I was surprised to see the New Statesman pay attention to one of the Internet's most famous conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones, the other day. Amelia Tait, a tech writer for the magazine, began an article on conspiracy theories with reference to Jones's well-known rant on "turning the friggin' frogs gay."
I often wonder how Jones maintains a career. Only the other day, shortly after Milo Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart following his scandalous comments about pederasty, I was watching a video released by Jones in which he claims that Edward Heath, the late British Prime Minister and Conservative MP, would abduct young British girls and kill them in his office. "According to our British sources, they would lay out plastic on the floor; a young girl would be walked in and a man with a double-edged dagger would slit the girl's throat. She would fall to the ground, bleeding to death, and the Prime Minister would then, basically, pleasure himself." Jimmy Savile, Jones claims, played a large role in kidnapping these unfortunate young women.
With claims as ludicrous as these, I don't understand how anyone can take Jones seriously. Plenty of people wonder whether Jones is a reasonable man who has found a bizarre way of earning a living in pretending to be a delusional conspiracy theorist and vaudeville-like entertainer - could anyone really be sincere in believing the kinds of things that Jones does? Alternatively, Jones is a mentally unhinged individual who has fallen foul of greedy media producers who see the rants of a madman as a lucrative opportunity for business.
But what should be more worrying is that plenty of Jones's fans and fellow readers of Infowars.com do believe these claims. They believe, sincerely, that the government is working on all manner of schemes to dupe the American people; they are confident in their belief that the government is controlled by secretive, totalitarian groups such as the Bilderberg elite, George Soros and his cronies or something like the Illuminati.
Conspiracy theories, as Tait writes, enjoy wide circulation because of the Internet. Multiple fora and webpages exist for questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate or Hillary Clinton's health (Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, considers the latter case here). Amelia Tait is not the first writer to address the extreme claims of the fringes of American politics with reference to psychological conditions such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Several other writers have explored the influence of unseen psychological factors for other magazines, newspapers and academic journals, especially in the wake of the Brexit and Trump votes and the 'fake news' epidemic. The Guardian considers the influence of incorrect sources widely shared on social media on how young Americans voted; before her article mentioning Alex Jones, Tait refers to psychological concepts in an earlier article exploring misogynistic Reddit streams and some male users who were once their fervent fans.
Journalists are also mindful of the consequences of the tidal wave of misinformation and deceit. Also for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny addresses fake news and how its peddlers manufacture nonsense for profit's sake; the Observer also notes how easy it is to find websites dedicated to denying the existence of the Holocaust. David Tollerton, a lecturer, has reflected (and written about it for the Guardian) on the apparent futility of teaching his students to argue properly when emotional slogans and prejudice will win elections and referenda ("Should footnotes and bibliographies be dismissed as elitist pedantry? Perhaps we should be training our students in the art of constructing compelling internet memes founded on fantasies? Or forceful slogans that combine emotive power with a strategic absence of content?").
There is an strain of thought that most commentators seem to think is unpalatable to express. People simply don't want to put the case forward. I've been considering it for a while and, especially since reading Tait's article on conspiracy theories, I feel that someone has to present the argument, even if it is a bad one.
We cannot attribute so many bad ideas and poor thinking to the influence of psychological factors beyond our control. Without denying the power of confirmation biases and logical fallacies, as well as how social conditioning makes some of our decisions partisan without us realising, can we not accept that not every is either educated or intelligent enough to make a coherent argument?
This is probably the most radical I've been in my blog for a long time, but I think that this is something that no one dares write but many have thought about. Take Alex Jones's mad anecdote about Edward Heath. It's all very well to refer to psychologists and their awareness of how people can form conspiracy theories to simplify a complicated body of information, cope with social isolation or tie many fringe ideas together to form a pattern, but should our main worry be that there are scores of people around the world who, when told that a former British Prime Minister would slit the throats of kidnapped girls, do not think twice?
