Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Language of Gentlemen

An indignant correspondent of the Daily News, whose letter, bears the heading of our own article, bitterly reproaches us for asserting that, if American statesmen would adopt the language of gentlemen in their observations on this country, they would do a very wise thing, and conciliate the feelings of Englishmen towards them. Our “Constant Reader” (for so he signs himself) observes that Americans desirous of adopting this suggstion would do well to prefer our advice to our example, inasmuch s, whatever may be the merits of the language of gentlemen, the Saturday Review is not written in that tongue. He then goes: to extract from our columns a variety of expressions which he considers to be proofs of his assertion. They certainly are not, and were not meant to be, pleasant. Since we first addressed the public, we have had occasion to say a good many unpleasant things about a variety of people, and we should be the last to deny the right of others to criticize us. Our readers know pretty well what sort of phraseology they may expect to find in these columns, and they may be sure that there is no intention of making change. Be the defects of our vocabulary what they may, they are not likely to be remedied. Those who read this journal know what to expect, and those who do not like it may leave it alone.

If it had been a mere attack on the Saturday Review, we should have had nothing whatever to say to the letter in the Daily News. It is, however, worth notice on another ground. It embodies, or rather it implies, several popular fallacies which deserve to be exposed. It is to be observed that the letter is directed exclusively to the question of style. It does not deal with the question of truth. Of course, if the writer could have shown that what we had said of the Americans was false, it would have been another matter; but what he does say is that, whether false or true, our meaning ought to have been otherwise expressed. In his opinion, apparently, no state of facts could justify the use of such phrases as he quotes. Thus, for instance, if it were shown that, for the sake of revenge, a person had falsely declared that some one who was going to be married was subject to epileptic fits, and thereby broke off the marriage, no gentleman in writing about it ought to say that the man in question was a malignant liar. If a gentleman has occasion to write about such transactions as those which made Robson and Redpath notorious, he must not say that they were gross frauds. If he reviews a very bad novel, he must not call it childish nonsense, and warn persons disposed to read it that to do so would be a sinful waste of time. In short, a gentleman must never call, a spade a spade. He must always describe it as an agricultural implement.

Such a theory as this is probably seldom held in its naked baldness, but it is the only one by which such criticisms as those contained in the letter in question could be fully justified. If it were true, the language of gentlemen would be the most insipid dialect in the world, and those who used it would be distinguished from other men by the fact that they never had anything to say worth saying. If to be a gentleman is an enviable distinction, and if that distinction consists in the enjoyment of the advantages of a better intellectual and moral training than usual, the language of a gentleman ought to be more picturesque, more nervous, more pungent—in a word, more spirited—than that of other men.  Of course it ought also to comply with those moral rules which have been established for the improvement and embellishment of social intercourse. Our apprehension of the general scope of those rules is very different from that which appears to float before the eyes of our critic, and a short statement of them will serve to show the principle upon which our vocabulary is formed.

In the first place, language ought to be suited to the position occupied by those who use it. An advocate, in his professional capacity, may and ought to say a thousand things which he would have no right to say on other occasions. A clergyman has no right to preach over a dinner-table as if he were in his pulpit, and the language appropriate to a statesman is altogether different from that which is appropriate to a journalist. The last distinction is constantly forgotten, especially by those who object to all vigorously expressed blame in newspapers. The tacit assumption on which statesmen ought to act is that they are, for the time being, the official representatives of the public. The sayings of a sovereign, or even of a leading public man, are to a great extent the sayings of the nation at large. Now, whatever complaints one nation may have to make against another, they ought to be made for some practical purpose.  A statesman, at least, ought hardly ever to use the language of blame or condemnation, because he is not a critic. His ordinary speeches ought to differ from those of other men, as the language of a state paper differs from that of a leading article. In a mere election speech, or in private conversation, gentlemen properly allow themselfes to say many things which they would never think of saying if they were invested with the authority of high public office. Our assertion was that American statesmen are apt to forget this—that on considerable public occasions they throw aside those restraints which the rules of good behaviour impose upon statesmen; and by this we asserted, and still assert, that they greatly diminish the weight which they would otherwisehave with Englishmen.  Will our critic assert either that Mr. Sumner or Mr. Chase did, in their well-known speeches, use the language of gentlemen—that they did submit to those restraints which the code of good manners imposes upon statesmen-or that they would not have more influence in this country if they did submit to those restraints? And what more have we done than affirm this fact in general terms? Our critic says that American statesmen, not being referred “to any particular school for learning the language of gentlemen . . . will naturally seek for it in his (the author of the article's) own writings.” They must be very poor statesmen if they think that whatever may be properly said in a leading article may be properly said by a statesman speaking publicly on behalf of a great nation. To impugn our right to criticize Mr. Chase's threat “to give Old Mother England a shaking” by quoting expressions from the Saturday Review, is like saying that a man who smokes a cigar in his own study has no right to tell a person who brings a clay pipe into a drawing-room that he does not know how to behave himself.

