers in newspapers and on television and demonstrate exactly the same ignorance. But that it is rarely challenged by those who should know better is surprising indeed.

I think in the media the desire to be thought orthodox trumps everything else; truth, analysis, information, usefulness, interest, intelligence, are not important. Most articles are opinion, even those claiming to be news, and they are mostly an exercise in saying what they think their readers, or such of them as they consider their judges, want to hear. They contribute very little to real knowledge or understanding.

The moral culture that Britain thinks it lives in is more relaxed about many types of sexuality and the ways it sees other people, and it is proud of this fact. But there is no real goodness in people's position on this, it is just what they have been told they should believe. Even so, it probably makes Britain a better place for homosexuals or blacks to live in. However, in other respects social constraint is much tighter than it was 30 years ago. The important point is that deviation from the norm appears to be policed much more strictly than it was. It is this sense that Britain is more puritanical than it was.

I suppose it is natural to think that 'we' are continuing to discover moral rightness, and are morally superior to the people of a generation ago, but someone who is about to commit that stupidity to print should really think hard enough about it to realize that it is rubbish.


Vincent said...

Generalized ranting indeed! You have outranted yourself! If you provided some examples it would be helpful, as well as the source of your observations. If through any of the media, I hope you don't expect to find therein a true reflection of the British? I suggest what you'll find in the media is what their readers like to read. So the worst you could accuse them of is perverted taste.

No doubt it's true that values have changed in the last thirty years. I've observed them changing for the last seventy years. Many puritanical things are not so any more, but I would like to know what new ones you think have taken their place and why you have taken offence at them.

Then I might be able to agree with you. I look forward to that.

Vincent said...

ticked a follow-up box ...

Sackerson said...

I do get the sense that we are more bossed-about than since before the mid-60s, and increasingly told what opinions to have - look at what the law now says about expressing unfashionable or upsetting thoughts.

CIngram said...

Gentlemen, don't imagine I'm ignoring you. Life is too busy for a reasoned defence of my position. I'll try tomorrow.

Brett Hetherington said...

Those in Britain or anywhere else who follow someone else’s opinion without considering it are either cowards or mentally lazy.

I watch British TV and read a little bit of BBC news online occasionally and it seems to me that there is a strongly puritanical element (though not necessarily religious.) One huge problem with the UK is that the average person is instinctively putting people (and public issues) into neat little categories, particularly that of social class.

When I lived there for a few years I was generally viewed as an oddity because I was classed as Australian and therefore okay to have around but not to be taken too seriously.

For Brits, you are allowed to be different, but only within certain strict guidelines. This is called being an eccentric and is broadly acceptable as long as you do not cross those certain lines.

Sackerson said...

O/T - hedgehog story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-20151566

CIngram said...


Thanks for the link. Great story.


I entirely agree with your first sentence. Unfortunately too many people seem to take
their beliefs directly from others. I'll respond to
tge rest when I have time to think properly. Still
very busy.

CIngram said...

Frantic professional activity has now given way to rural peace. I am gazing into a warm fire, idly calculating how many potatoes I could roast in the embers without sacrificing heating power.
So now is the time to answer the above comments.
I realise on rereading that the original post looks as though it starts in the middle of something- apparently a fierce argument with myself- without establishing premises. So no different from many of my posts, in fact.
Nevertheless, I stand by the main point, the result of observation over the last few years, that a newer puritanism has taken hold. It comes from reading the UK press, with all the appropriate caveats, and from talking to people in England when I visit each year. The feel of the place can be dusturbing and opressive. And it seems to confirm what I see in the papers. The press, despite their protestations, exist to tell their readers what they want to hear. Which is precisely what concerns me. What people seem to want to hear is that those they disapprove of are bad and will be dealt with.
When I visit England I feel that only approved opinions will be tolerated. A question born of genuine curiosity, a comment, good or bad, on something which to me is unusual, can be met almost with shock, and there is a feeling that you shouldn't say or do such things.
It is a strange experience to be challenged by relative strangers, or even complete strangers, who have no idea how rude they are being because they think they entitled to tell you off for not being like them. This they do not because they are genuinely offended by what you have said or done but because they seem to think they are expected to denounce anyone who has not submitted to orthodoxy.
I spoke of puritanism, and the main characteristic of puritanism is a fervent desire to stop others from enjoying themselves. I see, in the press and in the people I talk to in England, an authoritarian streak when opining on the actions of others. People who want to build on land, or just live on it, people who want to use their own property in their own way, are denounced with effortless moral superiority by other people who I know think of themselves as being good and tolerant, and in most cases they are.
Hunting was banned because it was enjoyable in ways that the people who wanted it banned did not understand. It is a common reaction now to anything that someone doesn’t understand. If ‘I’ wouldn’t want to do it, it must not be allowed to happen.
Discussion of food is increasingly, over the last 20 years or so, conducted in the language of theology. To enjoy it is sinful, to take pleasure in eating and drinking is a sure sign that you are doing it wrong. Not to get permission from an ‘expert’ before eating is heresy. Denying the value and effectiveness of the fashionable diet is heresy. And the orthodoxy is largely arbitrary. As with all moral systems, it doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters that it should exist and be recognised. Thus, the actual truth, the science of biology and nutrition, is disregarded and mouthing the right pieties is all that matters. Therefore we hear repeatedly, insistently, that sugar is ‘bad for us’, that those who don’t drink two litres of water or eat five pieces of fruit or vegetables a day will be excommunicated. That fibre is highly nutritious. And so on. And you actually hear these things in the wild, regularly. At least, I do. Perhaps I should seek a new family and friends…

CIngram said...

