November 08, 2016

Tea and Sympathy

The English are supposed to be experts at tea and sympathy. In my experience, and I say this as an insider, they're pretty bad at both.

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Let's get the tea out of the way first. It's still a point of some debate how to make a cup of tea in England, the controversy chiefly hinging on when in the procedure to add the milk. These days, hardly anybody bemoans the teabag, described to me once by a Dane as a sachet of dust. In any case, the visitor to England is no more likely to get a good cup of tea there than anywhere else, and might only reflect on the significance of the fact that 180 million cups of the stuff get drunk everyday in the British Isles. It is a minor addiction, perhaps, or else little more than a warm, and distinctly unchallenging, comfort. If you're not convinced, look to the outrage of George Orwell, no less.

Sympathy, meanwhile, has become a rare bird. In political and civil discourse of late, it's been hard to detect. Society has become acrimonious, relations antagonistic. The views of others are not looked into but shut down, ably abetted by a monstrous media that exists seemingly only to foment discord. We might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that the sympathetic streak has been lost.

I'm not convinced it was ever there, or that anybody ever really knew what they meant by it. At best, the sharing of troubles over tea was perhaps just a variation on breaking bread, the communal sharing of one another's company as a reminder of shared humanity. Problems were never really broached, let alone halved or solved.

My own research on the meaning and practice of sympathy in British history suggests a strongly fluctuating concept, ranging from a deeply self-serving pity (the well-spring of charity de haut en bas) to a clinical calculation about how best to stave off the weak and preserve the strong for the sake of the English 'race'.

Those two extremes overlapped at the end of the nineteenth century, and the latter point is perhaps the most shocking observation of the history of sympathy in England. For the sake of putting an end to social suffering, otherwise well-meaning individuals contrived a social policy of eugenic breeding and framed it in the name, in the feeling, of sympathy.

It did not come to pass, or at least, not there, and not then. But the evidence of the link between sympathy and eugenics is compelling, and has a long reach. This particular story caps a much longer tale, which I'm happy to report now exists in the world.

The Science of Sympathy is published by the University of Illinois Press, and is available now in paperback.

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