Just as depressing as the decline of rational, well-written, coherent argument in favour of emotional outbursts and vulgar pathos is the fact that the latter kind of rhetoric actually works. Fear of the totalitarian state, fear of an invasion of immigrants, fear of the death of native culture, fear of the Islamisation of Europe and the establishment of Eurasia, fear of moral nihilism, fear of fascism and so on. The high chance that your pandering to prejudice and fact-free argument can win plenty of support: that's what should be scary to people like Dr. Tollerton.
There. I said it. There are people whose arguments are divorced from reason, facts and reality. I'm not trying to make a partisan attack against anyone of a particular political perspective, as many commentators like to do. It doesn't matter which side of the political debate you're on - there are innumerable people whose arguments depend on anything but fact. They might not get much television coverage, but the conspiracy theorists, the sceptics and the tin-foil-hat loonies exist in their droves and are free to expand their half-baked accounts of the world into giant webs of mistakes, misinformation and lies.
How do you take on lies and misleading narratives? Do you forge a narrative of your own? According to George Mason, yes. "If the liberal media has any principle left it is not the comment pages but the front page headlines that should say: “President exposed as lying fantasist,"" he concludes. I disagree - for the left-leaning media to engage in the same behaviour as the dogmatic bloggers and illogical YouTubers who are, regrettably, making capital out of ignorance, would be to commit the same crimes with which we think they are getting away. The press must remain professional and aligned to nothing but truth and scrutiny.
Am I going as far as Professor Richard Dawkins, who isn't afraid to admit his support of elitism, arguing that the British people should not have been handed the responsibility of deciding whether Britain leaves the EU? No, not quite. Rather, I'm concerned that we are not standing up for standards of academic endeavour, reasoned argument and sophisticated, civil interaction. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, of course, but I wouldn't offer a platform to someone whose ideas are threadbare and illogical. We should be having conversations for our benefit, education and progress, not for the pollution of our minds. We live in a time when the President of the United States makes unfounded allegations and attacks left, right and centre; even worse are his advisers who defend his ill-informed and peculiar witterings with reference to 'alternative facts', events that did not happen and reports that were never written. We need to make the case for proper standards and good arguments.
Yesterday, on International Women's Day, I received an article via email from a stranger, asking for my consideration as Editor of my student newspaper.
As a company and an entity separate from the union, we regularly receive press releases and information from non-student-related sources. Rarely are these sources particularly linked to campus affairs or the city of York. In the last few days alone I've received information about schoolchildren's food allergies, a note on British Pie Week, genealogy and the appearance of Darth Vader outside a charity shop in Middlesborough. Rarely do these kinds of articles make it onto The Yorker's site - we focus strictly on news relating to the University of York and its students' union, as well as the city itself.
This article was different, however. "15 ACTIONS MEN CAN TAKE TO PROTECT THEMSELVES AGAINST FEMINISM," the title read.
It seemed more than coincidental that, only a short while earlier, the men's rights group Justice for Men and Boys (J4MB), about whom I have written earlier, shared one of my articles for The Yorker on its website. I had written about a talk given by Ella Whelan, staff writer at spiked, on the shortcomings of contemporary feminism. I introduced the article with a quote from J4MB and some examples of their ridiculous arguments against feminism. Clearly, the fact that I wrote that their arguments are based on "Largely on the basis of incredulous logic and conspiracy theories" and that it is "sad that so many of them mean what they write" didn't make a difference to the bright spark who shared the article; a hyperlink to a ramble which compared feminism with Nazism was quite enough to make it worthy of passing on.
What a charming thing to receive, on International Women's Day of all days. I am getting tired of the number of things with which feminism is regularly associated by its many, many critics - authoritarianism, gender supremacy, misandry, Nazism, communism, the enslavement of men, intellectual dishonesty, fascism, deceit and so on. In the spirit of healthy discourse, I thought it would be fun to explore (and most likely reject) as many of these fifteen ways as I could. If you fancy reading the article for yourself, click here - it's already been published by men's rights outlets such as 'A Voice for Men'. ["Post courtesy of J4MB." What a coincidence!]
