Thursday, August 02, 2012

The ideal of the Gentleman.

John Henry Newman was an academic and Church of England priest who eventually ended up being a Catholic Cardinal. His importance in today's post is in this passage from his work The Idea of a University. The passage is important because it probably best illustrates Victorian England's ideal of a gentleman. I've underlined some of the important bits.

It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder. [From The Idea of a University, 1852]
Newman's idea of a gentleman has lost the power of self assertion, he simply rolls over when challenged and never dreams of challenging.  How does such a man respond to a challenge?

Some men are born beta by temperament, but others are educated into betahood. The cultural meme which facilitates this transformation is the Idea of the Gentleman. Victorian England, and its ideals, still exert a powerful influence on Anglo/Nordic culture, particularly the culture of the middle class. Now, by middle class, I don't mean economic middle class, but cultural middle class; the strata of society from which most of the thinking is done in the Anglo/Nordic world. In order to be admitted to this class, to be "one of us", a man has to adopt the habits and behaviours of such a gentleman in order to be classed as a full member. It's true that the modern gentleman is not as calm and effacing as perhaps Newman illustrates, but the emphasis on getting along and being non-offensive is still of pre-eminent importance.

It pretty obvious what happens when a shrieking harpie collides with a polite middle class man or woman. The shrieking harpie wins.


The problem with the cultural ideal of gentlemanly behaviour is that it is especially vulnerable to the "offended victim" attack. The attack is particularly devious in its effectiveness as it relies on a three prong psychological approach to destroy its opponent. Firstly, if he is of genuine good will, he will be horrified that he has caused offence and genuinely be contrite for his actions, self-censoring himself for the indiscretion. Effectively, though policing himself.  Secondly, the Gentleman victim of the attack is made to feel as if he has acted as in culturally inferior sort of way, marking him out as one of the declasse, especially if there is a strong "redneck like" like association with his gaffe.  His efforts to maintain social standing lead him to immediately apologise. Should the victim doubt his sincerity he will redouble his efforts just to maintain social standing. Thirdly,with most modern left wing social causes are on the nose with the proles, their support of our hapless gentleman will further prove his prole associations.  Support of the NRA does not win you approval with the SWPL crowd.

Traditionalists take note.

Now, with regard to the proles, their simplicity and lack of "gentlemanly manners" gives them a certain forthrightness which conservative commentators mistake as some form "native goodness" which it isn't. It also leads to some conservatives having suspicions of the refined and cultured life; seeing high culture as a corruption of simplistic rustic goodness. However, the conservatives with prole sympathies seem to forget that the aversion to gay perversion is not moral but aesthetic. Their psychological revulsion to homosexuality is as animalistic as their embrace of heterosexual promiscuity. Their innate morality is biologically utilitarian and their support or opposition to any cause is in proportion to its agreement with their biological desire. Joe average is not necessarily the Conservative's friend.