This, of course, does not answer the question how far our censor establishes his tu quoque. Apart from the question of Mr. Sumner and Mr. Chase, are the writers in the Saturday Review in the habit of using language which gentlemen ought not to use in a newspaper? What is the object for which newspapers exist? It is to discuss with absolute freedom all matters of public interest. To measure the strength of language which is permissible and appropriate in doing this is possible. It must depend upon the good faith of the writer. No language is ungentlemanlike if it is the appropriate and plain way of setting forth serious assertions relevant to the matter in hand. No one thinks of blaming an advocate for describing with the most minute detail the most horrible and disgusting occurrences, and with a critic the case is exactly the same. His first duty is to tell the truth. If the truth happens to be that a man has told a lie, there is nothing ungentlemanlike in saying so. The only objection to which a real charge made in good faith is open is not that the language is ungentlemanlike, but that it is untrue. There is, indeed, a way of using language which is ungentlemanlike, and that is the way of abuse. To call a man a thief, if you mean to say that he stole a horse, is what no gentleman need shrink from doing. To call him a thief without meaning to convey any serious imputation is mere abuse, and is ungentlemanlike. To apply the adjective “bloody” to a thing is perfectly gentlemanlike if it is meant to assert that the thing has blood on it. It is highly vulgar to do so, if the word is used merely as an expletive. The question therefore is, whether the damnatory language which we often have occasion to use is used by way of accusation or by way of abuse. Let us take the cases to which our critic refers. Here are two or three:– “The contumely of the Northern, rabble and its instructors.” This surely is a bona fide assertion that there are in the Northern States of America a large number of persons who deserve to be called a rabble, and who do speak contumeliously of this country. Will any one assert that there was no rabble in New York last summer at the time of the riots, or deny that violent invectives against England were and constantly are addressed to that class of persons, and especially to the Irish members of it? “Neither the New York Herald nor the New York Times has surpassed in wanton virulence the two principal leaders of the Republican party.”  Is this mere abuse, or is it not a plain assertion of the fact that the two papers named are remarkable for wanton virulence, and that Mr. Sumner and Mr. Chase made speeches in the same spirit? This may be true or false; but, assuming it to be true, what is there to find fault with in the way of saying it? “It is difficult to believe in the sincerity of an official statement that the rebellion is at an end, but the good faith of an American orator may often be vindicated at the expense of his modesty and judgment”—“meaning” (adds our critic) “that there are cases in which, by assuming that he is without either modesty or judgment, you may escape the necessity of imputing to him wilful falsehood.” For nearly three years leading American orators have been in the habit of saying that the rebellion would end in ninety days. Is it improper in a newspaper to remark that a man who continues to say so, after all that has passed, must either want modesty, or judgment, or sincerity; and what does our phrase do beyond conveying this charge in pointed language? If this is to be considered as mere abuse, how is a gentleman to express his distrust? Merely to assert that the orators in question are probably wrong would not have conveyed our meaning. We meant to say that their persistence in such statements was discreditable either to their moral or their intellectual qualities.

There are other instances chosen by our critic, but these are enough to show the nature of our answer to his charges. He may be sure, as a general rule, that what the Saturday Review says it means. It is not our practice to get excited and call names, which is what is meant by abuse, and is undoubtedly vulgar. It often is our fortune to form a bad opinion of men, books, and things. Those opinions may be harsh and unjust, they may be ignorant, they may be shallow, they may be open to refutation on a thousand grounds; but, according to our views of the language of gentlemen, there is nothing ungentlemanlike in expressing them as pointedly and forcibly as we can, provided always that the opinions relate to matters which are the proper subject of newspaper discussion, and are formed in good faith. According to our critic's view, no man can write like a gentleman whose language is open to censure on any moral ground, such as arrogance, want of charity, unkindness; or presumption. This is to give the word “gentleman” an absurd extension, and to make it equivalent to, and coextensive with, moral virtue in general.

Saturday Review, November 21, 1863.

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