Before even considering the fifteen ways that a man can protect himself against feminism, the author of the proposed article makes a number of contentious assertions. For example, the claim that "Men can be arrested and held in custody for 24 hours without being told why." Really? It's a violation of police conduct for a policeman to arrest a citizen without informing them of the reason. Following government instruction, the police should identify themselves, state the reason for arrest and the crime for which a person is suspected to be responsible. So it's not the case, legally, for men to be arrested and held in custody without knowing the reason for this. Whether this does actually happen is something for journalists to investigate - but it's not true that the government permits its police to arrest men without saying why.
Moving on to the points...
"1. RECOGNISE THAT WOMEN HAVE BECOME WEAPONISED... Under Home Office guidance, the police must now accept everything a woman says, believe everything a woman says and check very little. All female complainants are referred to as “victims.” Under the 2014 Positive Action Policy of the police YOU WILL be arrested. Under the Zero Tolerance policies of the Home Office and Alison Saunders at the Crown Prosecution Service YOU WILL be prosecuted. YOU WILL be treated as guilty until proven innocent and YOU WILL have to prove your innocence."
In the space of a paragraph there are a number of unsubstantiated claims about the way in which men are treated by police, magistrates and the courts. Unless the government has given up on centuries of civil rights, I sincerely doubt that the Home Office dictates that everything an individual claims must be accepted and believed by the police, regardless of their sex, nor that the police are intent on arresting any men for speaking out against female complainants. Finally, being treated as guilty and asked to prove one's innocence goes quite against British law.
"2. SHUN FEMINISTS AND VINDICTIVE PSYCHOS..." The reader is told to avoid feminists, whether they are married or not. Why would that make a difference? Are married feminists less of a danger than unmarried feminists? We are never told - it is left to the reader's prejudices to answer.
We should "Avoid women who have degrees in gender studies, use the word “victim,” or think the solution to their problems is to report pettiness to the police (or anyone for that matter)." Why so? These are relatively harmless character traits. Holding a degree in a particular subject, using a particular word and regularly disclosing details about problems to figures of authority in the hope of assistance don't strike me as indications of being a 'vindictive psycho'.
And finally, "Never have sex with them if they’ve had more than two drinks – they lack legal capacity to consent and they or their feminist friend can later accuse you of rape..." Would that mean if they were sober, their consent to your sexual advances would be automatic? The focus on how sex with someone who cannot reasonably consent would impact you, rather on how it is wrong to have sex with someone without their consent, is saddening to say the least.
"3. INSURE YOURSELF AGAINST FEMINIST ACCUSATIONS."
Yes, that's right, men should prepare themselves from the inevitable financial repercussions from interactions with feminists. £20,000 should be kept away and its existence kept secret from a man's partner. Will J4MB provide any assistance with funding that £20,000 'feminist defence policy'? I doubt it. There really is no need. Feminists can sue and accuse... but so can socialists, conservatives, accountants, metalworkers, Members of Parliament, lorry drivers, zookeepers, anarchists, milk men, swimming pool lifeguards, Liberal Democrats, or anyone else of any political persuasion and occupation - even men's rights activists!
"4. PROTECT YOURSELF WITH TECHNOLOGY. "
This instruction makes reference to Theresa May and the Conservative government's illiberal policies on surveillance and the use of the World Wide Web. If Michael Gove had become Prime Minister last year, would the author of this article be so worried? Or is it just because Theresa May is a woman that these policies are so worrying? I suspect the latter. Theresa May's policies on surveillance have barely anything to do with her being a woman, but the author would like you to think that it is a paramount condition of her attitudes to civil liberties. No, they are not.
"5. STICK TOGETHER AS A FAMILY."
The feminists - they're coming for your wife! They're coming for your children! But seriously, the author contends that the family unit is the best defence against a "male-hating, family-hating state." Is this still related to feminism?
