Who Disapproves, Wins

Once upon a time King Haakon of Norway visited a rural district where the farmers drank their coffee from the saucer. Now, there is a certain sort of social climber who would have ostentatiously drunk her coffee in the genteel manner, so as to show the wretched peasant what true refinement was; the king, of course, had nowhere to climb, so he poured his coffee into the saucer and drank from it like the farmer, lest the latter feel uncomfortable.

I once told this story to a certain Englishwoman who was forever crowing about her own “Standards”, to see whether she would recognise the rebuke. Not a bit of it: she agreed with alacrity that true manners were about making other people feel at ease (which is, by the way, what Emily Post said too) – but at the same time she contrived to imply that I was the very champion of the opposite view. That is, although I had told the story as approving of the king’s behaviour, I was now held to stand in need of his lesson. You need to get up very early to beat the English middle-class female at her best game, which is – with a perfectly innocent expression – making everyone else look bad.

People imagine that the point of taboo words – whether the Victorian or the modern ones – is the satisfaction you derive from breaking the taboo by saying them. Not at all: taboo words exist so that the people who do not say them can feel themselves superior, and then let us all know it.

The moralist’s virtue is measured, not by the good she does, but by the evil she complains about. In her eyes, moral sensitivity means, not appreciation of others’ interests, but readiness to be outraged at the minutiae of their conduct. If such people cannot find sufficient established Standards to Maintain, they make up their own new ones, and Maintain them bloodily. The greater her outrage, the greater her social status. In civilised societies, where competition with edged weapons is discouraged, being More-Disapproving-Than-Thou is one of the chief modes of climbing up the social ladder and pushing others off it. There are various kinds of social elite, and one of them consists of experts at putting others in the wrong. Alpha males have long teeth and sharp claws; alpha females have Respectability – and its modern ideological descendant, political correctness.

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 18, 2009 at 04:18

    Great story about the proper Englishwoman. The likes of you or I will never have a chance in that game.

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