Friday 6 February 2009

'Fine variations of the commonplace'

I make no apologies for returning to the Gollygate saga - after all, the BBC, with its usual deft PR footwork, is keeping this hugely damaging story alive and kicking day after day. It seems to me that the root of this story - the 'offence' taken - is a textbook example of priggishness in action. And who wrote the textbook? Marilynne Robinson of course, in her brilliant, burningly pertinent essay, Puritans and Prigs.
Priggishness, she says, is 'up-to-date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, as self-persuaded as a Method actor. It looks like morality and feels like it, both to those who wield it and those that taste its lash'.
But priggishness is not morality... Distinguishing between the two, Robinson concedes that ' perhaps what I have called priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism makes its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig's formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradiction in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one's better nature, if only to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all. '
And there's more: 'People who are blind to the consequences of their own behaviour no doubt feel for that reason particularly suited to the work of reforming other people. To them morality seems almost as easy as breathing.'
Further comment would be superfluous.


  1. As someone new to the country, I'm still a little confused. I watched Question Time last night and was impressed with Will Young, but I still don't know what the reference is?

    I'm assuming it's something to do with homosexuals, but haven't heard an exact definition of the reference, or why it is offensive.


  2. I'm afraid it's all about golliwogs, Ron...

  3. Thanks. Guess I was way off base and still have a lot to learn.

    And here I thought I already knew every offensive word known to man.

    What's the point of growing up a redneck in the Ozarks?