Fear of public opinion (BERTRAND RUSSELL)

Fear of public opinion (BERTRAND RUSSELL)

Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially by those with whom they live. It is a peculiarity of modern communities that they are divided into sets which differ profoundly in their morals and in their beliefs. This state of affairs began with the Reformation, or perhaps one should say with the Renaissance, and has grown more pronounced ever since. There were Protestants and Catholics, who differed not only in theology but on many more practical matters. There were aristocrats who permitted various kinds of action that were not tolerated among the bourgeoisie. Then there came to be latitudinarians and free-thinkers who did not recognise the duties of religious observance.

Owing to all these differences of outlook a person of given tastes and convictions may find himself practically an outcast while he lives in one set, although in another set he would be accepted as an entirely ordinary human being. A very great deal of unhappiness, especially among the young, arises in this way. A young man or young woman somehow catches ideas that are in the air, but finds that these ideas are anathema in the particular milieu in which he or she lives. It easily seems to the young as if the only milieu with which they are acquainted were representative of the whole world.

They can scarcely believe that in another place or another set the views which they dare not avow for fear of being thought utterly perverse would be accepted as the ordinary commonplaces of the age. Thus through ignorance of the world a great deal of unnecessary misery is endured, sometimes only in youth, but not infrequently throughout life.

This isolation is not only a source of pain, it also causes a great dissipation of energy in the unnecessary task of maintaining mental independence against hostile surroundings, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred produces a certain timidity in following out ideas to their logical conclusions.

But there are not many who have this degree of force in their inner life. To almost everybody sympathetic surroundings are necessary to happiness. To the majority, of course, the surroundings in which they happen to find themselves are sympathetic. They imbibe current prejudices in youth, and instinctively adapt themselves to the beliefs and customs which they find in existence around them. But to a large minority which includes practically all who have any intellectual or artistic merit, this attitude of acquiescence is impossible. A person born, let us say, in some small country town finds himself from early youth surrounded by hostility to everything that is necessary for mental excellence. If he wishes to read serious books, other boys despise him, and teachers tell him that such works are unsettling. If he cares for art, his contemporaries think him unmanly, and his elders think him immoral. If he desires any career, however respectable, which has not been common in the circle to which he belongs, he is told that he is setting himself up, and that what was good enough for his father ought to be good enough for him. If he shows any tendency to criticise his parents’ religious tenets or political affiliations, he is likely to find himself in serious trouble.

For all these reasons, to most young men and young women of exceptional merit adolescence is a time of great unhappiness. To their more ordinary companions it may be a time of gaiety and enjoyment, but for themselves they want something more serious, which they can find neither among their elders nor among their contemporaries in the particular social setting in which chance has caused them to be born. When such young people go to a university they probably discover congenial souls and enjoy a few years of great happiness. If they are fortunate, they may succeed, on leaving the university, in obtaining some kind of work that gives them still the possibility of choosing congenial companions; an intelligent man who lives in a city as large as London or New York can generally find some congenial set in which it is not necessary to practise any constraint or hypocrisy. But if his work obliges him to live in some smaller place, and more particularly if it necessitates retention of the respect of ordinary people, as is the case, for example, with a doctor or a lawyer, he may find himself throughout his whole life practically compelled to conceal his real tastes and convictions from most of the people that he meets in the course of his day. This is especially true in America because of the vastness of the country. In the most unlikely places, north, south, east, and west, one finds lonely individuals who know from books that there are places where they would not be lonely, but who have no chance to live in such places, and only the rarest opportunity of congenial conversation.

Real happiness in such circumstances is impossible to those who are built on a less magnificent scale. If it is to become possible, some way must be found by which the tyranny of public opinion can be either lessened or evaded, and by which members of the intelligent minority can come to know each other and enjoy each other’s society. In a good many cases unnecessary timidity makes the trouble worse than it need be. Public opinion is always more tyrannical towards those who obviously fear it than towards those who feel indifferent to it. A dog will bark more loudly and bite more readily when people are afraid of him than when they treat him with contempt, and the human herd has something of this same characteristic. If you show that you are afraid of them, you give promise of good hunting, whereas if you show indifference, they begin to doubt their own power and therefore tend to let you alone. I am not, of course, thinking of extreme forms of defiance.

I am thinking, not of such extremes but of much milder lapses from conventionality, such as failure to dress correctly or to belong to some Church or to abstain from reading intelligent books.

It is customary in these days of psycho-analysis to assume that, when any young person is out of harmony with his environment, the cause must lie in some psychological disorder. This is to my mind a complete mistake. Suppose, for example, that a young person has parents who believe the doctrine of evolution to be wicked. Nothing except intelligence is required in such a case to cause him to be out of sympathy with them. To be out of harmony with one’s surroundings is, of course, a misfortune, but it is not always a misfortune to be avoided at all costs. Where the environment is stupid or prejudiced or cruel, it is a sign of merit to be out of harmony with it. And to some degree these characteristics exist in almost every environment.

Galileo and Kepler had ‘dangerous thoughts’ (as they are called in Japan), and so have the most intelligent men of our own day. It is not desirable that the social sense should be so strongly developed as to cause such men to fear the social hostility which their opinions may provoke. What is desirable is to find ways of making this hostility as slight and as ineffective as possible.




The Conquest of Happiness

Bertrand Russell



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