Simon Jenkins, Eeyore, & the big, red ego balloon.
It’s obvious that there are some feelings going on, amongst the older white men of this fair isle. I’m not here to mock feelings. Feelings are important. Not all feelings are created equal, but even if we think they are silly, sometimes it is useful to see what they might tell us.
I’m not going to summarise Simon Jenkins’ piece in the Guardian (Pale, stale males are the last group it’s OK to vilify) as you can read it yourself (but please, do your blood pressure a service and do not read the comments.)
The opinion piece, which I’m responding to here, is pitched at the idea that PSMs (Simon’s handy acronym for pale stale males) are now facing discrimination, including for jobs and particularly the older individuals in this demographic.
The most telling line in this article for me was:
I am sure most white males can handle their new status as victims of “acceptable offence”, and even acknowledge there will be discrimination against them.
This points to the crossed wires in the premise of this piece — the misunderstanding of the fact that when people talk about problems being caused by white men, or a board, company, committee, organisation, government, bench of judges, being pale, male and stale- that the individuals in question are not under attack simply for being of a demographic: in this way it is not like sexism, racism, or any other ism or phobia.
In fact, generally the accusations levelled under this banner are well-founded and scrupulously fair and relate to specific behaviour, especially in relation to relinquishing power, ceding control and sharing their platform with others who are not male, or indeed pale.
There are plenty of middle aged white men who are voting and acting not just out of self-interest, but it’s time for them to hear the important message, loud and clear — that it is not good enough for middle-aged white men to be representing everyone — people from other currently underrepresented groups must also be given a place at the table.
Middle aged white men are interpreting this as personal — in a way which is just about the unfortunate and widespread cultural conditioning of men as it is about anything else.
Being ego-led is a practise that Buddhism has much to say on — it causes harm to the world and harm to the individual. Egos are by nature fragile things, like giant red throbbing inflamed balloons of feelings. Egos feel pain to an unbearable degree. Imagine walking around holding this massive sensitised balloon in front of you and someone bumps into you, hard. It’s going to hurt so much that whatever action you take next will not be well thought-out or come from a place of sense, fairness or balance.
Ego-led is quick to take offence, reluctant to admit misstep, cannot countenance accepting blame, conflates action and words with reputation, prioritises strident, individual glory and top-down hierarchies of power.
To the ego-led, criticism is an attack, opposing views beget outcry, rebellion and digging in of heels, combative stance. Discussions with an opposing view become arguments, and arguments must be won at all costs — if not definitively, then tactically.
Ego-led will take a reasonable criticism of behaviour and inflate it into a personal attack of unacceptable magnitude. In defeat, is bitter and self-pitying, like a wounded animal. Prone to revenge fantasies. All rather unhealthy.
Many proponents of gender, racial, LGBTQ and disability equalities online are all too familiar with the style of online discussion that this propagates.
Whilst positing a fair and reasonable criticism or standpoint, we will find ourselves:
- bombarded with requests for spurious facts that have no direct bearing on the criticism at hand
- pelted with abusive language, insults and threats
- with our points being deliberately misinterpreted so as to cast us as unreasonable, unfair, or more combative and ‘personal’ than we are actually being. If they are at all person-specific in nature (for example criticising a particular person’s article) then forget reason! You’re just a horrible bitch!
- challenged by straight white men who have little to no understanding of the topic at hand but nonetheless attempt to condescendingly tell us we’re wrong — sometimes about our own experiences, unique to us, things that they couldn’t possibly know more about.
- without attempt to engage in our points, simply sneered or baited unpleasantly in the ultimate ego-led internet game — troll-wars- the motto of which is — If you have nothing worthwhile to say on a topic, content yourself with seeing how much you can upset someone.
- being told, in the case of women, that we hate men.
(To save myself the bother later, I’ll say it here: I don’t hate men.)
And sometimes, what they are really saying to us, underneath all the puff, pomp and sniffing, is that WE should be more ego-led. It’s the way of being in the world that they know and understand the best. In other words we are told that our pain is the symptom of sucker-punches to the big red balloon — and clearly, to some straight, white, non-disabled, socio-economically lucky men, this is the only kind of pain they recognise. And the only types of response they recognise are the scoffing, combative, angry and destructive ones generated by egos — responses which are useless to the rest of us — because they don’t help us advance the cause of equality.
There is no listening, no collaboration, no conceding of knowledge, compromise, reaching out.
In fact, a bit like opium in the 19th century, being ego-led is a weakness that only the most powerful societal group can afford. And it’s nowhere near as much fun.
I think the part of this article which really tells how much Simon is just not in touch with, or aware of much outside of his own immediate experience is the bit where he says –
What if I were to follow “hideously” with black, female, Jewish, Arab, obese, disabled or Welsh? Is the representation of black footballers in the Premier League (as opposed to the Football Association) “hideously black”?
Simon, Simon, Simon! Simon, don’t you realise that on a daily basis, these things (or equivalent, or worse) are said with impunity, all over the news media, openly on social media, in conversations in workplaces, in the back of taxis, on public transport, in the pub, on TV, in the hairdressers?
This daily narrative that Simon, and let’s face it, many other older straight white men are blind to, because it is passing their egos by, because it isn’t punching them directly in the feels, actually forces the rest of us to not be ego-led. It makes many of us think more collaboratively, compassionately, it makes us listen, not judge, forgive and reflect, not blame and deflect, construct dialogues and expand our horizons instead of shrivelling, turning inward and becoming more selfish and self-serving. We make our worlds bigger instead of smaller.
