Our Contemporary Sanctimony Puts the Victorians to Shame

Quite often these days I receive emails asking me to consider the environment before I print them. They are quite right of course: my study is already horribly littered even without print-outs of more emails.

But this, I suspect, is not at all what they mean: they mean the Environment with a capital E, in the Mother Earth, Gaia, or Pachamama sense of the word, a sense that always makes me feel slightly queasy, as Wagnerian opera does. If people really care about the environment, why don’t they campaign against rock music in public places, a vastly greater threat to civilization than a mere rise in global temperature and sea levels could ever be?

Now that you’ve got me going on the subject of contemporary sanctimony, how about this for a provocation? I received today an email from a very large and successful firm of lawyers asking me for my opinion in a medico-legal case. Appended to the email (after the obligatory bit about the environment, the whales, the dolphins, and the worms) was the following nauseating statement:

Out partnership is committed to eliminating discrimination

and promoting equality and diversity in it own policies and

procedures. This applies to the firm’s dealings with

employees, clients and other third parties.

Now it used to be alleged against Dickens that his characters were mere one-dimensional caricatures, that for example such grotesque hypocrites as Pecksniff or Podsnap could not possibly have existed in reality. But reading the statement reproduced above, who would now venture such an opinion? Who would dare laugh at the Victorians for their prudery and their bowdlerism? Is it only in sexual matters that a man can be a hypocrite?

Let us remind ourselves that a statement such as the one attached to the lawyers’ email did not get there spontaneously; someone, and quite possibly some committee, had to write it and decree that it should be appended to all the emails that the company sent. Indeed it probably took many sessions over breakfast or lunch to hammer it out.

What, actually, does it mean? Does it mean, for example, that the lady who cleans the offices at night after the partners have gone home, will henceforth be paid the same as the partners, that is to say hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars a year, because of their commitment to equality? Good luck for her if so, but I suspect not. Does it mean, either, that when someone applies for a job the firm will take no notice whatever of the person’s past record of achievement and ability, and will not discriminate in favor of an applicant with superior ability? Again, I suspect not; I would certainly hope not if I were a client of the firm’s.

There is a wonderful passage in Martin Chuzzlewit in which Pecksniff introduces his two daughters to a third party.

"Charity and Mercy," he says. "Not unholy names, I think?"

If he were living today, now that we have made so much progress, he would say:

"Equality and Diversity. Not unholy names, I think?"