In Praise of Gentleness

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 28th 2018

Where is the gentleness in life? Instead – in too many places – we have a surfeit of anger, dislocation and frustration.

For some the big issues of the day necessitate, even demand, such assertive and sometimes negative qualities. We live in times defined by corporate dishonesty, brazenness and theft, where the vast majority of us feel unheard, marginalised, alienated and silenced. Anger is clearly an understandable response, but can only take us so far, and too often blows itself out through exhaustion and disillusion.

Too much of public life seems to be a search for the guilty, condemning others, playing the person not the ball, and being driven by immediate comment and criticism with little to no reflection.

This is our modern world, and one many see as aided and reinforced by the environment of social media, Facebook, and Twitter. Yet, something more is surely at work. There is the decline of authority, the weakening of trust, an absence of leaders that we look up too and believe in, and a diminishing of the social bonds, connections and shared values which hold societies together.

What is gentleness and why does it matter in an age of such obvious injustices? Gentleness isn’t about being nice and polite, but goes to the heart of how we act, interact and the quality of relationships we have. Aristotle understood its importance in ancient Greece regarding quickly roused anger as a vice, gentleness as a moral virtue, and a key to happiness.

The presence of gentleness says something about what sits deep within the person, and its absence shows a sense of ill-ease and not being fully present. Gentleness has a rootedness in self, but also a willingness to let go, reach out, and lose oneself in interaction with others. Thus, gentleness is one of the key facets in a genuine, lasting sense of generosity and hence, interconnectedness, solidarity and redistribution: key qualities which have been undermined in recent decades.

These are qualities many feel we are losing and not valuing across the Western world, the UK and Scotland. Bringing it back home there are many who feel that in today’s Scotland such sentiments are being eroded and diminished in everyday life. One brief example from the last few weeks explains how some see this.

Someone I know is currently putting the finishing touches to an important public document in Scotland – one that will receive much national attention and comment. The person is passionate in undertaking this task, committed to their work, knowledgeable, and cares that they get this as right as they can. However, with all the pressures upon their work and activities, one of their most abiding concerns is not only how it will be received in public life, but the extremes this will invoke. They have an anxiety that it will be instantly defined and trashed, and that even they themselves will be attacked, undermined and ridiculed. They are emotionally and mentally preparing for that, whilst at the same time writing the document – not an easy task in itself.

In the Scotland of the here and now, many people would describe the abrasiveness and edge which is too prevalent as a product of those recent uprisings, the indyref and Brexit, neither of which resolved the big questions underlying them and which instead for many magnified differences and division.

However, if we are to understand where we are and how we got here we need to have a more nuanced approach than just to blame recent events such as our indyref or social media. For a start, the latter is mostly an amplifier, not a creator of hate: an open community which by the lack of gatekeepers has allowed the best of humanity and the worst of humanity to exist side-by-side. Similarly, the indyref wasn’t the product of Scotland’s divided politics, but a catalyst which sprang from them – with its aftermath exposing the limits and shortcomings of a politics of two competing nationalisms, Scottish and British.

When we discuss the characteristics which have produced Scotland’s distinctive culture and attitudes a predictable list of sinners is usually trotted out. First for many is Calvinism, but nearly every general citation has little to no in-depth understanding of Calvinism, and at best, a one-dimensional caricature, which doesn’t note the upside of Calvinism (such as its democratic authority) or that there are many variants, including German and Swiss, different from ours.

Other causes regularly mentioned are division: that somehow our divides were more problematic than elsewhere, the scale and brutal nature of poverty, and even, geography and climate. None of these get to the core and fail to note that others have risen above such factors. The Irish, for example, were held back by poverty; while our nearby neighbours, Norway, Sweden and Finland, have equally cold climates with lots of rain, and very challenging geographies.

Instead of the usual list of litanies we have to ask what kind of Scotland have we created down through the ages and what defining factors have played their part? What kind of legacies, traditions and hurt relationships have we made and need to deal with now?

Fundamentally, two factors stand out which we still have to come to terms with and fully account. One has been an absence of power over our own lives. Much of this, but not all has been about us as a nation, and the absence of political power. But it has also been about class, gender, privilege and religion.

Too many Scots have been done to and diminished by those with power, and through most of our history a large part of this disrespect and abuse has been to Scots by fellow Scots. That after all is the story of much of feudalism, the Highland Clearances, and the excesses of industrial capitalism.

The other factor and one related to this has been the quality of our relationships with each other. There have been too many bruised, dysfunctional relationships. We have had to love and relate to each other in what has been a cold climate – one which has been defined and dominated through the centuries by huge and painful economic and social dislocations – which have contributed to the sense of loss and lament which has been a pervading sentiment throughout our history.

For too long in Scotland’s history to this day and in too many places, there has been an empathy and emotional deficit in our public life and even in elements of private life. We have had a politics and culture which hasn’t nurtured understanding and respected opposing views. We have had an abrasive and on occasions toxic masculinity where men have dominated too many public places, while being absent from the home, family and childcare. This has begun to change in recent decades, as the economy and society have increasingly feminised and traditional masculinity declined, but we are still dealing with the overhang of centuries.

Not all of this is unique to Scotland. This is after all the era of zombie politics and zombie capitalism, anti-social individualism, and the myth of the sovereign self. All of this produces numerous paradoxes: the age of the self producing in many a feeling of an inner vacuum, then filled by consumerism and other distractions, raising the dilemma of how can we truly know ourselves? In a culture of noise with a lack of spiritual furniture (to use a phrase from the Australian writer Richard Eckersley) and less rootedness, the appeal of mindfulness and other forms of reflection, are easy to understand.

The answers to all of the above aren’t obvious or straightforward. To put it mildly that isn’t a good state of affairs for anyone. Think of the person I spoke of earlier trying their best to write an important document, do their best, and do their best for others. This isn’t a good place for them, for the work, or for us a country, and the even more critical point is that this is a story which could be told and retold again and again across different areas where people pause, have a sense of foreboding and self-censorship. Literally such a culture is damaging all of us and limiting our possibilities as people and a nation.

It would help if we could talk about the specific Scottish experience in this. We have had a sense of powerlessness for long parts of our history and a pronounced problematic masculinity both of which have restricted the parameters, voices and style of what we have been able to talk about.

‘Anger is an energy’ stated the old Public Image Limited song, but on its own it doesn’t translate into change. Instead, we have to realise its limits and the shortcomings of the world of indignation, fury, and continual rage. If we don’t, then those with the loudest, most siren voices triumph, and that is the sort of world which produces the politics of Trump and Putin and potentially in the future even more dangerous authoritarians. Gentleness isn’t an added luxury, but a central component of how we should aspire and aim to deal with each other.