"6. DISTRUST POLICE AND CIVIL SERVANTS... Teach your children NEVER to speak to these people without you or a solicitor present. This is especially true for your teenage or older boys. Don’t be naïve - NHS staff and state school teachers are now social services informants...Do not cooperate with the police, especially the Community Service Unit (the relationship police). They will lie, twist and exaggerate to create a case against you. Video or voice record every conversation or encounter you have with the police, social services, parking wardens, NHS staff or any other state worker. Your iPhone is your best weapon and your best defence."
I imagine this goes against the advice that many parents have given their children, at least in my lifetime or the lifetimes of my own parents. The fear of the police to such an extent is baffling. Also, how is this related to feminism again? This is the second instruction in a row to be barely related to feminism, unless the author is about to argue that feminism has led to the decline of the police, the civil service, the family and Internet freedom.
"7. EMBRACE WOMEN WITH STRONG FATHER FIGURES AND COMMON SENSE... Do not date women who demonstrate a sense of entitlement, victimization or extreme emotional instability. Be particularly aware of women who threaten you when jealous or make up or exaggerate stories about other men they have dated. Reduce your risk by vetting all women you date with a background check, searches on their social media websites such as Facebook, questions about previous relationships and how they ended. If necessary, hire a private detective to ensure they don’t have a record of making false or petty allegations against previous partners."
The lengths to which the author believes that men should go to be confident around women is unparalleled. The advice might as well recommend avoiding women who feel any sense of injustice or dissatisfaction with anything in life - or maybe even females who are capable of rational thought? (This coming from J4MB, perhaps they believe that females simply aren't capable of even that.) Can the paranoia get any worse? If you feel the need to hire a private detective to investigate women you are thinking of dating, you might need to hire someone else. When you're flicking through the yellow pages for that private eye, see if you can find a good psychiatrist as well. Or maybe arrange an appointment with an experienced taxidermist.
"8. AVOID NON-COMMITTAL NORTHERN EUROPEAN, BRITISH AND AMERICAN WOMEN."
A thought: if feminism encourages women to divorce their husbands, would it not also encourage women not to get married in the first place? The author thinks that feminist women will be after your money, but "family-orientated women" won't divorce their husbands. I mean, if a woman has a family, why would she any need to divorce her husband? It couldn't possibly be, say, because her husband is abusive, or has been up to no good with another woman?
The ninth ("MINIMISE YOUR TAXES"), tenth ("STAY OUT OF THE SYSTEM") and eleventh ("DITCH YOUR TV LICENSE AND STOP FUNDING THE BBC") instructions bear barely any relevance to the apparent evils of feminism; they appear to be badly-written, panicked versions of neoclassical economic arguments for the minimisation of taxation ("Tax is theft. Practice legal tax avoidance and stop funding the state’s war on men") and the privatisation of services, as well as a bit of a moan about the decline of university education. Still, we are told that "Broadcast television media, most notably the BBC, have become rabidly anti-male. Men are depicted as bumbling idiots and worse. There are almost no male news presenters anymore." I can name plenty of male news presenters off the top of my head - Huw Edwards, Alastair Stewart, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, George Alagiah. But even if there are no male news presenters anymore, is there something inherently wrong with that? Are female newsreaders universally incompetent?
The twelfth ("BE RESILIENT"), thirteenth ("BE GREAT AT WHAT YOU DO") and fourteenth ("STAY HUMAN") instructions manage to make tenuous links between feminism and a man's individual weaknesses amid some generic encouragement for self-betterment and persistence. Men should regularly exercise, be good at sport and their line of work, be open with their emotions and so on - what pleasant and normal advice, for once!
So, here's the final instruction, and, like #9, #10 and #11, there's barely any relation to feminism here...
"15. FIGHT BACK AND DEFEND YOUR RIGHTS. Most men in the UK are unaware of how their rights have been assaulted by the state’s actions and changed over the past years. Get informed and stay informed. Know your rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Exercise and stand up for your rights and family values. Recognise the laws are wrong, Police and CPS application of the law is wrong and the justice system has become politicised. Engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Rational debate and free speech no longer exist. Be prepared to risk getting arrested."
