The truth the mob clings to is often fragile

It seems that the Duchess of Cornwall, once an outcast, has become a national treasure. An interesting and amusing analysis of this transformation, written by Catherine Bennett, can be read here. Once, Camilla Parker Bowles was pelted with bread rolls in a supermarket; now she is defended by no less than the Prime Minister from the slightest criticism. What a change!

But is it so very suprising? Reputations do change and “reputation management”,  as it is now called, is a huge though largely unnoticed industry. If reputations are to be made this has to be done with subtlety, as the public does not want to be reminded too graphically that they are subject to manipulation.

And yet, historically, attacks on people’s reputations have been often very crude. Take the way Marie Antoinette, originally very popular as a young Queen at the start of her husband’s reign, was gradually made the focus of public insult and hatred, to such an extent that she was eventually reduced to the status of a barely human monster and subjected to judicial murder. She was accused of a catalogue of vices: extravagance, cold-heartedness, lesbianism and even incest with her pre-pubescent son. This last horrific accusation, made at her trial, rebounded on her persecutors, as it went too far even for the mob. But were any of the charges made against her justified? Of course not: but that is not the point. The mob always wants someone to hate; this desire is irrational. Truth does not enter into it. The mob has no mind, and is immune to reason.

It is worth remembering what the word mob means. It comes from the Latin vulgus mobile, the easily moved crowd. The crowd is easily moved because the individuals in it have abdicated personal responsibility. The nineteenth century, with memories of France still fresh, had a horror of mob rule and mob violence, well attested in the works of Dickens. But to return to the case of the Duchess of Cornwall: the mob loathed her and idolised Diana; now the mob idolises Camilla; for mobs, as well as being irrational, have very short memories. Their loves and their loathings are based on little hard fact – hence they are susceptible to the machinations of the reputation managers. Whoever has the management of the Duchess’s reputation deserves a medal, because they are very good at their job. If the Bourbons had had the services of someone similar, France might still be a monarchy today.

But there is a moral point here as well. We need to realise that the truths we sometimes cling to so passionately – for example the truth that Camilla was a bad person and Diana a good one – are often fragile constructs. We are capable of being misled, because, in a strange way, we wish to be misled. The Diana-worship was never about Diana herself, whom none of us (or very few of us) had ever met or known. It was about something inside ourselves: perhaps a desire to love, or a desire to grieve, or a desire to feel angry about injustice or simply an addiction to cheap cost-free emotion, a sign of our own unfulfilled lives. Perhaps the Diana-worship was fuelled by the fact that we have largely abandoned the reading of fiction. Once we would have been caught up in the drama of a serialised novel by Dickens in order to get our emotional fixes. Manipulation by an author, feeding off the travails of character in a book like Little Nell, is allowable, because it is fiction. But Diana was a real person, and in fictionalising her, the mob connived at her death.

The worship of Camilla is altogether less malign, in that it is much less fiercely felt. Camilla is older, and she gives off an air of common sense. Moreover, she keeps the crowds at an emotional distance; there is no abusive love affair between her and the media as there was once with Diana. Nevertheless, the current popularity of the Duchess is a warning to us about the fickle nature of public opinion, about our willingness to be led, and about the fragility of human reasoning.