Roger Scruton's incivility

Does the philosopher understand the difference between commentary and libel?


Stephanie Zacharek
May 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

In the world of letters as well as the world at large, there's a creeping sense that rudeness has gotten completely out of hand. The collective murmurs of longing for more civility in discourse and in life have swelled to something like a roar. Last week "ABC World News Tonight" even did a special report on the lack of civility in our culture, covering everything from road rage to the importance of occasional incivility to shake things up.

Anyone who ever leaves the house, even just to buy a quart of milk, knows from experience that we all could stand to start treating one another with more decency. But there's also a danger in mistaking simple politeness for sincerity, warmth, intelligence or any number of other desirable qualities. Sometimes good manners can make an excellent coverup for passive-aggression -- or worse, a smiley-face substitute for the discussion of unpleasant truths. In the United States, at least, it seems that the people calling out most loudly for civility are cultural conservatives (even though it was Newt Gingrich who almost single-handedly lowered the level of debate in the House of Representatives). They want spirited, lively discourse, but always with a veneer of refinement -- no rude noises allowed.

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Judging by what Roger Scruton told Zoe Heller for a "Talk of the Town" piece that ran in the New Yorker last week, it looks as if the British philosopher and right-winger fits squarely -- and I do mean squarely -- into that mold. Scruton has been served with a libel suit by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the pop group Pet Shop Boys after essentially claiming in his latest book, "The Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture," that they don't make their own music. "Sometimes, as with the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys, serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trademark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable," Scruton wrote. Politely.

Suggesting that the critical distinctions made by society at large are generally pretty flabby these days, Scruton told Heller, "People who are seriously concerned about the intellectual life and the state of culture ought to comment more about such things. But now there's this sense that anything goes, and that there isn't any point in making criticism."

Yet the man who's complaining about the "sense that anything goes" wrote something about Pet Shop Boys that is patently false; he obviously didn't do any fact-checking himself. (It's probably more accurate to say he didn't bother to do any thinking: Tennant and Lowe are so well-known as producers in their own right that it's obvious Scruton is completely ignorant of the genre he's gassing on about.) At the same time he's lamenting that the whole culture is going to hell in a handbasket and no one's doing anything about it, he's employing methods that are suspiciously lacking in rigor.

It's obvious that Scruton believes that what he wrote about Pet Shop Boys falls into the category of civilized, spirited discourse. So what if he carelessly flushed one pop band's whole body of work down the Gents' loo? He seems to believe that this suit over a false statement is nothing more than a case of hurt feelings. "I certainly think it's incredible that they're suing. I don't know why they are," he told Heller, sounding positively civil -- suggesting that in certain circles, it's perfectly OK to say anything you want about anybody, as long as you say it nicely.


Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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