And don’t get me started on sex. It isn't that morals change, although they do, and people often fail to notice the changes. It’s the rigidity with which they are enforced, at least socially, as though they had always existed and the stability of society had always depended on their being what they are. Whatever the truth of the flurry of accusations about Jimmy Savile, the background to them is the modern moral panic about the sexuality of children. My own very clear memories from the 70's-80's are of rumours about his being homosexual, because he was undoubtedly peculiar, and that was the naughty thing to be then. Shagging 15-year-old groupies was not even news. There are also accusations of actual rape, which is a different matter, but the press have decided that his name must be attached to the epiphet paedophile, something which as far as I know he hasn't even been accused of, and to question any of this is to commit the sin of heterodoxy.
In summary, my feeling, my experience, is that people are emboldened to challenge anything they see or hear which they have been told should not be said or done.
Well, this comment is now longer and more rambling than the original post, and perhaps no clearer. But here it is. I have meat to char on the fire.

Vincent said...

Thanks for these explanations. I now know pretty well what you mean, and agree that this sort of thing is to be found in the wild. I would not call it puritanism however, but a kind of conformism, and also a victory for the activists.

To take the food & health fads for example, there is all kinds of nonsense and all kinds of guilt being stirred up, taunted, assuaged, dissuaded and so forth. There is partly all the guilt about food because mothers don't teach their daughters how to cook any more.

You remind me of a piece I wrote on 11/6/11 containing a description of the Sainsbury's supermarket:

There’s a sign for “Adult cereals” and another for “Children’s cereals”. The sum of the oats and muesli is more than fifty varieties: some designed to save the earth, some to save your health, some with various flavours to sweeten the pill of eating healthy, some to reassure you against food-scares, some to reinforce food-scares. Whether it pleases you to worry about the global economy, ecology, obesity, wholeness of food, inequality, every possible food fad or the nagging of your spoilt children, you’ll find products to suit, precisely categorised. Here is the place to mix and match consumerism, materialism, gourmanderie, frugality and ostentatious virtue, all in one-stop shopping. Why does going there make my flesh creep? Whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (Matt. 23:27.) For the global problems which they so virtuously worry about are precisely the ones created by their own consumerism.

And as for sex & Jimmy Savile, his name can only be mentioned now with harsh condemnation expressed in the same sentence, and hinting that he may have been the most notorious paedophile ever to have existed. Which is odd, as you'd have thought he would not have got away with it. But as you hint, there are things you dare not say publicly, even if true. I have no idea but I imagine that many of the girls he was involved with were at least 14 and may have gone with him quite knowingly to boost their own self-esteem, he being so famous. 15-year old groupies, yes, no one would have been surprised at all, perhaps not even their mothers who may have envied them had they known.

Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CIngram said...

Interesting to look back over the post you quoted (and a couple more while tracking it down). I must have read it at the time but it seemed fresh.

I like supermarkets because of the opportunities for observing types. In fact it's one of the few places where you can observe people in large numbers, behaving naturally, unaware of being observed, and with no emotional link between them. Usually people gather together to share some experience, which generates and exaggerates a shared feeling and the expresion of it (football matches, pop concerts) and often they are explicity on show as they do it (weddings, discos), but not at the supermarket. Also because there is a variety of products, cheaper than anywhere else. Cheap shopping has no dramatic interest, but we all have to make ends meet.

I do not like taking my morals or beliefs or assumptions from anyone else, especially from some random person who I hear about third hand. I may be wrong about many things, but my ideas are conclusions I have reached by thinking freely and deeply about what I have seen or learnt. I have instincts, there are things I approve or disapprove of before any reason has had a chance to function, but I want to at least to know who is telling me what to think.

I know the dangers of undigested second hand ideas, and I know how to avoid them, and even so I often get it wrong. Many people, unfortunately, have no other place to find opinions but on the TV or down the pub.

Brett Hetherington said...

Your comments on observing people in supermarkets led something of an observation to occur in me. It is the writer´s lot to be the outsider looking at the mob, or individuals in it.

I like trains for (covertly) watching others. It was the first place I realised that my own temperament was somewhat of an observer. (I don´t use the word "voyeur" because it has a sexual connotation, which with me is only a small part of what I do,… at least usually!)

If you listen to a song like this one by Joni Mitchell [http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=3] it’s not difficult to discern the mind of the creative writer as a watcher and interpreter.

At this moment in the US, as well as Australia there are millions of people tuning into radio commentators to find out what their opinions are so they can learn what their own opinions are to be. It saves thinking. It is easier for the uneducated or the just plain dim. That is how Hitler began and how other leaders have taken power.

Following others is simply a lot less bother than trying to work things out for yourself and the human animal is prone to being easily-led, especially when he is confused, tired, or in a situation that is alien to him.

Vincent said...

As an afterthought on the British media, I thought you might enjoy this music video prepared by my friend & neighbour Dave Ford:


CIngram said...


Your friend certainly has an interesting approach to cultural criticism!

I could drone on for hours about the role of newspapers in society, but one of the problems is that we use the media largely for entertainment, but we are so used to the idea of the press as the defenders of free speech that at some level (and for some value of 'we') we assume everything they tell must have a kernel of truth and importance.

In the days of the circus sideshow you just laughed at the bearded lady and went home. You didn't expect her to change the world, or to teach you anything.


I didn't know that song, thanks for the link. In the first two verses it sounds as though she's describing a real scene, rather than putting images together to create the one she wants. A creator/observer has to be outside the scene to see it properly.

Following others is simply a lot less bother than trying to work things out for yourself and the human animal is prone to being easily-led, especially when he is confused, tired, or in a situation that is alien to him.

I regret this trait in my fellow-man (and often in myself) as much as you obviously do, but when I'm feeling magnanimous I try to excuse it by thinking that people just have better things to do than think through their own ideas from scratch. And so they borrow them. I do wish, though, that they would shop around a bit more.