The story goes that in the 14th Century, the King of England, Edward III was at court and dancing with his first cousin, Joan of Kent. Her garter slipped down to her ankle and there was sniggering amongst the courtiers at her embarrassment. The King then placed the garter around his own leg saying ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – shame be to him who thinks evil of it. In other words, show some humanity and respect, when you laugh in this context you are simply displaying a lack of nobility. Edward III then founded the Order of the Garter in 1348 in order to uphold this ideal of chivalry.
How far we have come from then: a society where human nature was clearly just the same as ours, but where the institutions and leaders of society sought to uphold a more honourable way of life. I have been reflecting on this in the light of the revelations about phone hacking carried out by the News of the World. The revelations first surfaced with regard to celebrities like Sienna Miller. This did not cause great controversy – there was no great outcry at the plight of a ‘celebrity’ – one might say that we enjoyed seeing their garters fall to the floor. Yet the lack of courtesy and kindness revealed there is also the reason why we had journalists contacting Gordon Brown to ask for his reaction to his son’s cystic fibrosis before the doctors had even confirmed that diagnosis to the parents.
Put simply the last few decades of our national life have seen a steady erosion of all the values and virtues that we had previously held up for emulation. When someone tries to stand up for those values – as with a recently notorious potential mother-in-law – they are exposed to vicious ridicule and derided as an archaic prig. Quite obviously those standards were not always maintained in practice but there is all the difference in the world between striving for greatness, recognising the difficulty of making steady progress, and giving up the attempt out of despair or moral laziness. Virtue is its own reward and there is nobility in the attempt, even if it fails.
We have exchanged that culture for one of prurience. Prurience is the delight in seeing somebody’s garter fall to the floor, enjoying the humiliation and embarrassment that follows. Prurience is what leads the tabloids to build people up and then tear them down; to turn a natural and desirable display of human ability and talent into a celebrity freak show.
I wonder when these changes really began to take hold in our national life. Any complex phenomenon like this clearly has many causes but, for want of a better symbol, I think of the Profumo scandal in 1963. Here there were at least some significant national interests at stake and yet we can see the prurient interests of the press emerging in all their smutty boorishness. The deference and respect for a social order – which is all that might protect those whose garters drop – is exploded by a ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’
Criminal behaviour has to be investigated, and that is the fig leaf behind which the press has perpetrated their recent moral barbarities, but the fuel keeping things going has been our own interest in scandal and gossip, our own inability to accept the exercise of authority by anyone who isn’t a moral paragon and saint. As our society used to be a Christian one there was a general and tacit acceptance that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. Whilst this did not excuse immoral behaviour it did at least minimise the sense of scandal when something untoward happened, and it gave a realistic edge to the desire to do better. What we have nowadays is a far more idealistic delusion that we are in a position to cast the first stones at the latest celebrities and politicians to find themselves in the stocks of public disgrace.
If we really believe that what the News of the World did – and indeed, what the rest of the journalistic profession has been up to – is seriously morally wrong then we need to examine ourselves rather than simply enjoy the novelty of seeing journalists get a rare come-uppance. We live in the society that we choose for ourselves and it is possible to choose a different way of life. It is possible to choose a society that shuns gossip and scapegoating, to not engage in a conversation geared around ‘did you hear about…?’ and ‘isn’t it shocking…?’ To not purchase the newspapers that profit from human misery, to turn off the television shows that glamourise immorality. To not laugh when someone’s garter drops to the floor but instead to set our hearts on things above.
(Originally written July 2011, but only posted on a now-moribund blog)