It’s usually accepted by believer and unbeliever alike that our morality, and consequently etiquette, have something to with Jesus Christ. Not everything, perish the thought, not even a lot. But surely something. A teeny-weeny bit.
Now even those who don’t believe that Jesus was the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity will still agree that he was a nice man. Why, he was even nice to his enemies: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ What can be nicer than that?
But then, as if to confuse us in eternity, he had to go and spoil it all by talking to his enemies in a way that can’t possibly be described as nice: ‘Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.’ Suddenly we realise that Jesus was rude, crude and socially unacceptable. Some may even feel he was inconsistent and contradictory, which must mean he was no God.
This is no place to indulge in homespun theology, but surely what this juxtaposition shows is that Jesus simply didn’t equate loving his enemies with being nice to them. He of course knew firsthand that the earthly realm wasn’t the only one, and this knowledge comes across in the two quotes.
Loving our enemies means praying for their salvation in the heavenly realm. That doesn’t mean we can’t tell them what we think of them here on earth or, should this become necessary, kill them. St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas, reasonably competent interpreters of Christianity, both postulated just war. And St Bernard of Clairvaux, not generally known for rejecting Christ’s dicta, actually preached the Second Crusade.
All this is by way of preamble to our preoccupation with niceness. Being nice, or civilised as the common misnomer goes, is seen as the essential social characteristic. Never mind being ‘civilised’ when disagreeing with someone – we’re even mandated by law to be nice to burglars.
A chap may express views that, if brought to fruition, would spell the destruction of everything we hold dear, including our lives. He may then devote his whole career to bringing those views to fruition. Yet, as long as he’s nice and urbane at a dinner party, these are no reasons for us not to be nice to him, or even have him as a friend.
Elevation of niceness to the highest virtue isn’t an exclusively English trait, but it’s particularly noticeable in England and places culturally derivative from her. This hasn’t always been the case. In a relatively recent past, say three or four centuries ago, the English were prepared to die, and therefore to kill, for their convictions. One’s faith and politics were considered a matter of life and death – or even something more important than that.
Now they are more like a quaint hobby, something one does in one’s spare time when not involved in really important things, like work, DIY or shopping. Why should we be rude to someone whose hobby is different from ours? Mine is DIY, yours is football, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be nice to each other. Forget dying or killing for our convictions. We won’t even be rude.
Somewhere along the way we’ve lost the knowledge that religious or political beliefs may be true or false. The choice between the two is fundamentally moral, and regarding either as an amusing quirk is definitely immoral and possibly amoral.
That brings me back to my theme of the week: eulogies of Eric Hobsbawm. These are perfect illustrations to my theme of today, and I especially wish to focus on comments coming from those who are widely considered to represent the conservative antithesis to Hobsbawm’s Stalinist thesis.
Thus Niall Ferguson: ‘At a time when much smaller ideological differences are regularly the occasion for vituperative ad hominem attacks, Hobsbawm should serve as an example of how civilised people can differ about big questions while agreeing about much else.’
Allow me to launch one of those ‘vituperative ad hominem attacks’ Ferguson decries: his statement is both amoral and stupid. The difference between condoning the massacre of millions and castigating it isn’t merely ideological. It’s moral. Essentially, Hobsbawm devoted his life to advancing the cause of destroying not just millions of people but also our whole civilisation – all in a perfectly civilised way, of course.
This means he proceeded from a set of assumptions that are alien, indeed hostile, not just to Western politics but to everything the West represents. A decent man couldn’t possibly agree with the likes of Hobsbawm on anything of importance. An intelligent man would see the link between his politics and things like aesthetics, philosophy, general view of the world. A moral man would be disgusted by Hobsbawm’s monstrosity. Yet all that matters to Ferguson is that he was nice.
Another supposed conservative Damian Thomson adds his penny’s worth: ‘I’m not suggesting that Hobsbawm’s support for Marxist terror (he once said that the deaths of millions would have been justified if Communism had succeeded) was morally equivalent to the alleged rape of teenage groupies. Hobsbawm was an important scholar, and apparently a charming man.’
I hope I’ve got this right. Contextually, advocating the slaughter of millions isn’t as bad as raping one groupie, if only allegedly. The latter is irredeemable, the former is largely offset by the monster’s being ‘apparently a charming man’. Never mind the monstrosity, feel the niceness. Here we have political correctness meeting a lack of both intellect and moral fibre. If these are conservatives speaking, give me lefties any day. On second thoughts, keep them.
The only way a decent man can talk to a communist is with a gun in his hand – or not at all. Being nice to him isn’t civilised. It’s spineless, amoral and craven. Even worse, it’s stupid.