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Thursday, November 11, 2004


Silence is golden

Today is Remembrance Day. This day was chosen because it is the anniversary of the armistice in 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month - the end of 'the war to end all wars'.

On the first anniversary in 1919, the practice began of observing two minutes' silence at 11am. It is difficult for us now to imagine the magnitude of that first commemoration. In four years of war, Britain had lost more than 700,000 dead, at a time when its population was only about 45 million. Most families and communities had lost somebody, and everyone knew someone who had been killed.

For most of the twentieth century in Britain, while one minute's silence would occasionally be observed for the death of a sporting hero or public figure, two minutes was strictly reserved for those who had died fighting for their country.

Then, during the 1990s, something changed. Patrick West, in his recent book
Conspicuous Compassion, reveals how compassion inflation has set in. For example, in 1999 at a mass to commemorate the Labroke Grove train crash, five minutes' silence was observed, while in 2001 children in Newcastle observed ten minutes' silence for cancer research.

West observes of these silences, "They are getting longer and we are having more of them, because we want to be seen to care - and increasingly are compelled to do so."

He adds, "There is seemingly a case of compassion inflation, with individuals and organisations seeking to prove how much more they care by elongating the silences. This is a reaction to the minute's silence being practiced so frequently. It is as if by extending these periods, there is competition to prove who is more empathetic. When a group called Hedgeline calls for a two-minute silence to remember all the 'victims' whose neighbours have grown towering hedges, we truly have reached the stage where this gesture has been emptied of all meaning."

And there is a nasty element of mob rule. "Anyone who voices unease at this exponential growth will feel the anger of the crowd... Like paedophile-hunting or Diana-mourning, the custom of inflated minutes' silence is a cultural phenomenon that feeds on the mob mentality and the desire for conformity. It betrays the hallmarks of a society not 'in touch with its emotions' but one that is intolerant of dissent."

Today, let us remind ourselves of what the two minutes' silence is for - and respect it on the one day in the year when it is justified. We dishonour our war dead when we indulge in conspicuous displays of 'mourning sickness' on just about every other occasion.

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