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July 02, 2009

Theodore Dalrymple on the Ugliness of Andrew Murray - or why we should all become more self-controlled

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple watches Wimbledon - and finds ugliness, moral and physical, on view. What we need is a return of self-restraint.

A Dutch psychologist and criminologist, Chris Rutenfrans, once told me that, in his opinion, there was a single factor underlying much modern social pathology and psychic unease, namely a loss of the power of, or inclination to, self-control. It sounded plausible to me, for certainly it seems that many people feel, or at least claim to feel, that they have little control over what they do. Their behaviour controls them, rather than the other way round; they retain a core of the "real" them, a beautiful inner essence, that is betrayed by psychological forces beyond their control.

Why there should have been a loss of self-control is an interesting question. No doubt vested interest is part of the explanation. A man wants to go on doing what he knows perfectly well he should not do but nevertheless enjoys doing: so he claims to be in the grip of something that he cannot control.

But there is more, and worse: people are now persuaded that self-control is a kind of cultural perversion, at best an absurdity and at worst a source of deep pathology, and that in order to be true to oneself one must express oneself - emotions and desires - as and when the mood takes one. For "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires".

One small manifestation of this loss of self-control, that is now a culture-wide phenomenon, is on display at Wimbledon. Almost every time a photograph appears in the newspaper of the young British tennis player, Andrew Murray, he appears to be assaulting an invisible enemy. His free fist is clenched, his mouth in wide open as if uttering a snarling war-cry, and altogether he looks ready to attack any moving thing that comes within range. It is very ugly.

Of course, he is not alone among sportsmen: many of them have this primitive and menacing deportment. What is more, the crowd watching Murray at Wimbledon displays no better self-control. It screams and shouts at every turn, whether it be from excitement, disappointment, anxiety, encouragement, joy, and so forth. I think it can safely be assumed that the crowd is not composed in the main of members of the British underclass.

When I pointed this all out to a friendly acquaintance of mine, he immediately resorted to one of the two arguments that reassure people that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. He said, "It was always like that". And, of course, if it was always like that, it was the best we can do.

But it was not always like that, even within living memory. It is true that I now have difficulty in imagining what the world was like before there were personal computers, but that does not mean that personal computers have always existed.

Indeed, I spent two thirds of my life before they were very widespread, and much of that two thirds before they were even known. How soon we come to accept the present moment as the normal, and eternal, order of things!

Tennis players used not to snarl and punch and swear. Crowds, at least at Wimbledon, did not scream and shout at every point. This can be verified by films of the period. Therefore, something has happened to the comportment of large numbers of people I should say a loss of self-control, and perhaps of an awareness that self-control is desirable and necessary.

Confronted with evidence that there really has been a change, those who at first say "It has always been like that" (no decent self-respecting liberal, in the American sense, ever fails to bring up Gin Lane when talking about mass public drunkenness in Britain), then resort to another argument: yes, they say, there has been a change, but we must just accpet it. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back; the eggs have been scrambled and can't be returned to their pre-cooked state. Not Time's, but Change's arrow flies in one direction only. That is why, in Ireland, there will be referenda on the Treaty of Lisbon
until the population gets it right, and then there will be no further referenda on the matter.

Is it true, though, that change can be in one direction only? Is it really inconceivable that the All England Club could do nothing about the hysterics in the crowd who control their expostulations no better than cows excreting in a field? The answer is obviously "No".

All it would have to do is make a rule that anyone shouting in the crowd would be expelled forthwith, this being a condition of admission in the first place. I doubt that it would take more than a few such expulsions for the crowd to pipe down and behave in a more seemly manner.

Needless to say, in the days when people were not so incontinently expressive of their excitement during what was, after all, only a sporting contest, it was not fear of expulsion that caused them to control themselves. It did not occur to them to scream and shout in the first place. They did not feel inclined to do it because they had not been brought up to do it, nor did they think it correct to do it. Habit became character, as it always does.

Clearly a society in which people who behave well because it is in their character to behave well is superior to one in which people behave well because of fear of the consequences to them if they behave otherwise. A crowd that behaves will in a self-regulating way is better than one that behaves well because there are stewards everywhere waiting to expel malefactors. But if the All England Club were to act as I propose, the self-control of the crowd would soon become habitual and no expulsions would be necessary.

I am not, of course, so much of an optimist as to expect my modest proposal to be taken up. Decadence, after all, is the belief that the undesirable is inevitable.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.

