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Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality is a polemical 2010 work by the British writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. The book attempts to reveal how, in the author's view, sentimentality has become culturally entrenched in British society, with seriously harmful effects. Dalrymple explores a range of social, educational, political, media and literary issues—including falling standards in education, the Make Poverty History campaign, the death of Princess Diana, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and the work and life of the poet Sylvia Plath—to illustrate what he views as the danger of abandoning logic in favour of sentimentality, which he describes in the book's introduction as "the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality".[1] Much of Dalrymple's analysis in the book is underpinned by his experience of working with criminals and the mentally ill.

The book was described by The Spectator, as a "an engaging rant against the folly, claptrap, self-indulgence and hypocrisy of mankind" and "a cathartic experience for those who feel indignant about demotic culture. Dalrymple's case is that the substitution of crude emotion for dispassionate analysis of public issues, and the mentality which demands exaggerated and public outpourings of mawkish sentimentality at critical moments, has distorted the values of public life",[2] while The Scotsman commented that "The breeze of cynicism wafts like an acrid rebuke through these tersely opinionated pages. It fans the flames of indignation, warming the cockles of unreconstructed reactionaries' hearts".[3]

Background

In an essay in 1999, Dalrymple identified what he saw as the harmful role played by sentimentality in a case involving Stephen Lawrence. Dalrymple wrote that "the response to the Stephen Lawrence case is another example of how the rule of law is to be supplanted by the rule of sentiment—and it is yet one more instance of what one might call the Dianafication of British public life, in which transitory popular enthusiasm trumps venerable tradition".[4]

Just prior to the book's publication in July 2010, the author in two separate media articles used themes explored in the book to analyse high profile cases in the British media involving Raoul Moat[5] and Jon Venables.[6]

Referring to Moat, Dalrymple wrote in The Daily Telegraph that "The late Mr Moat was a brutal sentimentalist. He used the extremity of his behaviour to persuade himself that he felt something—supposedly love—very deeply, and that this was the motive and justification of his behaviour. Surely, if he was prepared to kill not only his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart, but also her new lover and anyone who looked like him, he must have loved her very much? He also persuaded himself that he was the victim of this terrible episode. 'They took it all from me,' he said, 'kids, freedom, house, then Sam and Chanel [his daughter]. Where could I go from there?' It was only natural that he, an innocent, or at least a man not seriously at fault ('I've never punched her but have slapped her'), should have taken a gun and killed one and injured two: any man treated in this way would have done the same. What is alarming is that substantial numbers of people take this self-serving sentimental nonsense seriously, at least if the thousands of postings on the Raoul Moat Facebook tribute page, which was deleted on Thursday, were anything to go by. The logic seems to be as follows: Mr Moat called himself a victim; victims are heroes; therefore Mr Moat was a hero".[5]

In The Daily Express, Dalrymple asserted that Venables "turned out badly. This should surprise nobody, except those with the sentimental idea that everyone is good, if treated well enough. Probation officers and others, however, persistently refused to see the writing on Venables's wall. They explained away the obvious signs of his continuing bad character. Just a little more kindness, understanding. What contempt he must have felt! Thus sentimentality, a refusal to face unpleasant realities, causes crime".[6]

Synopsis

"A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it".[7] Oscar Wilde
— Quoted by Dalrymple at the beginning of the book's conclusion

The book is made up of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion.

