Thursday, January 5, 2017

The 'Isms

The Times' New York Correspondent told us in one of his late letters that in that city, as in England, the month of May is consecrated in a peculiar manner to meetings. What a May meeting in this country means we all know. It is the field-day of some philanthropic or religious society. A New York May meeting is something of the same sort, but the ingenious American nation has hit on a generic name for that which it represents, which is more vivid than any cognate English epithet. New York May meeting represent the 'Isms. There are the Woman's Rights Ism, Abolitionism, Teetotalism, and lastly Spiritualism, which, as Our Own Correspondent (who appears, by the way, to look through a microscope at American failings) informs us, is torn by a schism between the spirits who recognise marriage and those who aspire to Free Love. There are, no doubt, other sects besides these, each aspiring to set the world more or less to rights upon a platform of its own. It is well worth while to consider these 'Isms a little, and to try to understand the function which they discharge in life. They suggest several perfectly distinct questions. Why are they so contemptible to one section of the community? Why are they so indispensable to another section? Are they really of any, and what, use to the world at large

It is not very difficult to solve the question why ’Isms are hateful and contemptible to a large section of the community. From the man whose wife wants him to embark in some undertaking which he does not care for, up to the nation which is preached at by a philanthropic society, there is no one who does not hate to be bored; and this is not merely because the mere worry is vexatious, but because in many, perhaps in most cases, the systematic bore understands so very little the person whom he bores.  For instance, a teetotaller goes pounding over his dreary statistics about the quantity of crime caused by drink, the amount of money laid out in it, the number of persons who could be drowned in the porter annually consumed in London, and other topics of the same kind, as if the whole human race might and ought to be divided into the drunken and the sober—as if there were not an overwhelming majority of people who pass through life without having very much to do with liquor in any form, and as if drunkenness were not confined almost exclusively to the Northern races, who are not on the whole very much better or very much worse off than their Southern neighbours. In a word, crotchets look so very small to those who are not under their influence that it is hardly matter of surprise that they should despise and rather dislike those who are. They cannot help feeling that crotchet-mongers do them an injustice which probably may be unintentional, but which is nevertheless real.

There is another and a stronger reason for disliking crotchets, and, when well understood, it explains one of the chief grounds upon which those who are under their influence like them. A person sedulously employed in any common profession or occupation may either feel that he is or that he is not satisfied with the way in which he is passing his life. If he feels that, on the whole, he is about as well employed as he can expect to be, he will resent the implied censure cast upon him by an 'Ism which must in general proceed upon the supposition that the common walks of life are unclean as well as common. 'Isms are to a Protestant community, though in a modified degree, what monasteries are in Roman Catholic countries. They are in the nature of eddies and backwaters, chosen by those who prefer them because the main stream is considered to be dirty, and more or less unwholesome and dangerous, The silent antagonism which exists, between the disciples of special crotchets and those who live the common life of all the world, is only one case of the almost perennial antagonism between the lay and the ascetic view of things. Those who dislike 'Isms consider them as more or less mean substitutes for the established organized duties of life. Those who like them seem, consciously or unconsciously, to enjoy the process of paying a light and easy quit-rent in full of all demands upon their energies. We may not be of much use in our respective occupations, but we have gloriously asserted a mildly unpopular cause. We have formed part of a sect of believers in (say) Woman's Rights, the members of which all agree to praise and puff each other on every possible occasion, and this we have done at the expense of taking our proportion of the wicked ridicule which is poured on the movement collectively. This is a soothing reflection to a man who has passed his day—as he is in the habit of passing all his days—not, indeed, ill or dishonestly, but monotonously, and without any marked or definitely assignable benefit to the human race except that which accrues to it from the addition of a certain small amount of wealth to the common stock.

