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Sunday, 18 October 2015

The natural indifference of men

Most men — and certainly I could not always claim to be one of the exceptions — have a natural indifference, if not an absolutely hostile feeling, towards those whom disease, or weakness, or calamity of any kind causes to falter and faint amid the rude jostle of our selfish existence.

Except in love, or the attachments of kindred, or other very long and habitual affection, we really have no tenderness.
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Blithedale Romance (1852)

Was Hawthorne right? His was a much harsher world than ours, one where those who couldn’t hack it were faced with the most miserable destitution and even starvation. Somehow we have drifted into another world where a grey official version Hawthorne's tenderness may be offered to strangers on our behalf via social institutions. We may or may not approve - the institutions are indifferent.

It is as if the concept of ‘stranger’ has become much more tenuous in our connected world. As if the horrors and tragedies of the twentieth century have squeezed out much of what Hawthorne calls the natural indifference of men by downplaying our notions of 'stranger'.

Ironically the notion 'stranger' changes into the strange one who lives within but does not conform, does not emit the right signals. The internal stranger who deserves no sympathy, support or friendship, who may be abused with impunity.    

Indifference though – it feels natural to me. An aspect of survival perhaps? A natural suspicion of strangers, indifference to their needs or their fate. It seems to go hand in hand with assessing the outsider without any confounding assumption of emotional ties, no attachment to their claims, their stories or their demands. It seems to remind us that people we don’t know are indeed strangers, that strangers still exist in this joined up world of ours.

Our world may be kinder in this respect, but also more superficial, bound up with social approval and the role of the state in setting personal standards to which we must conform. We have become enmeshed in a network of norms to which we are expected to subscribe. Or we don’t subscribe, emit the wrong signals, attract disapproval.

If we don’t subscribe then perhaps Hawthorne’s natural indifference hides itself behind a common enough type of conformity which is visibly reluctant, which conforms only outwardly and makes it obvious that this is so. None of which can be healthy.

3 comments:

Sam Vega said...

I think he is right, and moreover brave to express it. He would be even more brave to express it today, when there is I think more of a public "duty" to pretend that we care about the travails of others. Institutions attempt to motivate their workers by generating the myth that the customer (private sector) or client (public sector) is genuinely and intrinsically important to them, rather than being a means to an institutional end.

Beyond this hypocrisy, however, I think there is worth in attempting to generate a more generalised sense of compassion for others. Even if we can't do much for others, it is best to be facing in the right direction, so to speak, and to avoid the pitfalls of narrow self-interest.

Roger said...

What the eye doesn't see etc. A certain difficulty of communication and distance was necessary for trade and foreign policy to work to our advantage. Keeping despots in guns and jewels was an unpublicised necessity. Indifference worked and caused no trouble - what the eye doesn't see etc.

But now those barriers are gone and all is more or less public - and the despot's people now come calling at our door. What to do? A few bribes and a little media manipulation added to natural indifference should do it, t'was ever thus.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I agree and I think many people do face in the right direction. Perhaps more so than in the past, but the hypocrisy and manipulation sour it.

Roger - yes and more indifference may have led to fewer deaths in the Middle East.