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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: How to talk to a pacifist

9 August 2014

8:00 AM

9 August 2014

8:00 AM

‘Keep your temper’, from The Spectator, 8 August 1914:

‘When a nation goes to war the policy of the Government nearly always fails to carry with it the convictions of a minority.  It is, of course, very rare for a Government who make war to find themselves without the support of the majority – for, as a rule, they would not even contemplate war without ascertaining the general tendency of public opinion – yet such cases have happened. It is probable that the majority were opposed to the war of George III. and Lord North against the American colonists. Even when the causa causans of a war in past history was a question of religious faith or of independence – both wonderfully binding motives – there were probably recalcitrants who said or felt strongly that their country was in the wrong.  So far as we know, reasoned objections to the Crusades are not on record, but we may be sure that even the Crusades were denounced as being mere piratical excursions – which is indeed what they were, though we must not judge them morally by our present code. The feeling of the majority against the minority during war is apt to be very bitter and intolerant. No doubt a Crusader who was called a robber and a murderer by a contemporary political philosopher would have been ready to kill his critic in the most Christian manner possible in the name of the Church. What we think it is worth while to say now is that we of these days ought to know better. The only test for persons who admit the virtue of tolerance is whether dissent from the policy of the nation is honest or dishonest. The history of France should be enough to remind us of the awful peril of calling men sans-patries because they take an unpopular view. Episodes of the American Civil War were less tragic, but they were also a warning. The poor fellows who were tarred and feathered in the South because they preached the sanctity of the Union and denounced slavery were generally as brave as they were honest. The British nation is now for all practical purposes as one; the minority scarcely count, and will certainly introduce no weakness into our ranks. Let us not forget, then, that minorities may be honest and should be respected for their honesty, and that when they are not honest they may safely be treated with silent contempt so long as their opinions are obviously doing no harm. We trust that there will be no singling out of a class of “Pro-Germans” for a highly question-begging form of abuse – such abuse as was showered on “Pro-Boers” (most of whom were perfectly honest, though utterly misguided) during the South African War. A loss of temper among the majority does far more real harm than the unimpeded expression of the wrong-headed opinions held by the minority…

‘Argument with the pacifist is almost useless. He belongs to one of three classes, and with each of these classes attempts to reason are sure to fail. He may belong, first, to the obstinate group. He has an idée fixe about his own countrymen being in the wrong as a matter of course. This morbid humility which attributes to other races than his own a superior power of wisdom and integrity never deserts him. It is apparently a sincere prepossession. He is merely a misguided patriot. He will tell you even now that Germany would never have violated treaties or territories if British policy had not been what it has been; that German ruthlessness is only the inevitable by-product of British ruthlessness; that the poison must be sought at the fountain-head, not further down the stream; that by doing this, that, and the other thing Britain poisoned the spring; and that therefore Britain is the real author of German policy, and the war, and all the other troubles of mankind, and so on and so forth. If you argue he mazes himself more and more with sophistries, and as conviction with him is only a kind of intellectual entanglement it follows that the more you reason the more he becomes convicted of his own insight. A good-humoured silence is much the best treatment for the obstinate pacifist. He is verbally a very clever fellow; yet by a great irony his cleverness does not enable him to see an issue with half the clearness of the man who dips into an evening newspaper in intervals of sweeping the streets. Moreover, he is often panoplied in an intellectual vanity that is proof against any attack. When he feels that he is acting contra mundum he is sure that he is a hero or a martyr. The second class of pacifists is composed of timid persons. They cannot overcome their moral weakness, and it does not make very much difference to them whether the cause of their country is right or wrong. They are against was as being indisputably the greatest evil in the world in all conceivable circumstances. It is useless to argue with them. Silence, again, though perhaps tinged more with contempt than good humour, is the proper treatment. The third class would deserve to forfeit all tolerance if we could prove who belong to it, but as proof is impossible silence once more is the proper treatment. This class is composed of sly persons, who think that by avoiding hostilities wherever possible, and at whatever loss of honour or self-respect, they will make great commercial profits, while less sharp-witted but more generous people are loosing their opportunities and exhausting their energies by fighting.

‘The three classes of pacifists form so minute a body at present that for practical purposes they do not count. But their spirit is not dead, because it is inherent in a certain class of minds. If it should appear, as it very well may, let us be absolutely determined not to waste effort and breath on recrimination. Lincoln never once descended to the cheap expedient of sharpening feeling in the North against the South by calling the Confederates rebels. His restraint and courtesy were a model for the world. Recrimination should be absolutely unknown while the war lasts – not only recrimination against recusants in the crowd, but recrimination against Ministers and officials. Mistakes there are bound to be, but they will have the minimum of injurious effect if we refrain while the war lasts from the pitiable occupation of shouting out that we have been betrayed.’

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