Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
16 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

They’ve got to get it out of their systems

The British, once admired for their dignity and self-restraint, have become a nation of exhibitionis

By Theodore Dalrymple

The first thing that strikes me about Britain whenever I return home from abroad is the lack of dignity of the people, and their complete absence of self-respect. Almost the entire population looks as though it has let itself go: and considers itself right to have done so. It is militantly slovenly.

Poverty has nothing to do with a lack of self-respect. Long residence and extensive travel in Africa have taught me that extreme poverty and a precarious existence are not incompatible with a fierce self-respect. Nor was the British population always like this. My mother, a refugee to this country more than 60 years ago, tells me that the first thing she noticed about the British – of all classes – was their quiet dignity. Now the first thing she notices as she steps out of her door is the shamelessness of their public conduct.

The sudden change has been wrought in part by a gestalt switch in our attitude towards the public expression of emotion. Where once emotional restraint and self-control were admired, now it is emotional incontinence that we aim for. It is as if we had undergone potty-training in reverse.

The British have been thoroughly persuaded that emotions are like pus in an abscess. If they are not released – by screaming and shouting, hugging and crying, wailing and raging, and the more publicly the better – they will turn inwards and cause a kind of emotional septicaemia. The person who controls himself is not only a figure of fun, but a traitor to his own best interests.

The signs of this collective loss of control are everywhere, and have made the British – in my view quite rightly – despised around the world, at least everywhere they congregate in any numbers. It is only natural that those who believe that self-control is wrong should also think that social disinhibition is good: in effect, that the worse they behave, the better they are.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

A newspaper once sent me to observe the behaviour of the English football fans at a match abroad. The man beside me, who had a good job, spent hours shouting obscene abuse and making quasi-fascist gestures (in unison with thousands of others) at the team and supporters of the home country. During one brief interlude of comparative silence, I asked him why he had come all this way to behave like this.

“I’ve got to get it out of my system,” he replied.

“Why have you got to?” I asked. I received no reply. Far from being cathartic, is it not more likely that in the public expression of obscenity, as in other kinds of conduct, practice makes perfect?

The mass public drunkenness that is to be seen at least three nights a week in the centres of all British cities and towns, for example, is one natural consequence of the idea that to control yourself is harmful, and has something distinctly ideological about it: for it is the ultimate triumph of the doctrine of disinhibition as mental and social health. Yet the yells and screams, the raucous laughter and querulousness that invariably accompany this drunkenness are not, to my ear at least, the sound of spontaneous gaiety, but rather of hysterical desperation.

The idea that the public expression of emotion is always and everywhere a good thing has several baleful consequences. It debases our culture by the loss of subtlety, by making our culture so crude and literal-minded; and at the same time it fosters the grossest insincerity while reducing people’s ability to detect it. (I used to be amazed that millions of Americans were unable to see at a glance, from the very first moment that they appeared on the screens, that televangelists were charlatans at best and outright crooks at worst. But now, it seems to me that the British have become thoroughly susceptible to the same crudity of manipulation.) The logic of the doctrine leads to an incessant inflation of modes of expression: and he is deemed to feel most who most successfully draws attention to himself.

It is significant that advertisements which seek to portray happiness or fun now increasingly show people screaming with laughter, their huge mouths cavernously open, as if people were no longer able to interpret any lesser indications of pleasure. The result is histrionics on a mass scale, as each person tries to make his emotion obvious to others.

It is possible for suppression of emotion to go too far. I see this very often, for example, among older Indian women who are my patients, and who are deeply unhappy with their domestic circumstances. Unable, for social and cultural reasons, to confess to this unhappiness, and likewise, for the same reasons, unable either to leave the home or sublimate their unhappiness by other forms of worthwhile activity, they resort to physical symptomatology without physical pathology as an expression of their misery. Their symptoms last for years or even for decades, and they are dragged round to doctor after doctor by their complicit relations in an attempt to reach a diagnosis that will never be reached.

But the emotional restraint of the British, for which they were known not so very long ago, is still present in the older generation, and to me comes as a great relief, almost balm to my soul, whenever I meet it. Contrary to what is often supposed, it was not a class phenomenon, but a general cultural one that extended across society (if anything, the upper classes had less of it); and it gave to people precisely the dignity of which my mother spoke.

Not long ago in the corridor of my hospital, I met the husband of a patient of mine. He was in his early seventies, and was deeply jaundiced. At that age, the most likely diagnosis was secondaries in the liver. I greeted him and remarked that he didn’t look very well.

“I’m not feeling very well,” he said, “but I’m going for tests.”

About two weeks later, I met him again.

“It’s not very good news, I’m afraid,” he said – by which, of course, he meant he would be dead soon.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“We’ll just have to make the best of it we can,” he said, and I wished him well.

In a few simple words, he conveyed nearness to death; and I expressed my sympathy for him, which he understood to be genuine precisely because it was undemonstrative and proportionate to the sorrow a comparative stranger might properly be expected to feel for another, without the need to fake anything. I didn’t claim to be devastated, that I should never recover, or even that I wouldn’t be able to eat my dinner that night with enjoyment: no, I meant what I said, which was that I was sorry to hear it.

What moved me about the exchange was that, by not letting himself go in front of me, he, only a few weeks before his death (in fact he died two weeks later), tried to avoid embarrassing me. Even as he faced death, a social obligation was important to him. I can only hope, when my turn comes, I meet it with such dignity.

This fortitude was a cultural characteristic and great virtue of the British, now utterly smashed up by the doctrine of self-expression. I am thinking of what one old working-class lady, who had suffered real tragedy throughout her life, told me when I asked her whether she ever cried. “Indoors,” she replied. “But not when I’m out. It wouldn’t be right, would it, doctor, to burden others with my troubles?”

While an emphasis on emotional expressiveness is inherently self-regarding, appropriate to a nation of egotists, emotional restraint is an inherently social, or other-regarding, quality. In my view, it is vastly more attractive; and far from deadening people emotionally, it sensitises them to nuances that grosser forms of expression extinguish altogether. Emotional incontinence, moreover, encourages self-importance and self-absorption: a process that is all too visible in our media. Our horizons become limited, our sympathies involuted. The world is of less importance to us than the trivial fluctuations of our emotional state. Self-pity becomes the dominant factor of our lives and destroys all perspective.

It also destroys a sense of humour. An ironical detachment from one’s own woes – once so marked a characteristic of the British, and indeed their finest characteristic – becomes impossible, and is replaced by a perpetual querulous sense of grievance. Why am I not happy all the time? It is my right to be happy all the time. Therefore, someone must be depriving me of my entitlement.

The difference between the old and the young of these islands is not one merely of age, such as there has always been. I don’t think that the emotionally incontinent young, who believe that public displays of feeling are the sine qua non of an emotional life, will one day mature into stoics. They have been too thoroughly indoctrinated in the supposed virtues of emotional expressiveness for that. Their own old age will be terrible; and their cultural tastes are destined to remain crude and unrefined. The constituency for restraint in both art and life will grow ever smaller.

I wish you a merry Christmas – in moderation, of course.