A world run on feelings, it turns out, quickly turns into an emetic morass of nonsense
November 20, 2023 6:00 am(Updated 6:01 am)
I have been watching the latest series of The Crown – the first four episodes of which are devoted to the last eight weeks of Diana’s life and to the national outpouring of sorrow that greeted her death – and thinking, not for the first time, that the Queen was right.
I didn’t think so at the time. I wept buckets when Diana died, even though I was in my early twenties and plenty old enough to know better. In my defence, I didn’t go anywhere near Kensington Palace or have the urge to lay any flowers anywhere. I kept my tears to the privacy of my own home as I watched the news reports roll in, and then again when the funeral was televised.
To this day I couldn’t tell you what I was crying for or about. The young, motherless princes were part of it, but not the whole. But at the same time, it didn’t feel like an ersatz grief. No, of course I didn’t know her personally but, I reasoned, I knew her a bit – in the sense that she had been a part of my cultural life since I was six (young enough to have kept a scrapbook of the engagement and the wedding – the beeyootiful dress! Even if it was, as my mum said, crushed to buggery in the coach). She was not a stranger like the people I passed in the street. She was someone, something, to me.
But here’s the thing – it was an ersatz grief. I know that now that I have lost more real and truly loved ones over the quarter of a century since. It was so nationally too. How could it be otherwise? We, none of us, knew her. But the convulsions were nevertheless welcomed and encouraged, by the media in particular, for whom they provided brilliant visual and editorial copy and lauded as a sea-change in British emotional development; a sign that we had learned at last to throw off ancient repressive shackles and express our feelings. What progress! What a brave new, warmly-coloured, richly-hued dawn had arrived!
It has not worked out that way. A world run on feelings, it turns out, quickly turns into an emetic morass of nonsense if you’re being kind (as we are of course often urged to do these days, because “Engage in critical thinking!” sounds so cold and doesn’t fit as easily into a hashtag) and utter BS if not.
It leads to moments of inanity like brands festooning their packaging with encomiums to your wisdom in buying their products and testifying to you moral good in doing so. And to moments of insanity like Michael Gove courting the approval of the masses by asserting that “We’ve had enough of experts!” and governments panicking over what to do in global pandemics because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings by telling them they must not fly here, or go unmasked there or expect to be able to go about their lives completely as normal while there’s a novel coronavirus on the loose.
The advantages of touchy-feeliness are strictly limited. Mostly, I would suggest, to within the exchanges of affectionate expression within a fairly small pool of friends and family. If everyone goes around giving vent to every feeling they have every moment that they have them, the world grinds to a halt. Because for every feeling X expresses, Y has to deal with it.
Feelings, by and large, take from other people. Facts put everyone on the same level, providing a useful common point of departure for discussion and a fixed point to refer back to as that goes on. But feelings simply proliferate. No one’s subjectivity can be trumped by another’s and so there can never be definitive answers, a lasting solution or settlement of an issue achieved.
A friend of mine leads a team of people who all have to be given different notice periods that a meeting is to happen, to accord with their varying levels of social anxiety. This, as you might imagine, makes his life very difficult and efficient working almost impossible. Replicate that a million billion times in different ways and on different scales and you can see that a knotted mass of socio-econo-cultural problems are bound to result.
And there is increasing evidence that indulging people’s every whim doesn’t even help them at an individual level. A recent study by researchers at Cambridge University (who are on track to replace as my greatest heroes those who a few years back concluded that teenagers’ great problem was not lack of self esteem but too much of it) found that teaching people to ignore – or one might say “repress” – negative thoughts resulted in better mental health and less propensity to depression than being taught to examine and “process” everything did.
Ergo, the late Queen Eliabeth was right. Keeping calm and carrying on shall ever be the only real way forward. The idea that we can deal with everything – or rather, that everything needs to be dealt with – is paralysing. Bar properly traumatic events, most of life’s shit can be safely dumped in our inner compost bins and left to rot down on its own. We’ve given Diana’s way long enough. Now it is the stoics’ time to shine again.