Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Review of Spoilt Rotten: the Toxic Cult of Sentimentality by Theodore Dalrymple

This book could be described as a work of ethics or moral philosophy which examines the malign influence of sentimentality on contemporary British society, except that Australian society also falls under the author’s critical gaze - the shameful Chamberlain case and the treatment of Joanne Lees following the disappearance of Peter Falconio are some examples that illustrate some of Dalrymple’s points. It’s nice to see that Australia has not been let off the hook, because as an Australian I know that my country is a similar kind of dystopia as the one that Dalrymple has been describing in his books for many years.

Dalrymple (not his real name) attacks the subject methodically. In one chapter, in workmanlike fashion the author defines sentimentality, lists arguments that have been made to defend it and then refutes these points one by one. Although I believe that at times Dalrymple (a psychiatrist who has had a long career dealing with the British underclass) underestimates the intellectual sophistication of his fellow man, this book is far from a bout against a man made of straw. This is one of those engaging books in which the author reaches conclusions that people aren’t allowed to make, even if the premises are true and the argument is rock solid. One example of Dalrymple’s refreshing emotional incorrectness would be his clear articulation of the misgivings that I’ve felt for a long time about the concept of the family impact statement. I know of no other writer who has explored the meaning and the role of these emotive public utterances and highlighted some of the more distasteful implications. When we see a family member or spouse or friend of a murder victim interviewed on the TV news or making a statement in court, listing the many admired and positive qualities of the victim in order to impress upon everyone the full scope of the loss, we cannot avoid reading the flip-side of this message – that the murder of a person who lacked the achievement, the likeability or the social connection of this victim would be less of a crime and less of a tragedy. I don’t want to live in a society in which notions of individual rights and justice have become degraded into something resembling the rules of a popularity contest.

The section of this book which I found to be the most powerful depiction of the evils of sentimentality in public life was also my biggest disappointment. Dalrymple examined the phenomenon in which people in the public eye are judged by the public and elements of the media to be cold or even a murderer because they have failed to make expected emotional displays in public in response to a tragedy. Lindy Chamberlain claimed that a dingo took her baby but she did not cry in public over it, so many concluded that she was the villain, not an unidentified dingo, in the absence of a body that could settle the mystery. Lindy was convicted of murder and sentenced to life, a truly horrible injustice for her and her family, and was later exonerated of all charges. When young Madeleine McCann disappeared her mother did not make the expected emotional display, so many accused her of murder. Joanne Lees was expected to have made more of a public display of emotion in the period following Bradley Murdoch’s murder of her boyfriend Peter Falconio in the Australian outback. The case remains unresolved to a degree due to a lack of a body, leaving open an opportunity for accusations that the survivor Lees was the murderer. When Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car accident, the media and the public judged that the response of the royal family did not meet the expected standards of public displays of grief, and inevitably conspiracy theories in which the royals were behind her death grew and prospered. The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard had been criticised for “for seeming "wooden" during tours of disaster areas” following the flood crisis of the summer of 2011, and the importance of the public display of emotion in Australian public life was confirmed by the extensive media coverage when Gillard finally did the right thing by the nation and came up with some tears in parliament. Things had gotten to the point where some Aussies were making jokes that Gillard must have been behind the floods, due to her clearly guilty demeanour. I think it is just the greatest thing that Dalrymple has highlighted the utter stupidity and unfairness in the way that so many people make assumptions about others based on nothing more than body language, but at the same time I’m astounded at what Dalrymple has failed to note. He discussed all of the true cases above except for Gillard and the floods, but he failed to make comment on a very important common characteristic of all of those judged unjustly. These stoic public figures are all women. The author wanted to write a book about sentimentality, but I think he has inadvertently written a book about sexism and sentimentality. Why has Dalrymple ignored the bleedin’ obvious? I can only conclude that he has a great big blind spot when it comes to sexism, and that is not an attractive trait.

This is a wide-ranging book and I was pleasantly surprised to find a discussion of a subject that has become a special interest of mine in the last few months – deceptive autobiographies and their authors. Bruno Grosjean, Laura Grabowski/Lauren Stratford/Laurel Rose Willson, Monique De Wael, Margaret Seltzer and James Frey are discussed. Perhaps if Dalrymple had taken a good look at the autobiographical literature about autism and Asperger syndrome he could have enlarged his discussion.

Dalrymple has been accused of being many things, including a misanthrope. Having read a few of his books I believe this is far from true. I find he is a writer who cares about the truth, who cares what happens to people, who knows what evil looks like, and absurdity, and refuses to practice feeling as a substitute for thinking. I enjoy his books and I believe they add a very valuable perspective to our understanding of contemporary society, but there are just too many inconsistencies and oversights in his work and in this book in particular, for me to call it great. Dalrymple accuses the philosopher Peter Singer of being utilitarian to the point of an inhumanly cold impersonality, while Dalrymple’s insistence that we should let our fellow men suffer from the consequences of their own actions doesn’t seem much warmer. Dalrymple subjects his readers to pages of complaint about a decline in educational standards, carping on about bad spelling, then complaining about those who complain about those who make such complaints, then in a later chapter he makes the case that education is not a necessary or sufficient requirement for a functional society. This reader was left wondering what the point of the pedantry was, then. I suspect that Dalrymple is one of those folks who just likes to show off his education, at everyone else’s expense. Every time I pick up a Dalrymple book I encounter words that are new to my vocabulary. It’s impressive, but I’d be more impressed with ideas that are followed through with more diligence.

Some favourite quotes from the book:

“When sentimentality becomes a mass public phenomenon, moreover, it becomes manipulative in an aggressive way: it demands of everyone that he join in. A man who refuses to do so, on the grounds that he does not believe that the purported object of sentiment is worthy of demonstrative display, puts himself outside the pale of the virtuous and becomes almost an enemy of the people.”

“...the notion of tattooing oneself as a means of expressing one’s feeling for another is both savage and sentimental, a sign of an empty heart’s search for emotion.”

“ The cult of feeling destroys the ability to think, or even the awareness that it is necessary to think.”




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