Born to cringe?

I have but one quibble with Richard Walker’s excellent article in The National and that is his casual use of the misogynist label without any evidence. It may be true that a significant proportion of those writing in the Scots language happen to be women. It may also be true that the “abuse”/criticism (the words are increasingly used as if synonymous) “came largely from men”. But these two facts – if such they are – do not amount to evidence of “hatred of women”. It is intellectual indolence to immediately reach for the ‘M’-word as soon as a man says anything less than complimentary about a woman or her work while discounting all other possible motives – including the possibility that the criticism is entirely justified.

I don’t doubt that misogyny exists. But it is not the explanation for every difference of opinion between men and women. Were I to characterise all criticism of males by females as ‘abuse’ motivated by misandry then I would doubtless and with ample justification, be accused of sexism Or at least of woefully shallow thinking.

In fact, from long habit and practice I consider women in precisely the same terms as men other than where it is appropriate to consider them differently – as in the matter of sex-based rights where women must be afforded privilege. This means accepting that sometimes women are just not very nice people. Or they are massively incompetent. Or they are inept, dishonest, vainglorious, self-seeking, avaricious, lazy or any of the other less than admirable things that a man can be.

Having said all that, I have to congratulate Richard on his powerful analysis of ‘The Scottish Cringe’. A syndrome which I reckon deserves capitalisation. His account is very persuasive. But it does prompt a particular question of the chicken/egg variety. Which comes first, The Scottish Cringe or the contemptuous treatment of Scotland by the ruling elites of England-as-Britain? Is The Cringe a defect (or in the parlance of Microsoft’s marketing division, a ‘feature’) of the Scottish character? Or is it the consequence of several centuries of being treated with contempt? Has the Union given us The Cringe? Or is the Union no more than our cringiness deserves?

I don’t expect straightforward answers to such questions. And neither should you, dear reader. But if Richard Walker’s article was intended to be thought-provoking, these are some of the thoughts he has provoked. So blame him!

For a start, the whole idea of a ‘national character’ is a bit dubious, to say the least. It’s one of those lazy generalisations that can be an intellectual trap for the unwary. Another of those chicken/egg conundrums arises with the question of whether the language we use reflects or informs our attitudes. It does both, of course. Stereotypes, however facile, would not have traction unless there was some morsel of truth to inform them. To that extent, they reflect attitudes that were to some extent justified at one time. But if once established the stereotype is taken too literally as a descriptor of the individual or group then obviously it will inform attitudes. Scots are characterised as tight-fisted because once upon a time there was a story which portrayed them in that way which was appealing enough to gain currency and permanence. But if the only thing you’ve ever learned of the Scots is that the stereotype then you will tend to think them mean.

Stereotypes are best thought of as abstractions for convenience in thinking about a matter. Or as a simple and very clumsy shorthand for convenience in referring to things. The error is to think them more informative than they are. What AN Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

With this always in mind, we may ask whether England was able to impose the Union on Scotland because we are afflicted by The Cringe, or is it that we have come to suffer from The Cringe over 300+ years of living under under the conditions of a grossly asymmetrical political Union that daily disempowers us and holds us to be inferior? Is The Cringe innate to the Scottish character? Or is it a symptom of prolonged mistreatment? Is it nature? Or is it nurture?

Strong and perhaps persuasive arguments can be made on both sides. It is legitimate to ask whether Scotland would have submitted to the Union in the first place had we not been cringey enough to allow it. Not that we were asked in the first place. But we were asked some 307 years later and the 2014 referendum result surely stands as the cringiest of cringes ever cringed by the cringiest of cringers. But Union-effect had been working on us for a very long time by then. So the 2014 No vote can’t be taken as proof that The Cringe is innate. Likewise the persistent mindset which regards independence as something that must be won by proving to the satisfaction of our superiors that we are worthy. That certainly has the appearance of something which comes naturally to those who argue that we can only have independence if we answer a set of questions satisfactorily and pass a number of tests. But this can be explained by long practice as persuasively as by defining it as innate.

Richard Walker is onto something when he uses attitudes to language as a means of illustrating The Cringe. The outrage provoked by promotion of Gaelic as well as the informal ‘outlawing’ of Scots speak of a rejection of and even an aversion to something which is fundamental to our national identity – and therefore a principal component of personal identity. Attributing this to misogyny – entirely or in major part – seems hardly to do justice to the question of whence a cringe so intense as to cause someone to deny such a basic aspect of Scottish culture. There’s more going on here than mere hatred of women by men. Or for that matter, hatred of men by women. It is not the sex of the person using Scots that is “pilloried by bigots” but the language.

These “bigots” aren’t angry at Len Pennie because she’s a woman. They are not even angry because she is a woman writing in the Scots language. They are certainly not angry because the writing is bad. It most assuredly is not. This surely must poke and tug at something in every heart and mind formed on the streets and in the school playgrounds of Scotland.

What is activating The Cringe in those who criticise/abuse Len Pennie is the language itself. More precisely, the public flaunting of the language. The critics/abusers are ashamed of their own language. Surely there must be something in the very nature of these individuals which prompts them to so angrily condemn someone treating the writing and speaking of Scots as normal. Can this aversion to such a fundamental aspect of Scotland’s culture and identity possibly be learned behaviour? They are angry at Len Pennie because this is not how they want Scotland to be portrayed to the world. They are embarrassed by the representation of Scotland as a place where people speak as we all know people do speak because we have all (or almost all) grown up hearing people around us speaking this language and speaking at least partly and at times in Scots ourselves. If that is not to be accounted for by some inherent defect of character then it can only be explained by some kind of terrifyingly powerful brainwashing.

Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns implied the deleterious impact of the Union on ‘ordinary’ Scottish people when prior to the 2014 referendum he made the following observation in an interview for the BBC’s Crossfire programme.

