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Bertrand Russell

Two quotes from his writings.


An extract from “Nice People” by Bertrand Russell, 1931

The chief characteristic of nice people is the laudable practice of improvement upon reality. God made the world, but nice people feel that they could have done the job better. There are many things in the Divine handiwork which, while it would be blasphemous to wish them otherwise, it would be by no means nice to mention. Divines have held that if our first parents had not eaten the apple the human race would have been replenished by some innocent mode of vegetation, as Gibbon calls it. The Divine plan in this respect is certainly mysterious. It is all very well to regard it, as the aforesaid divines do, in the light of a punishment of sin, but the trouble with this view is that while it may be a punishment for the nice people, the others, alas, find it quite pleasant. It would seem, therefore, as if the punishment had been made to fall in the wrong quarter. One of the main purposes of the nice people is to redress this no doubt unintended injustice. They endeavour to secure that the biologically ordained mode of vegetation shall be practised either furtively or frigidly, and that those who practise it furtively shall, when found out, be in the power of the nice people, owing to the damage that may be done to them by scandal. They endeavour to ensure also that as little as possible shall be known on the subject in a decent way; they try to get the censor to forbid books and plays which represent the matter otherwise than as an occasion for sniggering nastiness; in this they are successful whenever and in so far as they control the laws and the police. It is not known why the Lord made the human body as he did, since one must suppose that omnipotence could have made it such as would not have shocked the nice people. Perhaps, however, there was a good reason. There has been in England, ever since the rise of the textile industry in Lancashire, a close alliance between missionaries and the cotton trade, for missionaries teach savages to cover up the human body and thereby increase the demand for cotton goods. If there had been nothing shameful about the human body, textile trade would have lost this source of profit. This instance shows that we need never be afraid lest the spread of virtue should diminish our profits.

Whoever invented the phrase 'the naked truth' had perceived an important connection. Nakedness is shocking to all right-minded people, and so is truth. It matters little with what department you are concerned; you will soon find that truth is such as nice people will not admit into their conciousness. Whenever it has been my ill-fortune to be present in court during the hearing of a case about which I had some first-hand knowledge, I have been struck by the fact that no crude truth is allowed to penetrate within those august portals. The truth that gets into a law court is not the naked truth, but the truth in court dress, with all its less decent portions concealed. I do not say that this applies to the trial of straightforward crimes, such as murder or theft, but it applies to all those into which an element of prejudice enters, such as political trials, or trials for obscenity. I believe that in this respect England is worse than America, for England has brought to perfection the almost invisible and half-unconscious control of everything unpleasant by means of feelings of decency. If you wish to mention in a law court any unassimilable fact you will find that it is contrary to the laws of evidence to do so, and that not only the judge and the opposing counsel, but also counsel on your own side will prevent the said fact from coming out.

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The essence of nice people is that they hate life as manifested in tendencies to co-operation, in the boisterousness of children, and above all in sex, with the thought of which they are obsessed. In a word, nice people are those who have nasty minds.

 

An extract from “Our Sexual Ethics” by Bertrand Russell, 1936

Let us look next at the question of knowledge on sexual subjects, which arises at the earliest age and which is the least difficult and doubtful of the various problems with which we are concerned. There is no sound reason, of any sort or kind, for concealing facts when talking to children. Their questions should be answered and their curiosity satisfied in exactly the same way in regard to sex as in regard to the habits of fishes, or any other subject that interests them. There should be no sentiment, because, young children cannot feel as adults do, and see no occasion for high-flown talk. It is a mistake to begin with the loves of the bees and the flowers; there is no point in leading up to the facts of life by devious routes. The child who is told what he wants to know, and allowed to see his parents naked, will have no prurience and no obsession of a sexual kind. Boys who are brought up in official ignorance think and talk much more about sex than boys who have always heard this topic treated on a level with any other. Official ignorance and actual knowledge teach them to be deceitful and hypocritical with their elders. On the other hand, real ignorance, when it is achieved, is likely to be a source of shock and anxiety, and to make adaptation to real life difficult. All ignorance is regrettable, but ignorance on so important a matter as sex is a serious danger.

When I say children should be told about sex, I do not mean that they should be told only the bare physiological facts; they should be told whatever they wish to know. There should be no attempt to represent adults as more virtuous than they are, or sex as occurring only in marriage. There is no excuse for deceiving children. And when, as must happen in conventional families, they find that their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them, and feel justified in lying to them. There are facts which I should not obtrude upon a child, but I would tell him anything sooner than say what is not true. Virtue which is based on a false view of the facts is not real virtue. Speaking not only from theory, but from practical experience, I am convinced that complete openness on sexual subjects is the best way to prevent children, from thinking about them excessively, nastily, or unwholesomely, and also the almost indispensable preliminary to an enlightened sexual morality.

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