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Why we’re lost without our taboos

March 26, 2020 - 3:00pm

Take a look at this remarkable footage. It’s courtesy of Stuart Humphryes, who describes it as the “earliest known colour film of London, taken in 1924.”

It includes a busy street market scene, absolutely thronged with people. It’s a largely male crowd and a fine day, but almost everyone is wearing a hat. All the men are wearing dark-coloured jackets too.

Why the spontaneous uniformity? The formality? The hats?

There’s a theory that the car killed the hat. Cars provide protection from the elements, but not much headspace — so no need, and no room, for headgear.

But before the era of mass motoring, your hat was what sheltered you while on the move. On the day the market was filmed, the weather was clement. No one was wearing a coat. They were clad from top-to-toe, however. Unlike today, there were no bare arms or legs — and scarcely a bare head.

It wasn’t just the elements that people needed protecting from. 1924 was well before the widespread use of antibiotics and other medical marvels. A scratch could be fatal and ‘catching your death of cold’ was more than a mere expression. We might see the stiff and starchy attire of this age (and earlier ages) as absurdly uptight — but in fact it was armour against a hostile environment.

In the 2020s, we’re once again living with the pervasive threat of deadly infection. But in contrast to our forebears we’re not equipped with the social habits that helped to protect them.

In his thought-provoking piece for UnHerd about the behavioural economics of the corona-crisis, James Kirkup asked whether the refusal of some people not to gather in public places is evidence that we can’t be trusted to do the right and rational thing.

Well, some people are idiots. But, he says, there is a more charitable explanation:

Maybe the people who continued to mingle were being neither good nor bad but merely inaccurately estimating the consequences and costs of their actions…

…How many of us can easily conjure up a simple mental picture of an invisible virus spreading exponentially through a population of tens of millions, and be clear in our minds about who we might be harming by popping down the local for one last pint or a walk in the park?

- James Kirkup, UnHerd

I agree with this analysis: we’re not calculating machines — and even if we were, we might not have the right information. But what I’d add is that throughout history, societies have evolved cognitive shortcuts that bypass the need for each-and-every individual to constantly think things through rationally. Traditions, taboos, superstitions, social norms — call them what you like, they are the means by which cultures programme themselves to take the collective actions necessary for survival. The Londoners of the 1920s didn’t dress the way they did because they individually decided to, but because hat-wearing was simply the done thing.

In our gilded age of unprecedented wealth and security, we have de-programmed ourselves — rejecting the old habits of mind as old-fashioned and oppressive. The underlying instinct for deference and conformity, which once primed us for spontaneous collective action is now held in contempt.

Indeed, contemporary culture revolves around images and stories of rebellious non-conformity. Thanks to our material prosperity we no longer need our societal self-defence mechanisms and thus can afford to make a performance out of destroying them.

Until we need them again, of course.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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James Chilton
James Chilton
4 years ago

A fascinating and exquisite glimpse of London in 1924, and a very astute and amiable commentary on it by Peter Franklin.