Sunday, October 18, 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.


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Paddington said...

At least according to the crime statistics, we are at the most peaceful time in recorded history. Perhaps that is why we are so shocked by the school shootings and other barbarities.

Sackerson said...

P: Violent crime is on the rise in the UK. From a historically low base, yes. Peace wealth-related?

AKH: Whe we can no longer afford cars, community spirit (and nosiness, local bullying etc) may resurge.

Paddington said...

Sorry. I was speaking of the US, which reinforces your observation.

A K Haart said...

Paddington and Sackers - many corporate activities which probably ought to be crimes are not and seem to be on the increase. Many activities which are crimes seem to go unpunished.

Paddington said...

And yet, in the US, the GOP is pushing to eliminate any government supervision or control of companies. For example, they recently floated a proposal to ship live chickens to China, process them there, then send the frozen parts back. Safety controls, anyone?

Sackerson said...

P: and how would you know it's the same chickens?

James Higham said...

This is the most peaceful time, a time of constant war without end?

Paddington said...

Yes. The times of official 'peace' coincided with a great deal of violent crime here. Plus, the estimates are (in the 1930's) of abortion rates 3-4 times the current ones, contraception being outlawed.