This call to arms could easily be found at the bottom of any old political document - stand up for yourself, challenge the system, prepare yourself for state disapproval and potential arrest. Not long ago, women's liberation activists did these things too.
Overall, the fifteen-point plan for men is a dismal collection of unsubstantiated allegations against feminism and feminists. Feminism is responsible for a great deal of evils and afflictions in society, an accusation made possible by the lazy habit of critics to lump every feminist into one group and rail against "feminism" in general. Funnily enough, this is the same criticism that I levelled against Ella Whelan in my article for The Yorker which kicked off this little episode! Whelan is not alone in speaking about "contemporary feminism" in a disappointingly vague way, enabling her and others to subject it to all manner of criticism for which contemporary feminists are apparently responsible; but Whelan's criticisms of feminism stand in stark contrast to the conspiracy theories and blanket lies of J4MB and their acolytes.
Earlier this month a colleague at The Yorker asked me to take a look at a potentially contentious opinion piece. (I say colleague but I should point out that we neither receive a wage nor do this for a living; The Yorker, unlike other campus papers, is a private company, so I suppose we're colleagues.) The piece concerned political correctness and the author's resistance to it. He had been moved to write after a professor at a Canadian university landed himself in hot water with a number of students and fellow academics after refusing to use the preferred gender pronouns requested of him by a transgender student. It was an interesting subject to me, particularly as I had myself mistakenly used the inappropriate pronouns to describe a student at my own university. Unlike Professor Jordan Peterson, I had not realised that the student wished to be described with the pronouns of 'they', 'them' and 'their', so I suppose that I had made an innocent mistake.
The debate around gender pronouns is extremely interesting and I think that there are some philosophical avenues that have not properly been considered. But Professor Peterson's approach concerned political correctness and what he believes is a malicious attempt to control the words that come out of his mouth. In fact, he compares his resistance to gender-based pronouns to the defence of a value he believes is "not just another value" but "the foundation of Western civilisation." So, for the time being I will put that philosophical discussion on the shelf - along with the many, many other things that are in the queue - and offer some thoughts on political correctness.
Political correctness has featured heavily in the election campaign of Donald Trump. Many of his supporters detest political correctness and opposition to 'PC culture' comes from a variety of backgrounds and positions. The alt-right and its figureheads (including you-know-who) rail against political correctness as an evil authoritarian clamp on freedom of speech; British liberals believe that it is a terrible aspect of our culture, especially on university campuses, that waters down discussion and sanitises political opinions, lest they cause offence; and many ordinary, elderly people are sick of being told that so much of what they used to say in their youth is no longer appropriate or acceptable.
Political correctness is notably present in campus culture and has been noticed at many universities, in many countries. The feelings of angst against political correctness have been exploded by the kinds of people I mentioned above, who make it sound like it is tearing university life apart; though it does not govern my daily life or police my thoughts, the influence of political correctness on campus discussion and student politics is clear.
Political correctness manifests in many ways. Often, students protesting against academics' failure to adhere to political correctness can result in public condemnations and misrepresentations of people and their ideas. Explaining his frustrations with political correctness to Sam Harris, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt recalls being reported to the dean of a university for homophobia by a student. Haidt has spent much of his career researching the psychology behind our moral decisions (something which I think is highly important and lends a lot of credibility to the emotivist school of ethical thought - again something for another blog post). In a course on the psychology behind disgust, Haidt had presented a scripted debate that explored how we often describe things that disgust as immoral as well. The example in the debate concerned incest, but in the script, one debater referred to homosexuality: it might disgust a heterosexual man to witness sex between two gay men, but does his disgust logically lead to the conclusion that homosexuality is immoral? However, a student had not taken well to the inclusion of homosexuality in this way and made an accusation about Haidt to the university's authorities. Following emails and a large explosion of anger on social media, Haidt reluctantly apologised for his alleged homophobia.