In Chapter One, Sentimentality, Dalrymple observes how sentimentality is increasing as a cultural phenomenon in the United Kingdom, and cites a number of incidents to support this assertion, including a trip to WH Smith in England in which he noticed that a new section of books had appeared, entitled Tragic Life Stories. The section dwarfed the classic novels section, which Dalrymple asserts "surely tells us something about our present Zeitgeist".[8] He then noticed that the section was alongside a section devoted to True Crime, and contends "Here, if anywhere, was an elective affinity. After all, having tragic life stories to weep over depends, is parasitic, upon the brutality of those who make the life stories tragic in the first place".[9] He then recounts the experience of choosing random newspaper articles to study. The first illustrated how the child controlled the parents in a home, and how this was illustrative of how "the parents were transferring the locus of moral, intellectual, and emotional authority from themselves to their daughter";[10] and the second article "depended upon its effect on readers upon another unspoken, widely-accepted but deeply sentimental notion: namely, that in any conflict between a large organisation and an individual, the organisation must be to blame and the individual must have been maltreated".[11] Dalrymple identifies two causes for these incidents: boredom and a compensation culture. He then analyses the issue of falling education standards in the UK, and why, despite expenditure on education being four times more per head than in 1950:

File:Jean-Jacques Rousseau (painted portrait).jpg

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  • Standards of literacy have not risen in the country and "may have fallen";[12]
    File:StevePinker.jpg

    Steven Pinker

  • Employers now complain of graduates "not being able to compose a simple letter";[12]
  • A lecturer at Imperial College London recently remarked that foreign students often wrote better English than British ones;[12]
  • Spelling errors are now far more frequently made by doctors in medical notes than previously;[12]
  • A friend of the author at Oxford is instructed not to mark students down for their poor grammar, spelling and composition.[13]

Dalrymple identifies that the above malaise is linked to "powerful intellectual currents" that "feed into the great Sargasso Sea of modern sentimentality about children", and asserts that the ideas of eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau[13] and modern psychologist Steven Pinker[14] have been particularly influential in this respect.

Dalrymple then examines another article[15] in which a prominent member of the British clergy urges reform of the British prison system. Dalrymple writes of the article: "There is little doubt that the tendency of the article, and probably its intention, was to arouse a certain emotion—again—whose effect, if not its intention, was to convince the person experiencing it that he was a person of superior sensibility and compassion",[16] and that the kind of emotionality seen in the article "often attaches to the question of crime and punishment in contemporary Britain".[16] Dalrymple also draws attention to a modern tendency in which it is often implied that a criminal under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not morally responsible for his crimes, and quotes Aristotle that "a man who committed an offence while intoxicated was double guilty: first of the offence itself, and second of having intoxicated himself";[17] Dalrymple maintains that it is "the sheerest sentimentality to see drug addicts as the victims of an illness".[18] The author concludes the chapter by stating that "sentimentality is now a mass phenomenon almost beyond criticism or even comment"[17] and that the phenomenon has also extended to informalising the inscriptions seen on tombstones, "as if death itself can, by the employment of informal and sentimental, or even aggressive language, be reduced to a mere incident of everyday life".[19]

In Chapter Two, What is Sentimentality? Dalrymple advances that the kind of sentimentality that he wishes to draw attention to is "an excess of emotion that is false, mawkish, and over-valued by comparison with reason"[20] and which is performed "in full public view".[21] He then spends much of the chapter taking issue with assertions made by the philosopher Robert C. Solomon that sentimentality does not:

  • involve or provoke excessive expression of emotion;[22]
  • manipulate emotions;[22]
  • cause false emotions to be shown;[22]
  • involve the expression of cheap, easy and superficial emotions;[22]
  • constitute self-indulgence;[22]
  • distort perception and interfere with rational thought.[22]

Dalrymple contends that "Sentimentality is the expression of emotion without judgment. Perhaps it is worse than that: it is the expression of emotion without an acknowledgement that judgment should enter into how we should react to what we see and hear. It is the manifestation of a desire for the abrogation of an existential condition of human life, namely the need to always and never unendingly to exercise judgment. Sentimentality is therefore childish and therefore reductive of our humanity".[23]

