To Hell with Niceness

The spread of political 'compassion' has led to the breakdown of family and school discipline. The results have been catastrophic

The most difficult of all tasks is making sense of one’s own time. Often, the problem is trying to understand why people – especially institutions – continue repeating the same self-destructive things they have gone on doing for so long. Why, for example, did 14th-century French chivalry lose battles by sheer mindless bravado? Why did Crécy not teach them something when they assembled at Poitiers – or the Crécy and Poitiers experience as they faced the English over half a century later, at Agincourt? The general answer, no doubt, is that human folly results from people being victims of the wrong paradigm. The French chivalry were supreme in the arts of the tournament, and they thought that a battle was just a tournament on a grand scale.

It is also hard to understand one’s own time because the realities come encrusted within such a distracting array of circumstance. The Romans lived through the long and peaceful reign of Augustus, barely recognising, until Tiberius and Caligula, how, with the most delicate republican tactfulness in shuffling offices, he had equipped them, if not with a king, certainly with a master. Under Augustus, they had even developed, without quite realising it, some of the sycophancy needed to play the new game of despotism. Even changes of this kind in oneself can be hard to recognise, except in hindsight.

The question about our own time I want to explore is: why have the British (and to some extent other Anglophones) allowed family and school life to collapse so extensively? The collapse has not happened on all levels of society, but it is widespread enough to affect everyone. The statistics, for what they are worth, are remarkable. According to a Channel 4 Dispatches programme in January, a poll conducted for the teaching union NASUWT suggested that 97 per cent of teachers had disruptive children in their classes. Almost three-quarters (74.4 per cent) claimed to have problems with physically aggressive children, while almost half (45.5 per cent) noted that the disruptive behaviour of a minority was a daily occurrence.

A related change in British life is that school inspections are sometimes “finessed” by asking disruptive children to stay at home on inspection days. In a target-driven world, cheating brings benefits.

In some British primary schools, each class is equipped with women who function as Behaviour Support Assistants. They take over the disruptive children and thus allow the tranquillity needed for a little actual teaching. A difficult child, reported Dispatches, might be asked to choose – choose! – whether he was prepared to go back into class and behave, otherwise he would be shepherded into a “quiet room” without distractions, in order to cool down. These children are ten or younger, and the pathos of their being asked to “make choices”, when they have never acquired the integrated mentality needed for that sophisticated act, is piteous to behold.

Understanding some of the elements of this change requires bringing to the surface thoughts and feelings that have not yet found even a proper name, much less an intellectual focus. First, however, let me bring out the new situation by contrast. Think back before the watershed 1960s, and the contrast is instructive.

Then, children had defined places in a classroom and learned rapidly the decorum necessary for school life. There was no question of choosing whether or not to behave, because there was an order of conduct enforced by the teacher and it applied to everyone. The teacher was “an authority figure”, and like all authority figures inspired a certain amount of fear, part of which depended on the possibility of physical punishment. Such punishment was seldom used, but it was part of an understood world. As a supply teacher in a variety of primary and secondary modern schools around Brixton, south London, for 18 months in those days, I only once had occasion to call for the cane, which was sent (with the caning record book) straight up from the headmaster’s office. As I raised the cane over the offender’s hand, a chorus came from the class: “Mustn’t raise the cane above your shoulder, Sir, LCC regulation.” These were children who had not yet been accorded the absurdity of rights, but they understood very well that they lived under a rule of law.

The insistent question is this: how is it that so many schools have moved from the orderly world of that time to the violent distraction and educational failure of today? It is a complicated story in which the causal links can only be speculative. We must, of course, recognise that we are a very different society from that of two generations ago, better no doubt in some ways, worse in others. And the causal links we detect are only ever part of the story.

Many social conditions have been identified as part of the change, but behind most of them, I suggest, is a massive change in our moral sentiments: notably, a rise in the currency of politicised compassion. This is a sentiment so much part of the air we breathe that it does not even have a name of its own. I began to be fully aware of it only in 2002, the year in which Teresa May, then chairman of the Conservative Party, electrified politics by suggesting at the party conference that many people regarded the Conservatives as “the Nasty Party”. “Nice” and “nasty” began to surface out of the deeper waters of moral thought and sentiment to become actual tokens of political discussion, so we may for convenience call this whole tendency by the unlikely name of “the niceness movement”. In these terms, the supreme moral virtue is compassion.

