Graeme works as a statistician, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011. He writes a column in Saturday's Daily Telegraph. Follow him on Twitter.
We all like to think we’re good neighbours. Who likes to acknowledge their own short-comings, for one thing, and for another, if you do displease the folk who live next door, you have to live with the consequences. The frosty “good morning”. And for the worst crimes, the note through the door. It makes you swear with rage, because you know you’ve done wrong, and your neighbour is your witness.
Your witness and your conscience. Play your music too loud, even if no-one bangs on the wall in protest, and you know you’ve chosen to act in a way that could cause upset; that you’ve put your desires ahead of another’s needs.
Unless you’re a sociopath, this empathetic imagining of another’s pain will modulate your behaviour, or at least your volume dial. They live next door to you, these people. It doesn’t require the imagination of a Charles Dickens to see or feel the damage you’ve done.
I believe that “we” (that is, the cultural boss-class) have for decades been attempting to breed this conscience out (the fuck you of modern life grows ever louder) but it’s still there, just, in most people. It’s why Britons are polite: it’s a small island and we mostly live close to each other. You read about those stories of twenty-year feuds over the positioning of a privet hedge or a car-port and tut, and shake your head, and think “Thank God that isn’t us.”