The question is, would people in an independent country feel more in control of their lives?

If they did, then that would be very positive for their health. If people felt that they were able to engage more with local government, with central government and make choices more easily for themselves then that would improve their health.

Scottish independence could be ‘very positive’ for health, says Sir Harry Burns

Sir Harry Burns spent much of his career studying and warning of the connection between social conditions and ill health. Poverty, poor housing etc. are not unique to Scotland, of course. But there is something that sets Scotland apart.

Research in 2010 showed the deprivation profiles of Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester to be virtually identical, yet premature mortality in Glasgow was 30% higher than in the English cities.

So is there something in the collective psyche of Glasgow setting it apart?

Harry Burns: ‘We need compassion, not judgments about poor people’

There are many possible explanations for this discrepancy – deindustrialisation, loss of tenement communities and dispersal to remote housing schemes, for example. But we must not discount the psychological aspect of what we refer to as deprivation. Most important among these psychological factors is undoubtedly insecurity. It’s not being poor that kills you. It’s the conviction that you’ll never be anything else. It is the disempowerment. The lack of any sense of agency. Having no control. Facing an endless grind of just coping day in and day out with few of the capacities coping requires and no prospect of an end to it. That’ll make you ill. That’ll kill you early.

What is the Union but a device by which all of Scotland is made poor in the sense of lacking agency? Are we not impoverished by being deprived of democratic power just as by denial of a secure and sufficient income? When, for example, we are told as a nation that our democratic choice to remain in the EU counts for nothing or that our electoral rejection of the British Tory party is meaningless, are we not all left feeling we have no control over our present or our future? Not even any influence. No agency whatever. How might this psychological deprivation not have implications for our health every bit as much as being deprived of decent housing or an adequate diet?

Is The Cringe one more deleterious effect on Scotland of the Union? Or is it that we are just born to cringe?

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4 thoughts on “Born to cringe?

  1. The facts are, Peter, that women are attacked on social media because they are women. A number of studies have shown this to be true. In one exchange (there have been many) on the trans issue and women’s spaces and rights, several men joined the women to debate the issue but only the women were attacked. It’s the age-old thing: woman, know your place and woman, be silent. It is simply cowardice and bullying, and it’s so much easier to bully and harass and put down women. It’s a coward’s charter whether women are angels or devils. It is for their biology and sex that they are vilified.

    As for the language, in early 20th century Ireland, after the setting up of the Irish Free State, the Irish Dail decided to introduce Irish Gaelic into the schools and encourage a cultural revival. Protestants like James Joyce, who had received nothing but privilege in the IFS (with Trinity, Dublin being almost entirely given over to middle-class Protestants) mocked them and belittled them in equal measure. Eventually, Joyce left Ireland, disgusted with what he viewed as a pseudo cultural revival, long before the cultural revival did, in fact, lead to an Irish renaissance. Why? Because he did not speak the language at all? Because he feared the cultural revival? Very likely.

    People oppose things that they fear and they fear things that they oppose. As a privileged middle-class Protestant in Ireland, Joyce probably feared that his privilege would dwindle and cease. Unionists fear the loss of their privilege as, many of them are well-heeled middle-class beneficiaries of the education system and many other things. Fear of losing one’s privileges is usually at the root of seemingly pointless hatred. Men fear the loss of more ground and conrol to females and want to force them back into the home, so they attack females on a daily basis, en masse, on-line, while other men, who claim to be women are determined to control women’s language in order to eliminate them as a class of people.

    Scottish Unionists, British and English Nationalists in Scotland fear the power of language and culture as it pertains to independence. They know that an independent Scotland will make Scots and Gaelic equal to English in the schools, that they might even overtake English if allowed their potential as living languages again, that the long-suppressed Scottish cultural aspects will start to emerge again. Scottish Unionists are second-hand English by any standard set, and most of all, by their own, and they fear the loss of privilege that brings. Better to be a second-hand English person, with the privileges that brings, second-hand privileges, than a first-hand Scot, so the Scot in them must be crushed out of existence. It is the old, old battle between enlightened self-interest (of the Scottish Enlightenment) and unenlightened self-interest and me-ism. People who are entirely dedicated to their own privilege, their own existence, and to the status quo, always fail to see the bigger picture till it overtakes them.

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  2. I don’t think it’s just a Scottish cringe. There’s an English one too and it may run deeper than the Scots one. Why do English people put up being ruled by people educated at elite institutions like Eton and OxBridge? For the majority its not in their interests, in fact far from it, but they vote for them over and over again. (The old Spitting Image skit, Stupid Voters nails it.) Many Brits look down on the French but the French had the decency to carry through a revolution. Same goes for many of the countries that were colonies of Britain. The only ‘revolution’ the British have been capable of involved one slightly less nasty and corrupt elite replacing another one. One has to say one thing for them, the British elite are very good at disarming any threats with propaganda, buying off opposition leaders with money and trinkets, or, when all else fails, violent suppression. There have been plenty of periods of unrest since the ‘Glorious’ Revolution, periods when the daily whipping was more obviously abuse than kinky indulgence, but they’ve all fizzled. Far from being plucky Brits, the people who will never ever be slaves, Brits of all nationalities seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on their knees licking the boots (or worse) of a small minority of other Brits. The only boots the British elite lick are American, which is funny because the Americans have absolutely no respect for them. While many Yanks gush over quaint British institutions, they enjoy them only because they had a revolution and don’t have to suffer such appalling nonsense.

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  3. I’ve been struck today by the way that Jade LB, author of Keisha da Sket, has been reported by the BBC compared with the way in which Len Pennie has been treated. Both are women writing phonetically in languages that are not standard English. There is more to this than misogyny and disdain for non standard language.

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