What a prim and prurient nation we’ve become

How is your mindset today? At the start of a long weekend, with spring in the air, it will probably be in an acceptable state. If for some unhappy reason it is not, you will be reassured to know that there is an ever-increasing number of sincere people, concerned for the welfare of you and your community, who will able to offer assistance.

Because, once we all have appropriate mindsets in place, the world will be a less spiky, difficult and unpredictable place. Lamp-posts in our cities are soon to be equipped with cameras and loudspeakers so that people can be reminded that antisocial behaviour – dropping litter, being aggressive, smoking in the wrong places, becoming over-amorous in public – is unacceptable in modern Britain. Normally a word from the lamp-post, uttered by a caring copper watching CCTV screens at the local police station, will be enough to head off any antisocial activity. The policy is not about punishment or control, so much as a reminder as to what society expects.

Every week, more people are on hand to encourage us to adopt the appropriate frame of mind. This week, the Institute of Public Policy Research published a suggestion that those planning to travel by air should be reminded of the harm they will be doing to the ozone layer. Like health warnings on cigarette packets, these notices will not be prescriptive, but a concerned attempt to alter the mindset of those addicted to an antisocial activity.

There are many advantages to this method behaviour-management through guilt. Once the virus of generalised disapproval has been lodged in the brain, responsible behaviour becomes part of a self-corrective process. Concerned executives at the BBC, for example, do not have to be told that Benny Hill, still a hit with American viewers, has become inappropriate. “I am afraid that Benny Hill reflects older Britain and our job is to reflect contemporary Britain and the cool shows coming out,” a prim corporation spokesperson has said. Soon the pervy, dimple-faced comedian will be disappearing from screens around the world.

This sort of self-regulating social disapproval is usefully contagious; once it becomes established, the need for policemen in lamp-posts is reduced. It is part of human nature that a person imbued with moral virtue will soon want to impose it on others. In 2007, the attitude of acceptably behaved citizens towards those they regard as civic deviants is fierce and unforgiving.

To take an example close to home, anyone rash enough to write in favour of, say, the rights of smokers or hunters is likely to feel the full force of this righteous rage in a way that would have been far less noticeable two or three years ago. Bullying, indeed, plays its part in establishing the right mindset – there are housing estates where communities are encouraged to report and persecute problem families, where an Asbo is a license to harass.

It is difficult to oppose this form of social persuasion. Most sane people disapprove of litter-dropping, violence, noise, public indecency. They are in favour of a responsible attitude to the environment. Mindset management merely takes that process one step further, and then another. The list of unacceptable activities and views grows longer by the day, covering food, cars, words, criticism of religion, body shape, jokes, shops. It is a campaign that cannot end until every form of behaviour deemed to be antisocial is a distant memory.

That, of course, will never happen. This contemporary version of Victorian puritanism has a paradoxical effect on the very people who behave worst. The more they are nagged by a community, the less they want to be part of it. There might be concern, in liberal quarters, that condemnation by the majority might be expressed more directly than a light “tut tut”, that something akin to a lynch-mob mentality might set in. Communities that become convinced that individuals are threatening their health, welfare, security, and children may choose more robust ways of cleansing undesirable elements.

It might even be thought that this relatively subtle form of control and social guidance on the part of a self-appointed moral élite could eventually transform itself into something altogether less palatable. Once the idea takes root that responsible behaviour is something which can and should be imposed on others, the temptation to expand what is socially acceptable to cover the way people think and talk and vote may prove irresistible.

We should be on our guard when good-hearted folk encourage us to adjust our mindset as we book a holiday, or switch on the TV, or when a lamp-post starts talking to us. Behind those gentle admonishments is a bully with an ever-dwindling respect for freedom and individuality.