It requires an exertion of mind of which few people seem to be capable to understand that, of the good which most men do for their neighbours in the course of a lifetime, nearly, all is done in the prosecution of their common business, and without the least reference to the interests of any other person than themselves. Suppose, for instance, an underwriter has passed many years in insuring ships, and has made a fortune by it, and has also during the same period been actively engaged as a member of the Committee of an efficient hospital. won the services which he has rendered to mankind come to be reckoned up, can it be doubted that by contributing to the security of navigation, say for eight hours a day for forty years, he has done much more to increase the comfort of human life than by sitting on the Committee of St. George's Hospital, for an hour or two every fortnight? Nay, it is true, though it is not altogether an obvious truth, that the efforts by which he has provided comforts for himself and for his family—he and they forming part of the human race—have added quite as much to human happiness as they would have added if the same amount of comfort had been divided rateably amongst all the inmates of a hospital. Suppose he and his own household have consumed twenty tons of enjoyment. That would give somewhere about forty-five pounds to each of a thousand sick people, which might be a sensible alleviation of their miseries, but the total quantity would in either case be precisely the same. Few people, however, see, or at all events are satisfied with, this kind of benevolence. The notion that efforts which benefit themselves as well as their neighbours are in some way infected with an original taint, and that they must be purified by some mixture at least of disinterested exertion for their neighbours, be it ever so little, goes deep down into human nature, and exercises a strong influence over all our conduct. And it would be hard to say that the self-distrust which it implies is altogether ill-founded. It is by no means unnatural that busy people, for their own sakes and to convince themselves that they do care for others as well as themselves, should wish to bestow some other benefits on the world at large than those of which they themselves get the principal share.

These opposite views as to the nature of ‘Isms give a good practical test for deciding upon their value. There are good reasons either for liking or for disliking them. They deserve to be liked if they merely air and trot out the benevolent feelings, as in the case of hospitals, schools, private charity to the sick or unfortunate, and the like. They deserve to be disliked if they fly in the face of society at large, and discredit its general institutions and ways of proceeding. This, however, is no doubt subject to the possibility that the 'Ism may be right, and society at large wrong. It is curious and instructive to observe how very seldom this is the case, and how nearly it may be alleged to universally true that movements of a reforming kind, based upon a general condemnation of any existing state of things, are almost always entirely wrong. They may be, and often are, directed at real evils, but they are almost always in the position of the fly on the wheel. They mistake the remedy. They make a noise and a hubbub, and they do no sort of good, or, at least, none to speak of.

The history of nearly every agitation that can be mentioned against a standing evil confirms the truth of this. Look, for instance, at the Peace Society. No one doubts that war is an evil—an evil greater than any other except the toleration of the evils which make war inevitable; but what use has there been in agitating against it? Since the invention of Quakerism at least there has been a constant series of protests against war. They have continued with more or less energy for about two hundred years, and have generally been loudest just before particularly bloody and obstinate wars. Yet no doubt wars have been diminishing in frequency. They are by no means so common as they used to be, and men are rapidly getting to see in a strong light the objections to engaging in them. The Peace Society is itself one of the effects of this sentiment, not one of its causes. It is the same with every one of the 'Isms which are at present prominent in America. The Temperance movement has done little to diminish drunkenness. Drunkenness itself is diminishing because people are rapidly becoming alive to its evils. There probably is not a more sober class of men in the world than English gentlemen of the present day. Their fathers were less sober, and their grandfathers were decidedly intemperate. Yet there is no class whom a Temperance lecturer would address with less chance of success. It will be the same with other classes in due time. The advantages of sobriety will be understood, the level of education will be raised, and drunkenness will cease to be attractive. Take, again, the question of Women's Rights. No doubt it is a real grievance, as far as it goes, that there should be so much difficulty as there is in finding employment for unmarried women who are above the class of domestic servants. By degrees, and by repeated experiments, means will probably be found to set this to rights, and a certain number of employments will be discovered appropriate for women of this class, but the Women's Rights agitation has no tendency, or next to none, to promote this result. It can only hold meetings about the process, and scream over it as it goes on. American Abolitionism did next to nothing towards the abolition of slavery till the civil war gave it unlooked-for opportunities. The only exception to this impotence of social agitation is to be found in cases where, from the nature of the case, nothing is wanted but a simple change in the law. The abolition of West Indian slavery, or the repeal of the duties on corn, were matters which could be managed by agitators, because they had a definite point to carry in procuring the enactment of a statute. If the agitation had been one which could be effective only by voluntary co-operation, those who took part in it might have passed their lives in talking, without producing any perceptible result.

Saturday Review, June 4, 1864.

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