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Quietness and modesty – today’s two deadly sins


TIME and again when I worked as a teacher I noticed studious pupils having the comment in their school reports that they were ‘too quiet’. In those days I found this an irritant rather than a cause for alarm. Yet this form of persecution is becoming more sinister.

A few years ago the then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Sir Simon Wessely, said that middle-class parents and teachers were pressing doctors to label bookish children as mentally ill in a worrying ‘medicalisation of normality’. This included automatically labelling slightly naughty children as having ADHD. This, he said, resulted in the use of psychiatric drugs having tripled during the last three decades.

Sir Simon protested about such hasty labelling and insisted that it was coming not from psychiatrists but from ‘social pressure’. At middle-class dinner parties, he said, some parents described their academically minded child as ‘mildly autistic’. His worry was ‘we don’t want to extend the boundaries to include every shy, bookish, odd child’.

One more example before my own diagnosis of this ‘social pressure’ – the notorious treatment of Christopher Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates in 2010. Here was an ‘odd and bookish’ man who was persecuted by the MSM (not just newspapers but television news coverage as well). His appearance was eccentric and, as well as being a quiet man who had many books, he was delightfully ignorant of popular culture. He had never heard of Strictly Come Dancing and didn’t even own a television. He just had to be a psycho, didn’t he?

If we look deeper into what Simon Wessely described as social pressure I think we will find the real cause deeply embedded in our modern culture. There is a long-standing tendency for the English sensibility to be wary of, or even averse to, intellectuals whose ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. But on the subject of shyness or reserve there is something else at work.

There was a time in our history when reserve and stoicism were reputed to be characteristic of the English temperament, and when shyness was considered an endearing quality, along with that outmoded virtue called modesty. But by last century the shy heroine of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, was considered by a number of critics to be an unlikeable character. Even the cultured and humane Lionel Trilling condemned the novel’s endorsement of her quiet virtue and said that in that regard it ‘offends our modern pieties’.

That novel portrays a quiet conservatism, a respect for tradition and good sense as well as a wariness of ‘improvers’ (what we would now call ‘progressivists’). It endorses virtue in the Aristotelian sense of moderation between extremes. Fanny Price’s quiet, self-effacing nature contrasts with the manipulative, go-getting superficial attractiveness of Mary and Henry Crawford and the permanent indolence of Lady Bertram.

Our contemporary culture is directly opposed to such quietness and modesty. The norm is now that of loud-mouthed extroversion, the throwing off of ‘repression’, the setting loose of self-expression, self-assertion and shallow self-congratulatory self-promotion of one’s fashionable participation in trendy ‘causes’ – ideally on TV.

Whereas the early television presenters wore evening dress and spoke in restrained tones, today’s presenters and ‘celebs’ are strident, gesticulating arm-wavers. They wear garish clothes, appear against a psychedelic background of dazzling studio lights and screech manically at high velocity as if they are high on steroids (all accompanied by ear-splitting ‘music’). The reserved and quietly-spoken T S Eliot would never be TV material if he were alive today. Even TV newsreaders are ‘performers’ of their emotive art.

What we now have as a template is moral and emotional exhibitionism. The real turning point came in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death where hordes of people publicly exhibited so-called ‘grief’ that, unlike mere sadness, can genuinely be felt only through the loss of someone we knew personally or were close to – a grief that, if it strikes deeply enough, stills the tongue and does not seek a large audience.

Apart from the sheer vulgarity of modern life, where obscene and scatalogical language abounds even in front of children, and TV has no qualms about showing pornography, we are now in the age of babble. Political ‘discussion’ programmes on the box are set up in gladiatorial format with contributors shouting over each other until the loudest voice wins. Apart from its residence in our political culture, bullying and abuse abounds in social media platforms.

No wonder quiet and thoughtful people are thought to be in need of a shrink.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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