File:Harriet Harman, January 2009 1.jpg

Harriet Harman in 2009

In Chapter Three, The Family Impact Statement, Dalrymple criticises the introduction by Harriet Harman into British court proceedings of The Family Impact Statement, designed ostensibly to allow the families of a victim of a crime to play some role in court proceedings. Dalrymple however points out that such statements "are not permitted to influence the outcome of a case. They are made only after a jury has made its verdict"[24] and that in practice this is not made clear to victims' families. As a result, kitsch displays of emotion are encouraged in court, of no practical benefit. Moreover, Dalrymple contends that such statements are "an elaborate ruse to mislead the families of murdered people, and the public, into thinking that the criminal justice system and the government is sensitive to to their concerns about the high levels of crime in society".[25]

Dalrymple begins Chapter Four, The Demand for Public Emotion, by analysing the media attention and reaction to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and specifically how certain elements in the media interpreted the lack of emotion displayed by the girl’s parents as evidence of guilt. Dalrymple writes that the "demand that emotion should be shown in public, or be assumed not to exist and therefore indicate a guilty mind, is now not an uncommon one"[26] and draws a comparison between the McCanns and two Australian cases involving Joanne Lees and Linda Chamberlain. He then analyses the outcry from the public and the media to the lack of emotion shown by the Queen in the wake of Princess Diana's death, and contends that "the tabloid newspapers carried out what can only be called a campaign of bullying against the sovereign"[27] and that the crowds that gathered outside Buckingham Palace were "without the self-knowledge that they were bullying rather than expressing any genuine grief".[28] Dalrymple contends that the "demand that the Queen show the crowd that she cared, as the crowd claimed itself to care…subverts the whole notion of honesty and proportion of expression".[29] He concludes the chapter by asserting that the "sentimentality, both spontaneous and generated by the exaggerated attention of the media, that was necessary to turn the death of the princess into an event of such magnitude thus served a political purpose, one that was inherently dishonest in a way that parallels the dishonesty that lies behind much sentimentality itself".[30]

"The elevation of the status of the suffering victim occurred in the west not when real and terrible mass victimisation was of very recent memory, but when Western Europe and America seemed to have recovered from the worst excesses of such victimisation, and indeed were prospering. Sylvia Plath had not been a victim of anything, or at least of anything political, when she used imagery from the holocaust to describe her own case; within a few years of the publication of her poems, the well-heeled and fashionably dressed students of Paris were chanting such slogans as 'We're all German Jews'. The students drew cartoons of General de Gaulle with his physiognomy as a mask behind which was the real face of Hitler, with the implication that the Fifth Republic was some kind of covert Nazi dictatorship of which the students were oppressed victims. Far from being victims, they were the very elite of the country, destined before long to reach positions of social, economic and political power. But they were pioneers in what became a cultural trend: the desire and ability of the privileged to see themselves as victims, and therefore endowed with incontrovertible moral authority".[31]
— Extract from Chapter 5, "The Cult of the Victim"
File:Sylvia plath.jpg

Sylvia Plath

In Chapter Five, The Cult of the Victim, Dalrymple analyses the poet Sylvia Plath, whom he describes as the "patron saint of self-dramatization".[32] He interprets Margaret Drabble's descriptions of Plath as a "willing casualty" and "supremely vulnerable"[33] to mean "virtues of a high order".[30] Dalrymple then analyses Plath's relationship with her father, how she blamed him for her own suffering, and how, because of his German background, she identifies him in one of her poems—"Daddy"—with Nazism, and makes allusions to the holocaust. Dalrymple writes that "in order to attract the attention to the reader to her suffering, to her existential angst, Plath felt it right to allude to one of the worst and most deliberate inflictions of mass-suffering in the whole of human history, merely on the basis that her father, who died when she was young, was German"[34] and that "her connection with the holocaust was tenuous to say the least...in fact, the metaphorical use of the holocaust measures not the scale of her suffering, but of her self-pity".[34] Dalrymple alleges that prior to the emergence of Plath, self-pity "was regarded as a vice, even a disgusting one, that precluded sympathy"[35] and he quotes as an example lines from John Buchan's book Sick Heart River:

