The Sentimental Society

By Digby Anderson
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (April 24, 1998)

LONDON--When Pol Pot's death was reported at the end of last week, it understandably made the front pages of newspapers around the world. But in the Times of London and the Daily Mail, the leading British tabloid, the dictator's death was pushed down the front page to make room for something apparently more important. It was a report from a modest think tank, written by 12 rather dry academics and titled: "Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society." What on earth could they say to rate such attention?

They said, or rather, since I edited the book, we said that Britain and modern societies in general were increasingly being driven by sentimentalism. The "mob grief" at Princess Diana's funeral showed just how sentimental the once famously reticent English had become. At that funeral, wrote one of our contributors, philosopher Anthony O'Hear, sentimentality was "personified and canonized, the elevation of feelings above reason, reality and restraint."

If true, this is something new. We are, after all, meant to be societies of the Enlightenment, of reason, reality and science. Yet the evidence is all around us that we are rejecting this tradition.

Consider President Clinton's and Prime Minister Tony Blair's use of focus groups. These are intended to work out not whether a new policy is a good idea or will serve a certain interest but how people will feel about it. "Feel" is the operative word. The politicians want to know not how their policies will ultimately affect realities of economics or international order, but how they will appear to voters. Instructively, this is sometimes phrased as asking how they will "play." There is a word to describe this emphasis on appearance and feeling, on affect rather than effect; it is sentimentality. Sentimentality is not just feeling, however. It is false feelings, feelings without commitment, feelings displayed for show. In government that becomes gesture politics.

If the new politics are the politics of spin and gesture, of sentimentality, that is not the fault of Mr. Blair or Mr. Clinton, for the modern culture is deeply--that is, of course, shallowly--sentimental. The politicians do not inflict sentimental politics on reluctant peoples. They respond to a sentimental culture.

It is there in modern attitudes toward the environment. What people want is to feel good about the environment, about animals, to feel concerned. They happily subscribe to myths about the blissfulness of nature and the hazards of the man-made environment, oblivious of the reality that raw nature has always been man's enemy. But they are simultaneously unwilling to give up any of the comforts of prosperity and development that taming nature has produced. Woe betide any politician who actually inflicted a state of nature on a high-income, long-living, microwaving, two-car, computerized population. What the people expect is a display of concern, the unveiling of initiatives that come to naught, or for someone else to pay for environmental controls.

Sentimentality is also there in the schools, and wherever else children are. The sentimentalist regards children as innocents, offers them opportunities to "fulfill" themselves, indulges them in play, and is never judgmental. Again sentimentality runs away from reality, the reality of children's nature, which has a capacity for evil and needs judgment and discipline.

It is there too in the modern obsession with health. No society ever has less reason to be obsessed with health. We live longer and healthier lives than anybody else. Yet we talk self-indulgently and endlessly about our health. We are on the lookout for every trivial hazard. We scour the newspapers for the latest story showing that there might be some link, however trivial, between a certain "lifestyle factor" and disease. And, at a time when medicine is better based in science--that is, in reality--than ever before, we spurn doctors' verdicts we do not like. Instead of taking with fortitude bad news about some disease we have caught, we rush after the witch doctors of alternative medicine, hoping one of them will give us a diagnosis more in keeping with our fantasies of how things should be.

In modern society even religion is frantic to adjust reality to appearance and indulgence. In this case it must adjust the ultimate reality, God, to a human image we feel comfortable with. He is not to be judgmental or set moral standards that are inconvenient for us. He is not to be described by immutable doctrines of truth but to be infinitely and variably malleable into our own image. His job, we must remind Him, is to be supportive to us. And when religion is emptied of doctrine, tradition and discipline, all that remains is cozy feeling.

If sentimentality creates a fake world with fake churches containing no religion and fake schools containing no education, then no wonder our politicians produce fake policies. Welfare policies such as the huge handouts in Europe or "affirmative action" in the U.S. show the same childish, sentimental impatience with the human reality. They are an attempt to make people better off without the crucial and painstaking ingredient of anyone's true welfare: his own effort and responsibility.

We might further exonerate the politicians by noting that they have to talk to their electorates through the popular mass media. And the mass media are the greatest sentimentalists of all. What they want are not trends and statistics but the human-interest story that will enthrall the reader and viewer.

Does this tide of sentimentality matter? Yes, because it is essentially escapist. It involves the substitution of appearance for reality, of wishes for facts, of self-indulgence for restraint, and of victimhood for personal responsibility. It is not just cultural conservatives who should fear the rise of sentimentality. Anyone who values reason and civilization should be alarmed. Mob grief in 1990s London may ultimately turn out to be more subversive than mob riot in 1960s Paris.

Mr. Anderson is director of the London-based Social Affairs Unit, a think tank, and co-editor of "Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society" (Social Affairs Unit).

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