I wonder what Bernard Shaw would have made of social attitudes today?
‘Human society is like a glacier … it is really flowing like a river’ opined Shaw.
Ibsen had written ‘that the real slavery of to-day is slavery to the ideals of virtue‘ and it seems that Shaw was his disciple in this idea from his 1890 essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism.
I think Shaw would be surprised at how slowly the glacier has brought change yet appreciative. If he was to walk the streets of British cities and towns, he wouldn’t see foul waters running in the gutters. He wouldn’t see outhouses nor many public toilets. He wouldn’t see tens of kids from several families playing on the steps of the rack-rented tenements of his era. There’d be shoes on every foot as uniformed children made their way to schools for breakfast and lunch and an education too. The air would taste cleaner and if he needed it, there’d be a hospital where he could get world class care at no cost. The middle classes now lead lives of a significance once considered the birthright of royalty and ruling. Social mobility has become much more likely today than at any time in history. Eliza Doolittle led the way.
And yet, neither society on these two adjacent islands is a slave to virtue. It was freedom from the gifts of others allowed self-fulfilment become the primary driver for those that wanted it. You don’t have to die to move on to a better life but you might have to relocate or commute huge distances.
I sense that that our social attitudes are spoiling, like the cat’s saucer of milk on the sunny windowsill. Perhaps there’s been too much enlightenment. Certainly, the outlook for social improvement is becoming hazier (to badly mix metaphors).
It might not be right to use the US as a litmus paper but it’s hard to ignore that many of our social attitudes are directly influenced by what we see of the USA. One of our democratic privileges is that we can consume American ideas of compassion and indignation in the name of entertainment.
Zero hours contracts. No healthcare. Sundered families. Abject poverty in bejewelled cities. Criminal gangs as powerful as governments. How come when we see a machine gun we know it won’t harm the hero but the appearance of a knife is a serious threat? We are multitasking, eating chips on the sofa yet being modified by what we watch and read. Assuming we have any leisure time at all.
Ibsen and Shaw both knew how to educate the theatre goers of their age. But in the main, most of society has lost interest in being educated like this. Ideas of soul are long subsumed by the ideals of self. Entertainment is the requirement for the brief periods of leisure afforded to the lucky ones. These periods may be during massive commuter journeys, being entertained while travelling. Education is the last thing on the minds of most while working out in the gym.
And this absence of education in the majority of consumer media is what makes the McConnell and Keane movie Gaza so powerful and Ken Loach’s film Sorry We Missed You so compelling. (I wrote about them here.)
What makes things really scary is that having learned that authority should not be taken on faith, authoritarianism is rising. This shouldn’t be a matter of fashion and yet, it’s as if the lessons learned by the last two generations are being forgotten.
Please do me a favour and support the Ibsens and Shaws who will call out the failures in today’s society so that we can avoid the mistakes that inevitably result in poverty and conflict.