Thursday, June 01, 2006

On insincerity and other duties

Chris Dillow* has been busy making a silk purse out of the sow's ear that is Big Brother. On the contemporary superstition that social interaction must 'involve the revelation of character':
"[T]his is a relatively modern development, perhaps to be blamed upon the Romantics. For centuries, social life consisted in role-play, in the adoption of personae. As Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

The loss of this tradition is costly. It's potentially gravely illiberal, as the rules that control of social life now impinge upon our deepest, intimate character, rather than upon our roles. Personae and masks were forms of protection. These are lost."
So true, it makes me want to cry. The Romantics, certainly - but reinforced perhaps in our time with Freudian psychology and various forms of existentialism? The crime of the age is to fail to be perceived as being authentic. "To thine own self be true" has replaced the notion of being but a player on the world's stage as the favoured Shakespearian allusion for an age where, as Eric Hobsbawm said, there is no longer "the done thing - only one's own thing."

Is this perhaps another way of saying we have forgotten the concept of duty, along with an understanding that this is essential for the maintenance of the social order? It has been given a bad press, what with its historical connotations of hierarchy and deference. But it was never entirely thus and it overlooks the reality that so many of our rights exist in the obligations of others, as it is our duty to vindicate the rights of others. The idea that one can execute this latter obligation by playing a role that has some independence from one's own duty to thyself has almost entirely been lost. This I believe was demonstrated in the recent demands that Ruth Kelly surrender her post solely on the grounds of her religious confession and affiliation.

This burden of faux authenticity lies in the pressure it puts upon notions of a private life. It is the curse of the politics of personality and celebrity that the premium it places on the qualities of the individual leader, over and above his or her conduct as a statesman in the Weberian sense, by extension inevitably delegitimises the concept of privacy. Herein lies an idea that might sound paradoxical to many: the very concept of duty - to one's little platoon, to one's vocation, along with its customs, constraints and frustrations - seen by so many liberals as the antithesis of liberty may yet prove to have been its guarantor.

* Who shouldn't in any way be implicated in any conclusions I have drawn from his piece linked above.

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