He had made a niche for himself in the world, but it had been a chilly niche. With a start he awoke to the fact that he was very near the edge of self-pity, a thing forbidden.[35]

Dalrymple writes that the book's hero does not "allow himself the luxury of self-pity even within the confines of his own skull, for he knew that internal indulgence would lead before long to external expression".[35] Dalrymple asserts that "the appropriation of the suffering of others to boost the scale and significance of one's own suffering is now a commonplace. It is an international trend",[35] and in this connection he then analyses the figures Binjamin Wilkomirski, Laura Grabowski, Misha Defonseca, Rigoberta Menchú, Margaret Seltzer, and James Frey, all of whom according to Dalrymple "make bogus claims to victim status"[36] and whose stories reveal perfectly "the dialectic between sentimentality and brutality".[37] Dalrymple ends the chapter by analysing the emergence of the phenomenon of victimhood in the criminal justice system, and concludes "For the sentimentalist, of course, there is no such thing as a criminal, only an environment that has let him down".[38]

File:Makepovhistory edin rjl.jpg

Make Poverty History campaigners in 2005.

Dalrymple begins the final chapter, Make Poverty History!, by trying to establish which type of poverty the campaigners behind the Make Poverty History campaign are trying to eradicate, and surmises that it must be "the kind of poverty that exists so long as incomes are not equal, that is to say among people whose income is less than sixty percent of that of the median income, a definition that is often used and means that, in a society of billionaires, a multi-millionaire could be considered poor".[39] Dalrymple then contends that chronic poverty has decreased considerably in the last twenty-five years, but principally in China and India, and that as a result "Africa is an exception and therefore is the current focus of sentimentality about poverty".[40] In this context he then explores the wish frequently expressed by Gordon Brown during his time as prime minister to "ensure that every child on the continent [African] should at least have a primary education".[41] Dalrymple dismisses this as a pure exercise in sentimental public posturing, and questions whether there is in fact a link between improving educational standards and increasing economic growth on the continent, citing as examples the experience of Tanzania under Julius Nyerere,[42] Equatorial Guinea under Macias Nguema,[43] and the eventual fate of Sierra Leone, after a "long history of historical effort and achievement".[44] He argues that what Africa needs as an immediate priority is access to markets.[42] Dalrymple also contends that the majority of aid sent to Africa is captured by its leaders[45] or used to fund civil wars.[46] He concludes that the position adopted by Gordon Brown smacks of "Singerian moral universalism",[46] which he labels "preposterous—psychologically, theoretically, and practically".[46]

In the books Conclusion, Dalrymple contends that "in field after field, sentimentality has triumphed",[47] and this has led to:

  • the lives of millions of children being blighted by overindulgence and neglect;
  • the destruction of educational standards;
  • great suffering because of the theory of human relations espoused by sentimentality;
  • brutality wherever the policies suggested by sentimentality have been advocated.

Dalrymple ends the book by writing that "The cult of feeling destroys the ability to think, or even the awareness that it is necessary to think. Pascal was absolutely right when he said

Travaillons donc à bien penser. Voilà le principe de la morale.[47]

Release details

The book was originally published in the UK on 29 July 2010 by Gibson Square Books Ltd. The book had at least one alternative sub-title before The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality was finally chosen; the US edition of the book has the sub-title How Britain is Ruined by Its Children. The book's front cover features a wrongly attributed comment: "a taboo-shattering, sacred cow-slaughtering, myth-destroying little gem of a book" by Dominic Lawson; Lawson had in fact written this in 2007 in a review[48] of another Dalrymple US-published book, Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.

Critical reception

After it was released the book received a largely positive response in the media.