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I too get tired of the continual citation of "Gin Lane" by people who obviously seem to think that it was a real place. They neglect, or more properly are simply ignorant of the fact, that it was part of a pair of works. The other was "Beer Street" which showed industrousness as a contrast to "Gin Lane". Rather than some "photographic representation" of reality, it was more of a political cartoon, and is as realistic as those we see in newspapers everyday. Charatertures rather than showing a genuine scene, even if some of the events shown are similar to real incidents.

In fact Hogarth published those prints in support of the Gin Act. So "Gin Lane" actually proves the opposite of what these "liberals" claim. Namely that it is possible to put a stop to this sort of thing, and it isn't "inevitable". Strange that they would cite a society they would clearly condemn, namely that of the 18th Century, in support of this "paradise" they've worked to create.

Posted by: PT at July 3, 2009 02:16 PM

The self-control you so admire, desire for your fellow citizens, and mourn is in truth the moral aspect of Christianity. You cannot have the morality, society and culture without the theology I'm afraid. The sooner you and your fellow secular reactionaries such as Roger Scruton come to terms with this the better. Otherwise you are merely beating a melancholy retreat, and it is not pleasant. I recommend a course of Roman Catholic Chritianity for you and your fellow sufferers. You might do worse than start with the SAU's excellent "Nation that Forgot God."

Posted by: John at July 4, 2009 12:53 PM

From the CD version of the Oxford English Dictionary: "In terms of its Latin origin, referendums is logically preferable as a modern plural form meaning ballots on one issue as a Latin gerund referendum has no plural; the Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning 'things to be referred', necessarily connotes a plurality of issues. Those who prefer the form referenda are presumably using words like agenda and memoranda as models. Usage varies at the present time 1981, but The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors 1981 recommends referendums, and this form seems likely to prevail.

Posted by: Edward at July 5, 2009 10:59 PM

While I generally sympathise with Dr Dalrymple's views on self-restraint, I'm not sure I see anything wrong in crowds shouting, whooping and clapping at sporting venues, or in the sportsmen they are watching expressing joy, relief, frustration and so on. People watch and play sport precisely because of its emotional dimension. Take away the emotion and sport loses meaning. It serves no practical purpose, after all.

If Andy Murray punches and snarls after winning a crucial point, and if people shout out their appreciation, what is the harm exactly? Is Dr Dalrymple now so despairing of modern egotism that he can no longer tolerate anything more than the humblest expressions of emotion? Does he think that the slightest movement away from buttoned-up prudery puts us on a slippery slope to permissiveness and barbarism? I like to think there is an acceptable compromise in these things.

Posted by: Russell at July 6, 2009 05:29 PM

Another suberb article by Dr Dalrymple. I was at Wimbledon only a few years ago and felt rather isolated as I simply applauded occasionally rather than engaging in shouting, etc.

Posted by: AJ Stidwill at July 10, 2009 04:07 PM


I think you have rather hit the nail on the head, although sticking only to Catholic Christianity would be a bit like flying on one wing. Being a Huguenot Hedgehog, I think he also needs a dose of the Protestant version.

Nevertheless, I would recommend him to start with G.K.Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man".

Posted by: HedgehogFive at July 16, 2009 11:03 PM

John McEnroe was known for years for his foul, abusive behaviour on the tennis court, and other players were beginning to follow his example. Then one day, at the Australian Open, an umpire told him he would award the match to McEnroe's opponent if McEnroe did not stop his abuse. McEnroe did not stop, so the umpire awarded the match to McEnroe's opponent. Since then, behaviour on the court has been, for the most part, far better mannered. It only took one decent, brave action to reform the whole of tennis.

Perhaps part of the problem is that for many decades there were such strong unwritten codes of behaviour that such courageous action was never needed, and consequently few people now have the ability to call misbehavers to account publicly. I certainly don't have it. If someone in my presence in public contravenes my idea of public decency I just feel helpless and angry.

Posted by: GeorgeT at July 31, 2009 06:17 AM

I think immaturity causes the display of unregulated emotion. A citizen brought up in a multi-generational household has a chance to mature. Consumers with working parents were brought up by the television. They get old, but remain immature. Emotional Dysregulation and little impulse control cause high rates of consumption, but interfere with comportment.

In other words...
If I'd been brought up by wolves, I'd be better behaved.

Enjoyed Mr. Dalrymple's perspective. Thank you.

Posted by: Catie Lott at July 27, 2013 09:27 AM
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