The Wrong Crowd

The reflections of Sir Mulberry Hawk—if such a term can be applied to the thoughts of the systematic and calculating man of dissipation, whose joys, regrets, pains, and pleasures, are all of self, and who would seem to retain nothing of the intellectual faculty but the power to debase himself, and to degrade the very nature whose outward semblance he wears—the reflections of Sir Mulberry Hawk turned upon Kate Nickleby, and were, in brief, that she was undoubtedly handsome; that her coyness MUST be easily conquerable by a man of his address and experience, and that the pursuit was one which could not fail to redound to his credit, and greatly to enhance his reputation with the world. And lest this last consideration—no mean or secondary one with Sir Mulberry—should sound strangely in the ears of some, let it be remembered that most men live in a world of their own, and that in that limited circle alone are they ambitious for distinction and applause. Sir Mulberry’s world was peopled with profligates, and he acted accordingly.

Thus, cases of injustice, and oppression, and tyranny, and the most extravagant bigotry, are in constant occurrence among us every day. It is the custom to trumpet forth much wonder and astonishment at the chief actors therein setting at defiance so completely the opinion of the world; but there is no greater fallacy; it is precisely because they do consult the opinion of their own little world that such things take place at all, and strike the great world dumb with amazement.

—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

Dickens presents an interesting idea, which is that acts of injustice do not arise from an individual’s inherent badness but from a desire to impress a circle of acquaintances who value such acts. I think that in our society we are aware of the consequences of “falling in with the wrong crowd,” but when bad things happen, we tend to focus on the individuals most proximally responsible rather than the subculture that nurtured them. It’s a tricky thing to address, though. There’s a fine line between inviting and enabling people to participate in wider society and imposing and enforcing social conformity. Is there a way for a free society to also ensure cohesiveness? Or is there an unavoidable trade-off between liberty and social harmony?

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6 comments on “The Wrong Crowd

  1. Legendumst says:

    A poignant question in this day and age, isn't it. Take politics, for example. Must libertarianism defy its own premise and install an enlightened oligarchy to prevent the libertarian utopia from imploding, or strive for anarchism and hope that people will behave on their own accord?
    I am convinced that most moral values — unless they are a product of evolution, perhaps — root in culture and therefore differ from society to society, even from group to group. Some are easier to reconcile than others, but discrepancies always have and always will exist, and to some extent we do need an authority, an arbiter, to keep things in check, and to impose the moral kernel of a liberal society: “Be tolerant, do not harm others, nor violate their freedom”. “Live and let live”, as it were.
    But we must also be aware of the dangers of tolerance led ad absurdum. There's a great South Park episode on the subject, “The Death Camp of Tolerance”. If you manage to get past the tragedy of Lemmiwinks, it can teach you a valuable lesson on the nature and limits of tolerance.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Yes, it's ironic that freedom must be protected by force. But people will insist on imposing themselves on others.
    I really should watch South Park. They seem to cover all sorts of interesting topics.

  3. Stefanie says:

    What fascinating questions you ask! The individual and society are intertwined to be sure. But when an individual commits a crime, even if it was supported and promoted by a certain societal element, the law cannot prosecute society so the individual must take the rap.
    But utopian social harmony is terrifying to me too. What sort of brainwashing and conformity would be required for such an achievement? There must be a happy medium somewhere. Maybe.

  4. Sylvia says:

    You're right, social engineering always has the danger of becoming a tool of totalitarianism. But I think there are ways to encourage good behaviour without infringing on people's rights.

  5. びっくり says:

    The worst things I did as a youth were actually completely associated with acceptance issues. Interesting observations. I guess our expectation is that as we become adults, we are responsible to handle these things. I'll be thinking about this all day.
    Also, I can't hear Hawke's name without wondering if his drunk driving accident was the earliest literary reference to same.

  6. Sylvia says:

    I just got to that accident but don't know what the aftermath was yet. Perhaps there is drunk driving in classical literature…?

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