In The Spectator, Jonathan Sumption praised the book, writing "The public hysteria surrounding such high-profile incidents as the death of Princess Diana and the search for Madeleine McCann, or the eccentricities of the MacPherson report on the death of Stephen Lawrence are analysed with the author's customary mixture of shrewdness, cynicism and misanthropic pessimism. These phenomena have of course been analysed before, and many of the same points have been made. But Dalrymple is good at relating them to broader trends in our society: the problems of child-centred education, the distrust of moral judgments save on a handful of 'approved' issues, the breakdown of traditional sources of authority. Not everyone will agree with the diagnosis, but even for those who do not, it is refreshing to find these things taken seriously and treated as raising fundamentally moral issues, not just aesthetic ones".[2]

The book was described by Toby Young in The Daily Telegraph as being an "excellent new book attacking the cult of sentimentality" and that Dalrymple also "makes a convincing case that standards in British education have plummeted in the last few decades".[49] Young also reviewed the book in greater length on his blog No Sacred Cows, where he commented that Dalrymple pours "buckets of vitriol into what he calls 'the great swamp of sentimental sludge and slime'. That suggests that the good doctor has become a grumpy old man in his retirement, but the remarkable thing about Spoilt Rotten is that Dalrymple never lets his anger obscure his compassion. Throughout the book you get a powerful sense that his outrage is rooted in a commitment to social justice. Yes, he believes members of the underclass should be weaned off the nanny state and forced to take responsibility for themselves, but he also believes it is left-wing intellectuals who have reduced them to a state of helpless infantalism, mainly through the promotion of the cult of sentimentality. He is not a Christian, but believes that it is only when Britain's benefit dependents rediscover the doctrine of Original Sin that they will be able to help themselves".[50]

Also in The Daily Telegraph, Ed West gave the book a favourable review, writing "Sentimentality, in which crude emotion replaces dispassionate analysis, affects all aspects of public life, such as the debates over education, prison places and overseas aid. As Dalrymple points out, no country has ever escaped poverty via international aid—but never mind, since what matters is not actually doing anything about state education or crime or Africa, but being seen to be caring about the 'vulnerable'".[51] West also agreed with Dalrymple's analysis of the death of Princess Diana, commenting: "Princess Diana was perhaps the queen of sentimentality in life, in her public support for the most fashionable of causes and her own public dramas, and in death she led an emotional revolution, when the Queen was bullied into showing she was grief-stricken by the tabloid press and the mob of simpletons that surrounded the palace. For in a world ruled by sentimentality, public outpourings of grief have long replaced dignity and self-restraint, so that the mob distrusts people who don't blub".[51]

The book was listed as a non-fiction choice by Steven Poole in The Guardian, who commented that "Dalrymple alternates vague ranting with surgical demolition (he is excellent on the fatuity of 'family impact statements' in court), and exhibits impressive thrift, in these uncertain times, with his research, getting tens of pages out of a single visit to WHSmith and the purchase of two newspapers. Perhaps the most suggestive sentence is tucked away in an endnote about tattoos: 'I wish I had the space to elaborate on the dermatological semiotics of violence in England'. If only someone had awarded him that space".[52] The book was also the subject of a spoof review by John Crace in The Guardian, which satirised the book and its author.[53]

In a positive review in The Scotsman, Tom Adair wrote that "Dalrymple tackles sentimentality on every front. He is frequently witty, always punchy and sometimes rapier-like, as he analyses the 'bunk' of his opponents to within an inch of its cant".[3]

