Being fine is being brave… about the Britishness and humanity of “The Iron Lady” and “Skyfall”

Nov 27, 2012 by

Being fine is being brave…                about the Britishness and humanity of “The Iron Lady” and “Skyfall”

In Britain, you are always fine. You may be shot off the racing train 100 meters down the cliff into the turquoise waters and you end up fine. Better still – in the arms of a beautiful woman, if you are Agent 007.

Alternatively,  you may be suffering from hallucinations, visited by a dead husband and you are still fine. “Stop winging and get up to work”, the elderly Mrs. Thatcher admonishes her worried daughter.

Leaving skyfalls and secret agents aside, what struck me about the two British films I have watched recently was the characterisation of the women. Power women, some may call them, who entertained high official posts with traits typically perceived as masculine –toughness, remarkable strength, unbending character, at times  cold-bloodedness.   One became the chef of the secret forces, the other – the British prime minister.

When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher is asked by her doctor: “How do you feel?”, she replies indignantly “Why are you asking me how I feel, ask me what I think!”. She bemoans the softening of human character, the entering of emotions into the British public discourse, the increasing  flexibility (or shall we say, opportunism) of politicians willing to compromise (with the striking miners) and to ceasefire (on the Falklands). What mattered to her were principles and beliefs. While we may disagree with her opinions or political program, it is impossible to deny that she acted on her principles, rather than on the careful analysis of interests, as is often the case in current political landscape (the attitude was even granted a name and a scientific discipline devoted to it – “realist politics”).

Acting in the name of the public good is for both Mrs Thatcher and for the chef of the secret  forces irreconcilable with showing, voicing of or acting on emotions. On the contrary, it requires acting out of the sense of duty and responsibility, and these need to be exercised far away from the field of emotions, impulse and influence. Emotions have no place in a rational argument-based British political discourse and debate.

It seems to me that emotionality is in our world often confused with humanity. Being human is for many an equivalent to being soft, empathetic and emotional.  The tough types, including those that decide to remain loyal to their principles and not bend even when under pressure rather than follow the moods of the public, are seen as inhuman or loosing touch with reality.

However,  humanity is neither about being soft nor cold, emotional or rational. For me, the essence of humanity is probably closest to “empathetic rationality” or “integrity”, and consists in making the right kind of choices at right moments in time. It requires the analysis of both reasons for and consequences of one’s actions and taking responsibility for them. This it means to me, but is not and cannot be one defintion for all, because humanity, despite its claim at universality, is often conceptualized within the cultural frameworks.

In Britain, humanity is not about being soft, but rather about being hard and brave. What some European might call “cold” or “distanced” is for the British often a sign of strength or else, just the right way to behave, a convention. Strength is here understood as Stoics understood it, as the ability to stand  still when facing adversity. In everyday life, this means the use of such terms as “stop fussing” (Mrs. Thatcher to her daughter, and many other Brits), and the (in)famous “I feel fine”. This “ I feel fine” is often abroad interpreted as superficial, expressing the coldness of the English (or American for that matter) people and their disinterest in deep conversations. I would suggest this is not a disinterest, but rather  a deeply ingrained belief, often entertained unawares, that being fine is being brave and thus, the way to be. This is exactly the kind of assumption as the Slavs have it, that being emotional , or even depressive, means being “deep” (an assumption tha might be traced back to the psychological novels of Dostoyevsky I believe). In one culture, compaining or emotional outbursts are seens as a virtue, in others – as a faus paux. The crucial thing is to realise that these are culturally-based a s s u m p t i o n s affecting all of us.

What happens is that the British often show feelings to each other in very discrete (some may call them diluted) forms. In England, a lot is happening in between the lines, but not much is outspoken. This is the case in a relationship between Agent 007 and his boss – while all along it is somehow clear (at least it was to me) that there is a special bond of trust and loyalty between them, this is never said. Instead, emotions are pulled in line behind a cold professional mask. It is understandable in office, especially in the office of the secret forces, but this is just an extension of everyday British life – not saying much, assuming (sometimes rightly sometimes wrongly) that certain things are clear, or are to be concluded from actions.

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