This sentiment is not, of course, the niceness and decency that we rightly admire when individuals respond helpfully to others. It is a politicised virtue, which means that it is focused not on real individuals but on some current image of a whole category of people. Correspondingly, it invokes hostility towards those believed to have caused the pain and misery of others. Public discussion thus turns into melodrama. A very powerful version of this doctrinal compassion maps the distinction of oppressor and oppressed on to almost any social or international situation, and this mapping automatically directs our sympathies. Further, our sympathy for the oppressed is a demonstration to ourselves of our own benevolence. The fact is, of course, that political exponents of niceness may or may not be personally generous and benevolent. Doctrine is not character.

Changes in family and educational life in our time cannot be understood without taking account of this immensely powerful idea of public compassion. The niceness movement seeks to abolish pain and stigma in every area of society. Important elements of it can be detected at least as far back as the 18th century, but it is only in our time that “nice” and “nasty” have revealed themselves as politically dichotomous. The remark about “the nasty party” was clearly what is often called “a seminal moment”, because a whole political party sidelined policy distinctions between “left” and “right” in order to demonstrate Conservative niceness-about race, about single mothers, young persons wearing hoods and so on.

How can we make sense of the niceness movement? Again, let me invoke a temporal contrast. When long ago, I was in primary school (in the Antipodes), boys and girls were in the same class, and the cane was occasionally used, but never on girls. Girls are usually, in any case, less of a problem in schools, especially at that age. To remove the possibility of physical chastisement in schools from boys is thus in the first instance to assimilate them to girls. Boys pose, however, significantly different disciplinary problems, especially in the teenage years. The structure of authority in boys’ schools had always depended on well – understood rules whose violation invoked painful sanctions.

I do not know the current order of authority in classes purely for girls, but I imagine that it might involve more direct positive encouragement from teachers than would have been common in purely male classes. For it was an important part of the psychological doctrines taught to students of education that positive reinforcement (such as praise) was more effective in getting better conduct than criticism and punishment. There is apparently in Britain something called “a National College for School Leadership”, which has given its support to recommendations that teachers should be encouraged to give inner-city pupils “high fives” before lessons, so as to boost their performance in examinations. Pupils “should also form a circle and applaud one of their number, so that children can relax and think: ‘somebody believes in me’.” These suggestions apparently come from the US, and they are part of a view that an important element of education lies in boosting something called “self-esteem”. Remarkable beliefs of this kind led many schools in recent times to abolish competitive games, because being on the losing side was thought to damage self-esteem. This fragment of pedagogic wisdom was very rapidly abandoned when the government turned to the new problem of obesity. Competitive games do at least get the young up and running, so self-esteem has joined many another bright idea in being, for the moment, quietly forgotten.

One of many plausible ways of understanding the niceness movement is thus that it is a feminisation of the classroom, though clearly many women would regard it with the same derision as I do. Women are commonly regarded as nicer than men. Maybe they are. They are certainly much more given to feelings of compassion. Being more co-operative, they need less discipline. Further evidence of feminisation might be found in the fact that many white working-class pupils appear to have turned their backs on school understood in this way, and thus become an underclass. Girls have thrived in this new order and correspondingly many boys have opted out. Education with teachers as inspirational leaders is clearly a long way from the austere traditions in which Sir paraded round the class with a stick in his hand and often did a nice line in sarcastic rejoinders. But Sir played by the rules; you might not like it, but you knew what the rules of the game were. That is less easy with inspirational leadership and positive reinforcement.

We might therefore interpret the niceness movement as a feminisation of education, but in fact its range is wider. Its project is to banish pain (including the pains of duty) from our lives. It seeks to replace fear as the basis for good conduct in favour of rational understanding. It is above all hostile to punishment. We need not doubt, of course, that punishment is a rough and brutish idea. It seldom does full justice to the human complexities involved in delinquency. The great legal historian Frederick William Maitland wrote that the Greeks never developed a satisfactory system of law because they were always seeking the most philosophically satisfactory judgment in a case. Punishment is a curious structure confected from justice on the one hand and social order on the other. It is partly a retributive restoring of balance in a notional moral universe, partly a device for deterring bad conduct and partly an attempt to reform the character of the delinquent. Making law correspond to justice is the endless business of legislators, and rules can never catch up with changing circumstances. Lawyers and judges sometimes think that their business is to mete out justice rather than enforce the law, a mistake that muddles their wits and leads to judicial activism. To judge current law by the test of abstract justice can look like an admirable piece of idealism, but it generally leads to an endless merry-go-round of improving expedients that only move problems elsewhere.