In a more circumspect review in The Sunday Telegraph, historian Noel Malcolm suggested that Dalrymple "is spreading his net too widely, so that 'sentimentality' comes to stand for any moralising view that does not satisfy his own scrutiny; it's not that these things should not be criticised, merely that sentimentalism may not be the key to what is wrong with them".[54] Malcolm also questioned Dalrymple's views on modern educational theory and social policy, writing that "these ideas have long and complex histories, in which sentimentalism is only part of the story. The 'progressive' attack on discipline, and on traditional institutions such as the family, was concerned as much with power-structures and class as it ever was with sentiment or human goodness".[54] He also took issue with the assessment of Rousseau in the book, writing that Dalrymple is "wrong to portray the Swiss-French philosopher as a sentimentalist about education. Of an infant Rousseau wrote: 'if he once finds out how to gain your attention at will, he is your master, and his whole upbringing is spoilt'. If a child hits you in earnest, he said, you should immediately hit him back, harder. If he breaks the window in his bedroom, leave it unmended until the cold winds make him shiver; if he breaks it again, put him in a dark room with no windows at all. It's a sad confirmation of Dr. Dalrymple's thesis to think that Rousseau, today, would be taken away by the social services, prosecuted for child abuse and hounded as a monster by the tabloid press".[54]

Bibliography

  • Dalrymple, Theodore (2010). Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. Gibson Square Books Ltd. ISBN 1906142610.

See also

References

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  2. 2.0 2.1 Jonathan Sumption (28 August 2010). "Mawkish charades". The Spectator. http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/6227538/mawkish-charades.thtml. Retrieved 18 September July 2010.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Tom Adair (28 August 2010). "Book Review: Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality". The Scotsman. http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/Register.aspx?ReturnURL=http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/books/Book-Review-Spoilt-Rotten-The.6499861.jp. Retrieved 18 September 2010.
  4. Theodore Dalrymple (Summer 1999). "All Our Pomp of Yesterday". City Journal. http://www.city-journal.org/html/9_3_oh_to_be.html. Retrieved October 27, 2010.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Theodore Dalrymple (17 July 2010). "Sentimentality is poisoning our society". The Daily Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/7894907/Sentimentality-is-poisoning-our-society.html. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Theodore Dalrymple (25 July 2010). "JON VENABLES: THE LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY OF CRIME". The Daily Express. http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/189009/Jon-Venables-The-Little-Lord-Fauntleroy-of-crime. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
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  15. Rowan Walker (18 November 2007). "Cardinal urges prison reform". The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/nov/18/religion.prisonsandprobation. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
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  33. Margaret Drabble (8 March 2008). "Great poets". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/series/greatpoets. Retrieved 4 August 2010.
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  48. Dominic Lawson (6 February 2007). "Dominic Lawson: Addiction is a moral, not a medical, problem". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/dominic-lawson/dominic-lawson-addiction-is-a-moral-not-a-medical-problem-435192.html. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  49. Toby Young (13 July 2010). "Universities are now handing out First Class degrees like confetti". The Daily Telegraph. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100047114/universities-now-handing-out-first-class-degrees-like-confetti/. Retrieved 31 July 2010.
  50. Toby Young (9 September 2010). "Spoilt Rotten: Inside the toxic cult of sentimentality by Theodore Dalrymple". No Sacred Cows. http://www.nosacredcows.co.uk/book_reviews/1596/spoilt_rotten_inside_the_toxic_cult_of_sentimentality_by_theodore_dalrymple.html. Retrieved 18 September 2010.
  51. 51.0 51.1 Ed West (31 August 2010). "Thirteen years on, the hysteria following Princess Diana's death still gives me the creeps". The Daily Telegraph. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100047114/universities-now-handing-out-first-class-degrees-like-confetti/. Retrieved 18 September 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "West_Tele" defined multiple times with different content
  52. Steven Poole (9 October 2010). "Steven Poole's non-fiction choice – review". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/09/steven-poole-nonfiction-choice-review. Retrieved 9 October 2010.
  53. John Crace (30 August 2010). "Digested read: Spoilt rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality by Theodore Dalrymple". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/aug/30/digested-read-spoilt-rotten-dalrymple. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 Noel Malcolm (15 August 2010). "Spoilt Rotten! by Theodore Dalrymple: review". The Sunday Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7938779/Spoilt-Rotten-by-Theodore-Dalrymple-review.html. Retrieved 15 August 2010.

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