Not being ego-led might not solve the issues of equality in and of itself, but it’s a darn-sight less volatile, and it makes us happier.
Only connect. We know that human connection and not money is what makes people happy now, according to science. It makes us more constructive, useful, and increases our worth in society to stand together with others.
Why then fight, attack, alienate and, on this occasion Simon, count older white men out of the collective, as a wounded victim, as the Eeyore of the scenario?
As Buddhist teachings have it, ego-desires are the source of all human suffering.
It could be said that Simon is treating this like a mock-victim zero-sum game, likening his demographic to Shakespeare’s Shylock who yes, he audaciously quoted — and I will give the benefit of the doubt in assuming that perhaps he has not quite grasped the context of a Jew in 16th century Venice, nor, ironically, Shakespeare’s message that Shylock’s behaviour is the result of persecution processed by an ego-led individual.
The immediate leap to default self-pity is a luxury that only certain among our society can afford.
And the net outcome for the rest of us is that people like Simon, who pointedly mentions that he has sat on many a selection panel, avoid taking responsibility for the role of the PSMs in our society, arguably the missing piece of the human puzzle that could be solving the world’s problems, instead of trying to blame them on each other, or someone else.
Simon also conflates the word ‘stale’ with old. Funnily enough, in this particular expression I’ve always had a very different interpretation of stale.
For me it’s not so much ‘old’ as ‘same-old, same-old’.
We all know there are some individuals holding on to positions for a long time, but also circulating amongst positions of power like some kind of ungodly rota — from lawyer, to advocate, to executive board, to judge, to House of Lords. From journalist to chief exec, to chair, to honorary degree, to knighthood.
Clearly not all of middle-aged, hetero, white male-dom is being skewered by the expression pale stale and male, — what is being criticised is the tendency to sameness, to self-selection, to perpetuating a very old, very tired and no longer acceptable status quo where a disproportionate level of power lies in the hands of middle aged and older white men, who are also mostly heterosexual and from particular socio-economic backgrounds.
There is a demographic hump that our society is yet to reckon with- and a part of that is with the largest generation of our western world currently holding important offices across the spectrum of leadership roles, from blue-chip companies to universities, who will have had the chance to develop the requisite experience to take over from them when they inevitably retire?
Do we risk perpetuating the staleness into yet another generation as the underrepresented groups continue to be marginalised in the realms of politics, the media, business, STEM, technology, finance, and any other consequential decision-making spaces?
A constructive response to being accused of being stale would be for older white men in positions of power to proactively seek out and mentor someone who is NOT LIKE THEM.
A woman, someone from an ethnic minority background, a young person who has been through the care system, someone who has experienced marginalisation or discrimination. Breaking out of your bounds & reaching across to share skills, encouragement, give of yourself. You’ll feel a lot less Shylock, a lot less Eeyore, and the work you’ll have to do will be a lot less work than the person on the receiving end would have to do to reach that place. What this victim mentality neglects is that a lot of older white men (#notallolderwhitemen) have privilege, gifts and bounty to bestow on others, and giving, being generous with your treasure, can be the greatest joy of all.
There is no joy in ego-desires and defensiveness, to feeling entitled to your moment of glory arriving on the roster and bucking like a mule when there is a suggestion it might be threatened, or capitulating like an Eeyore with a burst balloon.
Definitely the most Eeyoresque line in this piece is where Simon imagines the response to white men asking for protection or safe spaces or whatever.
“I would be bidden to shut up, get a life and not be so sensitive.”
Would you? Who exactly would be doing that? Would it likely be other white men saying that? And if so, would they be the only people you’d deem worth listening to? Would that really be what anyone is saying to you? Or would that just be all you’d be able to hear through the screams of pain emanating from your horrendously sensitive bruised ego?
Perhaps take some time to listen to women of colour who’ve had to ignore and mentally battle damaging and limiting labels all their lives, just to survive. Take some courage and solace from their strength! You too can rise above and breeze over accusations of being ‘sensitive’ — being sensitive is quite a positive attribute, you may have heard, but men are most welcome to express their feelings in the 21st century, and if anyone tells you that you shouldn’t, perhaps expunge them quietly from your Christmas card list?
But oversensitivity is a different kettle of fish — and this piece illustrates perfectly the gaping hypocritical gulf in much of his recent writings. In this column, Simon plays the Adagio for Poor White Men on the world’s tiniest violin and talks, apparently without irony, of discrimination, routine humiliation and the ostracising of the elderly which seems to consist of, well, not aiming advertising at them? In Simon’s previous column on December 1st we see him blame the political shitstorm now assailing the western world on liberal identity politics and over-sensitive defensiveness of minorities.
Simon, don’t make me laugh.
When it comes to oversensitive defensiveness, the straight, white, male is absolutely taking home the trophy.
There is not much else in Simon’s article worth really trying to engage with.
I would like to reach out to Simon and others who hold his viewpoint and say, simply, when you hear middle aged white men being challenged, don’t take it personally. Take it from a woman who has experienced near-daily sexism that if indulged, and taken personally would, quite frankly, end my happiness and usefulness to the world.
Try and do something useful. Try and walk a day in someone else’s shoes.