Novelist Maggie Gee, in her essay for this month’s Prospect, takes a long look at an especially knotty social question: just how cruel are the British people today? On the one hand, she explores the “tide of sympathy” that the media seems perpetually primed to unleash over particular kinds of public tragedy—Jade Goody’s untimely death, the prime minister or the leader of the opposition losing a child. On the other hand, she teases out a certain “excessive curiosity tinged with ghoulishness” that can lie behind such outpourings, together with the “appetite in millions of people for having a laugh at someone else’s expense” evidenced by shows like The X Factor or The Apprentice.
Famous people, Gee suggests, occupy a strange zone between adulation and contempt that makes them “the new non-persons in modern lives”: people whose lives we feel free to enjoy and deplore in equal measure because “we have deemed them to be not our own kind.” Enter Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, and the scandal that seemed to channel a bottomless pool of national rage, sympathy and envy touched with guilt. And then, of course, there’s the phenomenon of ordinary folks like Susan Boyle, elevated into sudden super-stardom by their own abilities on Britain’s Got Talent: a channel for public largesse of a peculiarly anti-celebrity kind (as Sam Leith explores elsewhere in the current issue).
Gee goes on to search philosophy, literature, psychoanlysis and evolutionary biology for clues in her wide-ranging survey of what it may mean, today, to be kind as a nation. Where would you turn for answers? Let us know your own thoughts below.