For Haidt, this is a troubling phenomenon on campus. Students can complain to the academic authorities about content that they find to be insulting, stress-inducing or outrageous, even if an academic has no intention of insulting, inducing stress upon or outraging his audience. Certain topics of conversation are off-limits and to question their validity is to endanger an academic's career. When academics dare to cross that line, students can report their activities to the university administration and ask the institution's leaders to condemn this bigotry or go on employing them. "You can't use that word, you have to use this word; you can't wear that clothing, that's cultural appropriation... we get to dictate what happens on campus," says the 'illiberal Left', Haidt argues.
Haidt has a lot of good things to say about political correctness and it's hard, for me at least, to be immediately critical of the kinds of things that he believes. He doesn't criticise political correctness from the perspective of a Breitbart columnist or a men's rights activist, where criticism tends to be accompanied by mockery and belittlement. Haidt's article, "The Coddling of the American Mind", co-written with Greg Lukianoff, is well worth a read. (I'm also glad that Haidt is one of the few academics who admits that American politics has defiled the term 'liberal'.) However, political correctness should not be remembered as an innately evil force. Haidt makes concessions to the need for academic environments to be welcoming and inclusive, and so should we.
Political correctness has not been designed with the intention of fighting evil ideas or shutting people up. I believe that the people who promote political correctness have good intentions. It all boils down to the desire to be polite and respectful to people. I'm not denying that the extent to which some students want political correctness to apply is worrying, as Haidt and other academics have argued, but the honourable intentions behind political correctness should not be forgotten.
The way we respond to political correctness should, I think, depend on the circumstances and the extent. There are times when I think Professor Peterson's response is appropriate but at other times not. If a transgender friend asks me to use the pronouns 'they, them, their' for them, I think it is polite, whether I think it right or wrong, to humour their request; but if a government made it law to address people in certain ways, then I think it is right to protest. If someone asks me not to use dated language e.g. terms like "spastic" or "retarded," I think it is polite to refrain from using these terms; but I would protest if my job were threatened if I were to use improper terminology. If someone asks me to stop discussing emotional topics like rape, depression, grief or abuse, then I will move the topic of conversation onto something else; but if I were an academic and my course were to be censored for mentioning these kinds of things, I would protest.
In a nutshell, political correctness should be advising us on how we ought to behave, not how we can and cannot behave. We ought to treat people with respect, be courteous to one another and respect our differences. Isn't that just civility? If political correctness strives for more civil behaviour in society, I'm all for it. But political correctness becomes bad when it is used to justify restrictions on things we can think, say, wear, do and more. As such, people who believe in political correctness should be careful when they apply their belief: they should remember that the word 'should' can be interpreted in different ways.
When political correctness leads to word policing, clothing restrictions and regulating what can and can't be discussed on campus, as Haidt mentions, it really is time to resist it. But when political correctness leads to people of ethnic minorities and other socially-disadvantaged backgrounds being treated with dignity, kindness and warmth, it really is hard to find a good reason to resist it.
Early into my dissertation research, I was disappointed to find that a number of my earlier sources were in fact of American origin. Cecil B. Hartley, whose book was the inspiration for my investigation into British etiquette manuals in the 1800s, was, I discovered, an American author and biographer. His books were published in America, intended for an American audience. Regrettably I had to remove Hartley from my list of resources.
Oddly, American websites and universities seem to provide the best collections of British primary sources. Several etiquette manuals published in Britain have been digitised and stored by American universities, made freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Nonetheless, finding resources has proven hard. Etiquette manuals were often written by anonymous authors, describing themselves as "A Gentleman," "A Lady," "A Member of the Aristocracy" or simply not describing themselves at all. The guides often repeat each other's content, almost word for word: Routledge's Manual for Etiquette (1889, possibly) repeats the same tale about a careless French poet at the dinner table as mentioned in Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, or The Principles of True Politeness (either 1852 or 1863). Several individual guides were republished under different titles. Numerous dates of publication are given for the same guide. Finally, most guides bore very similar names: compare Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen with Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1859), as well as Etiquette for Ladies (1851) with Etiquette for Ladies; or, The Principles of True Politeness (1852) - all of which, bearing in mind the factors I've listed above, could be the same publication albeit under a new title and a new date.