To lose one’s grip on the centrality of punishment in our civilisation is to destroy the crucial balance between punishment and reward. Without the balancing severities of punishment and criticism, praise and reward take on the aspect of bribes, which demeans both those that give and those that receive. But the managers of our world increasingly resort to inducements. Teenagers aged 17-18 from poor families in Britain have been given Educational Maintenance Allowances to induce them to stay on at schools after the age of 16. Schools reported that most of the beneficiaries exploited the system, turning up to the classroom only to qualify for the grant. The idea that people should be paid to perform their duties is a pure case of the corruption that has doomed underdeveloped countries to poverty. The destruction of the punishment/reward balance is importing the same moral collapse here.

The niceness movement, then, is a central part of the answer to the question: how have we moved from the disciplined and largely successful schools we had before 1960 to the disorderly educational failure common, though obviously not universal, today? Much that happens in schools depends, of course, on family life, and some of the most radical changes clearly have little to do with politicised compassion. From TV to the mobile phone, the enclosed character of family life has been opened up to outside influences, of which the most powerful is probably the peer group. The peer group locks individuals into the much narrower experiences of contemporaries rather than the intergenerational wisdom of the family.

Nevertheless, the niceness movement has powerfully changed family life. Sixties’ liberation detested the frustrating conventions by which (to put it crudely) sex had to be traded for commitment. Commitment is painful, especially to individuals with little talent for controlling impulse. Many restrictive conventions were abandoned so that the young should be free to follow wherever their impulses might lead. Divorce became easier – yet the number of couples getting married dramatically declined. This left many of the resulting children in an unstable world, especially if they belonged to what was euphemistically called a “single-parent family”. Single parenthood often resulted from misfortune, and could work well, but public concern has lately focused on one cohort of such abbreviated families: that of teenage pregnancy. In the past, the pregnant teenager faced painful options: the shotgun marriage, adoption or the back-street abortionist. The state responded compassionately by providing accommodation and financial support to these young people. But many of the children of such relationships grew up to be no less feckless and impulsive than their mothers. In the 1990s, the Government made a late start in trying to identify the fathers of these children, partly to pay for child support and partly to involve men as well as women in these problems. They have not had much success. The children of such unions have been prominent in the annals of gangland and delinquency. This is a classic case of compassion in one generation leading to misery in the next.

Politicised compassion leads to multiple absurdities. One such is the belief these young mothers “lack parental skills”. The term “skill” in our narrowly practical times means knowledge that gives you power. The Government is very keen on having everybody taught skills – parental, relationship, cooking – and successive ministers have “guided” schools into providing courses to supply the deficiencies. But this whole manner of speaking is obviously corrupt. The ordinary person, for example, who is on terms with many people, ranging from acquaintances and colleagues to friends and lover(s) does not have “relationship skills”. Such a person has a particular kind of character, one that is capable of valuably relating to other people on many levels, and such a life only very marginally involves the exercise of teachable skills. A talent for love and friendship is generally acquired early in life. It results from involvement in the disciplines of family life. To talk, then, as if “relating” were a form of skill to be acquired in some training programme is not only absurd: it is to cheat people by suggesting that the world is a great deal more manageable than it actually is. So-called “parental skills” are similarly elusive. They are learned in family life, and no amount of teaching in schools or drip-drip of peer group communication can create them.

My argument is, then, that the collapse of family and school discipline largely results from a dominant moral sentiment that we may call “the niceness movement”. Niceness as a political sentiment has many departments-political correctness is one, for example – but I am concerned largely with its sentimental undermining of authority in family and classroom. The selling point of this niceness was, as it were, that pupils would become a nicer, gentler generation, but in fact the disorderly tendencies which teachers soon lost the power to check have now spilled over into the playground, where bullying has long been increasing. And from the playground, of course, this disorder has spread into the streets. Thus can politicised compassion lead to misery.

Moral vices prosper by dressing themselves as virtues. Niceness presents itself as benevolence, but is often merely an evasion of hard decisions that the realities of human nature require. And it has spread throughout our societies because it is often popular with voters. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions, and so is a good deal of democratic politics.

One last point about this moral corruption: it is in important ways irreversible. I have emphasised that the campaign against physical chastisement in schools and families is an important element in the collapse of discipline. But one cannot have discipline back merely by changing the rules, because it would need a platoon of Paras to deal with the riots likely to follow any revival of the cane. Nor could one withdraw the rights to sustenance that dependent mothers have acquired in the 20th century. This does not mean, of course, that there will not be a backlash against politicised decency as its nastier consequences become intolerable. That backlash is likely to make the well-judged pains of past practice look merciful indeed. But that is what happens when moral structures collapse.

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