Saturday, 20 June 2015

Wounded Leaders

Way back in 2013 I wrote this piece about the feminist concept of male privilege and how it plays out for economically underprivileged men.

Now I'm wondering what happens at the other side of the class divide. How does male privilege work out there? This is something I can only observe from the outside. Sometimes through the pain of others. The particular difficulties posher friends seem to have with their fathers. Their strangely rigid and studied performance of femininity that seems somehow linked. There's a distinct "flavour" to upper and upper-middle class gender relations. One that is difficult for me to put my finger on.

When the subject came up on a gender discussion forum I speculated on historic differences in gender roles. Going back a century- working class women were expected to do hard physical work at home, while their men did hard physical work outside. Meanwhile upper class men were running industry and empire while their women were expected to do nothing at all, beyond being pleasant and looking decorative. Its a perfect recipe for misunderstanding and contempt.

Since then, I have read the excellent Wounded Leaders by Nick Duffell, an expert on the "psychology of entitlement" who works with survivors of elite boarding schools and has written about the effect on personality and mental health. You can get a flavour from this documentary. Wounded Leaders builds on this work and brings it into the realm of "psychohistory", examining the reasons why the boarding school system developed and the effect it has had on British culture.

It turns out that, far from being the accidental result of material conditions (as I generally assume all cultural phenomena to be!) upper class misogyny was deliberately cultivated. It was achieved through a traumatic breaking of the bond between mother and son. The explicit intention of this was to remove any "soft" female influences from the male personality.

Although Duffell's work concentrates on the practice of sending young children away to boarding school, the process could begin even earlier. At birth even. Today, Norland College trains nannies in modern, child centred techniques. At its inception, it was intended to train out the softness and compassion with which working class servants would otherwise contaminate their charges. Wealthy mothers were under great social pressure to give their children over to these coldly professional carers, so that their children could become "great men" like their husbands. A brutalised personality is a great asset in those destined to subjugate others.

My grandmother remembers, standing with other housemaids outside the nursery door or a "great house" crying at the way the little aristocrats were treated. She was a child as well of course, and had also been removed from her mother.

Duffell's discipline of "Psychohistory" has been criticised as "the idea that child rearing methods can effect foreign policy." The irony is that upper class child rearing was actually intended to further foreign policy. Specifically, it was intended to produce administrators for the British Empire- the largest and most brutal empire the world has ever known.

The cultural implications continue to this day and Duffell has plenty of interest to say about them. In particular about the brand of virulent misogyny that so many of our "wounded leaders" exhibit.

The only problem is that Duffell universalises his observations. He believes that because British society is "top down," cultural attitudes "trickle down" and become generally held. He seems oblivious to any autonomous working class culture that might interfere with this process. Or to that ideas might have a different impact if removed from their original material context. Perhaps he overstates his case in order to underline the damage done by the boarding school system.

As a class- we have never set out to deliberately break the attachment between mother and child. That is a huge thing that has never happened to us. Our men have never systematically stolen motherhood from us. Or mothering from our children.

Middle class interventions sometimes attempt to devalue our authority as mothers but that's a subject for another blog post. I will only note in passing that while upper class mothers once turned to the Norland school to guard against the tendency of working class women to form attachments, the modern professional anxiety is that working class women may not form attachments readily enough. Zoe Williams is good on this point.

As a creature of the third wave, I've recently been trying to broaden my analysis with some good old fashioned Radical Feminism and I keep across something that feels both alien and familiar. Not so much the intellectual ideas which are rigorous and basically sound. More the emotional content.

The descriptions of how men feel about us and what it is to be subjected to that. The sense that men do not view us as fully human, and hate us for it. The exasperation in finding such feelings to be almost universal in men. With a few unfortunate exceptions, this is not something I have noticed about the men I know. Its a pretty good description of Nick Duffell's wounded leaders, though.

I'm left wondering about that common criticism of 2nd wave feminism. That it was essentially a movement of the privileged, blind to the experiences of working class and black women. It is a criticism levelled, in various forms, by modern 3rd wave feminists, by contemporary black and working class feminists and, of course, by class reductionist lefty men.

What I always understood by this is that all women are taking similar crap from men, but that some women have additional pressures and need to prioritise other issues and that privileged women don't understand this.

I'm now wondering about those privileged women, in their privileged movement. Perhaps they weren't experiencing the same kind of crap at all.

Perhaps they were experiencing something else. Something born of extreme entitlement and class privilege as well as masculinity. Something to do with this deliberate corruption of human relationships, that the ruling class has inflicted on itself.