Charles Day's etiquette manual, The Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits, has been especially difficult to track down. I have acquired multiple accounts of the title, the date of publication and the location. The British Library provides images of an 1854 edition of Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, first published by Day in 1834; The Spectator makes reference to it in 1836; one Wordpress blogger takes quotations from an 1844 edition published in Boston, stating that it was originally published in 1836. In his essay " "Alone into the wide, wide world": Trollope's Miss Mackenzie and the Mid-Victorian Etiquette Manual" Andrew Maunder quotes from the same publication albeit from 1849. Online, one can find an 1844 edition intentionally converted for American audiences, titled Hints on Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits as well as Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits supposedly authored by Count Alfred D'Orsay in 1843, published in New York. Count D'Orsay's guide is almost identical to those of Charles Day. In the 1844 edition for Americans, it is noted that the guide has gone through twenty-two editions "and has been made the standard of modern society in England."
Day's introduction to the guide - using here his 1844 Boston edition, simply because there are clear page numbers - once again presents etiquette as a paradox in relation to social mobility, a regular theme that will likely be the basis of my dissertation. In the Preface, Day indicates that he is writing for the benefit of readers who are not aware of "what is proper" which "[comprises] a large portion of highly respectable and estimable people" who are yet to "become acquainted with the usages of the (so termed) "best society"..." This is a specific audience, not, as Day makes clear, an audience inhabited by the best of society, for it "would be absurd to suppose" that the "upper ranks of the middle class in London are ignorant of the regulations laid down." Day is instead targeting those in the country (i.e. out of London and 'high society), "where the tone of society is altogether lower".
Here come the contradictory passages, barely a few pages apart. At the end of the Preface, Day indicates that if at least one "honest family" were to enjoy an easier journey into 'society', he will be satisfied and the etiquette manual will have been a success. This is a clear and positive nod to social mobility. Day is keen to "smooth the path" for middle-class families who wish to raise their social status; the etiquette book's teachings suggest that social rankings in Victorian society are fluid. Yet, at the start of the Introduction, Day writes that etiquette is
a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper and the vulgar - a guard against those obtuse persons who, having neither talent nor delicacy, would be continually thrusting themselves into the society of men to whom their presence might (from the difference of feeling and habit) be offensive, or even insupportable.
Let's jump right to the end of the manual for a second round of contradiction. In the final paragraph (p. 52 of D'Orsay), Day writes:
Gentility is neither birth, manner nor fashion - but in the MIND. A high sense of honour - a determination never to take a mean advantage of another - an adherence to truth, delicacy and politeness, toward those with whom you may have dealings - are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a GENTLEMAN.
These last lines would suggest that one does not need to be of noble birth or background to be a gentleman; rather, a knowledge of particular social virtues are required. Yet, in the paragraph directly above these closing remarks, Day admits that the guidance listed in the handbook are unlikely to enable the reader to genuinely advance in status. The assistance is instead intended to help them hide their lesser status in the company of the upper classes. As Day puts it:
Although these remarks will not be sufficient in themselves to make you a gentleman, yet they will enable you to avoid any glaring impropriety, and do much to render you easy and confident in society.
Like other authors of etiquette manuals, Day describes etiquette as a guard that surrounds high society, preventing the unwanted from getting in. But whereas other etiquette manuals admit that etiquette is an exclusivist creation of the ruling class, designed to preserve its values and ways from the intrusion of others lower down the food chain, Day seems to go further, admitting in his etiquette manual that the teachings prescribed can only help the reader imitate the habits of the upper class. Readers may be able to better mask their humble origins or lack of noble birth from the upper class but they will never truly be able to enter its ranks.
Day's perspective is not unique. Many Victorians believed that a person could not shake the class into which he or she was born. To engage in mimicry would be a misleading and embarrassing action, as it would dishonestly portray the pretender as belonging to a higher status than he actually was. This is a surprising contradiction if you imagine the number of etiquette manuals that were on sale at the time, providing instructions for people who wished to mimic the mannerisms of the upper class in order to be seen as members of the upper class themselves. Learning etiquette would seem to be fruitless if etiquette enforces the belief that a "vulgar" person cannot imitate the behaviour of a member of society and be acceptance.
