Friday, November 21, 2008

Singer's tram rage

Jill Singer, a left-liberal columnist for the Melbourne Herald Sun, had an especially bad experience on a tram recently:

While it stops in Middle Park, a loud and boisterous cluster of teenage girls shove me aside as they make to leap aboard.

"Get out of our way, you effing slut," says one of these charmers ...

The aggression of the girls did not seem fuelled by alcohol or drugs - but by an apparent sense of absolute entitlement.

... It was the "Out of our way!" that inflamed, and the sheer arrogance ... to my shame, I fired back a barb ... "Well, I might be an effing slut but at least I'm not fat".

With this I jump off the tram. The five screaming banshees leap off after me, screaming: "You effing slut" - and worse.

... one girl throws a drink in my face, while another whacks me over the head.

What can we make of all this? It's not something that would have happened a generation ago in Melbourne. Girls didn't generally swear in public in the way described by Singer 30 years ago - let alone assault an older female traveller.

Singer herself doesn't offer much help in suggesting what has gone wrong socially to produce such an incident. She focuses mostly on the personal rather than the civilisational. She feels terribly guilty about calling the girls fat, and she reflects on her own experience of being bullied at school.

So what has changed in society to produce girls like the ones who attacked Jill Singer? I can think of a number of contributing factors.

A more unstable family life probably has an effect. Not all women cope well as single mothers. There are numbers of single mothers who lead difficult and insecure lives, and this seems to breed a survivalist concern for oneself, and a certain kind of toughness, in their daughters. Nor are such families ideal vehicles for transmitting civilisational ideals across the generations - they are too disrupted and vulnerable to really attempt such a larger role.

Certain cultural messages about sex roles don't help either. If people believe that society has been set up as an oppressive patriarchy, then two things follow. First, masculinity will be defined in terms of an aggressive, dominant assertion of power. Second, since men are assumed to be leading the privileged good life at the expense of deprived women, then masculinity will be thought of as the desirable role.

So it's not surprising that women are given the message that it is liberated to act like men, and that "acting like men" is defined coarsely in terms of aggressive self-assertion.

Then there's the understanding, in liberal societies, that a freedom to choose for oneself is the highest good. If this is true, then whatever impedes the sphere of human choice is a restriction to be overcome. It is then thought liberating and empowering to break moral taboos. It is thought moral, or modern, to be transgressive.

And so there is a tension between the idea that a girl swearing in public, or behaving like one of the lads, is liberated, modern and cool, and an instinctive dislike of all this as unfeminine and unattractive. The latter instinct gets less airplay, but it's there all the same. In his latest column, James Foster writes of a friend who also had a problem with trams, girls and swearing:

"One thing that really turns me off when dating women these days is their foul mouths," this guy wrote.

"I was on a first date the other day and she was driving and a tram dinged the bell at her. She said, 'What are you dinging at you (insert rude word)'. I couldn't believe it, I almost fell out of the car. The date only got better, with numerous F bombs being dropped in conversation."

Foster himself then admits that he finds it a turn off if girls swear, boast about their sex life or get seriously drunk.

Other factors? One of the problems with classical liberalism is that it takes selfishness to be a virtue. Spinoza, for instance, wrote that:

The more every man endeavours and is able to seek his own advantage, the more he is endowed with virtue.

Steven Kautz, in a book defending classical liberalism, admitted that:

Classical liberalism is a doctrine of acquisitive individualism, and teaches that man is by nature solitary and selfish, not political or even social ...

It's possible that such ideas were once balanced out by the influence of religion and an aristocratic ideal of gallantry and duty. But as religion and an older gentlemanly code of honour declines, we're left with the political philosophy in which selfishness rules.

Finally, manners and mores tend to be passed on informally from generation to generation. This seems to work best in settled, traditional communities. If the life of a settled community is disrupted, then cultural standards are less likely to be successfully handed down to younger generations.


  1. The tram incident is yet another small defeat for the West in the decline of the West. Yet, liberalism will somehow invert it into a triumph of progress. Jill Singer just hasn't quite figured out how to do it in this case, because she's personally involved. She has a spirited reaction against the girls' savagery, and now feels sorry that she couldn't instantly do the liberal doublethink: defeat / degeneracy is victory / progress! (I'm alluding to Orwell's 1984 slogans.) She threw out a barb, where the liberal thing to do would be to thank profusely these girls for being tough and sassy.

  2. Jaz, interesting thought.

    Singer's reaction *is* worth looking at.

    You would think that someone who experienced such an incident would think the girls' behaviour shockingly uncivilised and that they would reflect on what had lowered the civilisational standards of their society.

    But during the incident Singer didn't challenge the girls by reminding them of expected standards. She threw a personal insult at them.

    Later, she begins to process the incident through some kind of liberal thought process, and decides that she herself has been the bully and that she should feel guilty and apologetic.

    Jaz, you're right that she has the blinkers on. I suspect that you're right too that she very much wants to disown her own initial instinctive "spirited reaction".

    Is this because the liberal subject is supposed (in theory anyway) to keep the peace by proving their neutrality - their willingness to bend to the "other"?

    Or perhaps, as you put it, Singer wants to disown a kind of heretical moment, in which she momentarily took a non-liberal posture and reacted viscerally against an aspect of liberal modernity.

  3. Blaming the victim, even if it's yourself.

  4. I thought her calling the girls fat was a classic comeback. One thing young girls do focus seriously on is body image.

    Because they take it so fanatically seriously (a goodly number of them), they perceive image-based insults as some of the worst you can hurl at them.