Not so long ago, the people’s philosopher, Alain de Botton, made a startlingly bold pronouncement. We are setting out on “the long march of kindness”, he said. “These are times of moral progress. We have become more and more sensitive to, and concerned about, the suffering of others.”
Hanging his thesis on the news peg of the Rolf Harris conviction, de Botton argued that what we now recognise as unacceptable or even criminal behaviour was once simply part of life. An executive, or professor of literature, would cheerfully grope his secretary, seeing it simply as a perk of the job. In the future, other acts may one day be beyond the pale. A husband calling his wife a “cunt”, he suggested, might well find himself up before the beak.
It seemed to me a somewhat pie-eyed theory at the time. Nothing in the gloating coverage of the Harris verdict suggested that we are kinder or more understanding than we were, say, 20 years ago. Nor was I convinced that a world in which it was a illegal for a person to swear at his spouse – men, incidentally, were always the guilty party in this argument – would be quite as nice as de Botton seemed to think.
Oddly, though, this past fortnight of unremittingly appalling news has made me wonder whether he is not on to something. The nightly TV bulletins are so depressing and upsetting that one has had to remind oneself that, outside certain miserable parts of the world and generally unreflected by that hopeless little screen, a few faltering steps have indeed been taken on the long march to kindness.
Away from the news reports, the screeching press comment, the rancorous bitching of online moralists, there is evidence of another, less-sensational reality. Because we are unavoidably aware of the unspeakable human catastrophes that are taking place around the world, aspects of conflict which were once taken for granted as a regrettable by-product of war – notably the death of civilians – are treated with the horror and disgust which they deserve. We care more about our fellow human beings than we used to.
On our streets, violent crime is in decline. Great areas of brutality and exploitation which were once quietly ignored – from the abuse of children to the treatment of animals – are more open to scrutiny and punishment. Pockets of corruption or greed, within the police force, business, national and local government, are less likely to remain unexposed.
It is not to underestimate the devastating realities of war and violence to say that at least there is more universal concern about what is happening. That matters. When, after centuries of ignorance and indifference, a culturally embedded practice like female genital abuse is identified and condemned as the abuse it is, a process of change is under way.
Signs of a greater empathy are all around us – in people contributing to their communities, in more-sensible attitudes to the balance between life and work, in a greater tolerance of how even the most shambolic, extended families can work, in the behaviour of the young growing into adulthood, in attitudes to and from the grievously ill.
We are less insular than we once were, more tolerant towards those of different sexual orientations. Standards of parenthood improve generation by generation.
It is admittedly true that, while the young and old have become kinder in the 21st century, those in their tricky middle years remain something of a work in progress, but it is not unduly optimistic to think that even those prickly, hard-eyed thrusters in their thirties and forties will eventually join the long march.
Anyone looking at the grim news of the day is likely to dismiss the idea that we are making moral progress as the result of spending too much time in the sun, probably ingesting magic mushrooms. The problem is that those reporting our world to us take the dull decency of everyday life for granted, and continue to provide us with a daily diet of dysfunction, misery and decline. The media invariably reflects the worst of our natures.
Of course, terrible events must be reported, and the idea of sweetening the daily news with what the former newscaster Martyn Lewis has called “solutions-driven journalism” is doomed to failure. When, a few years ago, Lewis mounted a campaign in favour of positive reporting, BBC Radio 5 launched a “good news hour”. It did not last long, although its spirit lives on: last week, Radio 4 tried to lift our spirits with a slightly odd story about a Pakistani mountaineering team climbing K2.
The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, included the breaking news that the cricketer, Marcus Trescothick, had rescued a hedgehog that was stuck in the bars of a gate.
The news at times like these – indeed at almost all times – will remain gloomy. On the screen and in the press, everyday kindness has precious little chance of being remembered while horrifying acts of cruelty are taking place around the world. In life, though, it matters more than ever.