Nonetheless, Day's manual (indeed, the many variations of it) proves to be an excellent source for my study. Day's introduction is one of the most passionate defences of manners that I have seen during my research. He insists that manners are "indispensable to the well-being of society". if society lost them, "it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed." Day is also a writer who makes his awareness of the emerging bourgeoisie, the nouveau riche, plain. Historians have linked the emergence of a new middle class, whose wealth had come from industry, commerce or finance as opposed to land or noble descent, and the demand for etiquette manuals in order to help them slip into high society unnoticed. Day writes:
...in a mercantile country like our own, people are continually rising in the world. Shopkeepers become merchants, and merchants manufacturers; with the possession of wealth, they acquire a taste for the luxuries of life, expensive furniture, gorgeous plate, and also numberless superfluities, with the use of which they are only imperfectly acquainted. But, although their capacities for enjoyment increase, it rarely happens that the polish of their manners keeps pace with the rapidity of their advancement: hence such persons are often reminded that wealth alone is insufficient to protect them from the mortifications which a limited acquaintance with society entails upon the ambitious.
This paragraph shows that Day was well aware of the kind of reader to whom he would be writing. Other authors write introductions in a vague way, making vague reference to a need for manners to be upheld, for their own sake. Day, however, shows his knowledge of the changing social circumstances.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I see a lot of merit in Marjorie Morgan's argument that etiquette was simultaneously an enabler and limiter of social advance. Day's source goes beyond a debate of class and leads me to contend that the etiquette manuals of the 1830s - 1890s were nothing more than statements of fashionable behaviour for the new middle class to emulate in order to appear presentable to the upper class. Their promises of social advancement through an education in etiquette were severely undermined by the widespread thought that birth, station and rank were relevant to being a member of the higher classes.
There are a number of videos to be found on YouTube dedicated entirely to bashing someone else's political movement, usually in an incompetent and unfair way. Take the one below. "Girl completely steamrolls feminist with logic," the title reads. Apparently, in the course of the next few minutes, a girl effortlessly defeats a feminist in an argument using the simple tool of logic, something that, the title would suggest, is beyond a feminist.
The video shoots itself in the foot at the first word of its title.
That's not simply 'a girl'. That 'girl' is Kate Andrews, a twenty-five-year-old grown woman, the current News Editor of the Institute of Economic Affairs and formerly Head of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute. She has appeared on numerous television channels, appeared at conferences and written several articles and columns for newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Kate Andrews is not just 'a girl' and I bet she wouldn't like to be introduced as such, whether you are a fan of her or the Institute of Economic Affairs or not. In fact, introducing young women as 'girls' without any reference to what they do besides being of the female sex only adds strength to the feminist argument, the one that the video uploader is trying to trash.
The fact that the uploader of this video described Andrews simply as a girl would suggest that he or she knew absolutely nothing about the context of the debate - who the participants were, what they do for a living, and what had prompted the interview, for example. To the uploader, those factors weren't relevant. What mattered more was providing another example of a feminist getting into an argument and allegedly losing.
Plenty of YouTube users do this. None of the surrounding details matter when there is an opportunity to suggest that feminists, liberals, conservatives, Black Lives Matter activists or whoever are thick, or showcase a moment where they lose a debate. Somehow their loss in the debate is an indication that the entire movement of people who subscribe to the same or similar views would also lose the debate and are also a bit thick.
The fact that Kate Smurthwaite, Kate Andrews' opponent in this debate, is a feminist does not automatically and swiftly exclude her from the rest of the logic-using population of the world; nor does Kate Andrews' position in the Institute of Economic Affairs or her ideology as a free marketeer indicate that she is on a higher plane than anyone else. There are geniuses and lackwits in all ideological camps.