Dignified flippancy

A potentially universal virtue — dignified flippancy — was the signal by which great wealth was amassed in the British Empire, and in select locations elsewhere. It was also what made the imperialists “cool,” and could do so again. One immediately and instinctively granted their requests, without feeling the need to consult the distribution of power. Yielding to their will was simply polite behaviour; it was a question of etiquette.

This is (of course) a masculine virtue, requiring on the part of the exemplar of flippancy an heroic restraint, from crude self-assertion. Display of weapons would, after all, betoken pride, and might give the game away. Even the catechism need not be consulted, for jingo is never appropriate in a gentleman. It is tasteless.

But we live in simplistic times, when the presence or absence of testosterone is all that can be understood. The idea of a gentleman is too complex to be explained; it must instead be demonstrated.

I think of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and almost viceroy of the Malay archipelago of island Indonesia until the Foreign Office thoughtlessly gave it away. He once found himself in the embarrassing position of having to negotiate some treaty or other with a tribal chief in remotest Java. He was accompanied at the time by a single aide-de-camp, whereas the tribal chief had brought his whole innumerable retinue, armed and postured for war. The chief was sitting upon an elevated throne, that put Sir Thomas thus at a negotiating disadvantage.

He did not waste time whining about this, however. Using his considerable linguistic gift, for the languages in that part of East Asia, he instructed the chief’s apparent lieutenant that there had been a mistake. Sir Thomas was in fact the senior officer, and so the tribal chief had been incorrectly seated. He must move from the throne to the very low seat beside it; Sir Thomas would then be pleased to ascend.

After a moment of confusion, it became clear that dignified flippancy would prevail, and his Javanese Majesty climbed down (literally). Everything could now go smoothly.