The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home


Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 08, 2004

Anthony Daniels finds too much self-expression

Posted by Anthony Daniels

Parents who give their children bizarre names, middle class teenagers who go for unconventional piercings, and doctors who have themselves tattooed: these are all symptoms – argues Anthony Daniels - of a desperate search for self-expression among those who have nothing to express. Anthony Daniels explains how unconventionality has become the new convention.

Self-expression is to art what modern individualism is to individuality: a pale and much distorted simulacrum, based upon a romantic rumour. According to this rumour, each person carries within him, by mere virtue of drawing breath as a human being, something not only unique, but of imperishable value, of which the world stands urgently in need. It must be expressed in public, or it is lost forever.

In practice, the need to express oneself, irrespective of whether one has anything worthwhile to express, leads to a rejection of convention and mass antinomianism. Of course, the rejection of convention is itself a convention, but this is not a thought that frequently crosses the mind of those desperate to express themselves. Nor is the fact that conventions may often be, without being always, of social and ethical value. When a writer in the Times Literary Supplement listed the late A J Ayer's virtues, he included among them that he was unconventional. This might indeed have been a virtue, but it might also have been a vice, indeed it might have included the very worst vices possible. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, after all, were unconventional.

The desperate search for self-expression among those who have nothing to express takes strange forms. Among them is the widespread refusal to name their children with traditional names, but rather to fashion new or unconventional names. This refusal to bow to tradition may take various forms. Children are now frequently registered with diminutives (just as academics increasingly use diminutives of their names on the title pages of their books). Diminutives are more democratic, presumably, than full names – that is why Mr Blair is always Tony, though presumably Tone would be even more democratic.

Of course, this is not in itself of the deepest importance, though the automatic use of diminutives reduces slightly the subtlety and therefore refinement of social interactions, since the distinction is lost between those occasions on which the full name is used and those on which the diminutive is used: all occasions becoming the same in this respect.

Besides diminutives, entirely new names, conjured from the air, are given to newborns. Or, if parents give them names that resemble traditional names, they spell them in non-standard ways, replacing one letter with another. It is as if they wanted both to express their own individuality, and confer such individuality on their children, by the adoption of such names and spellings. I can't help feeling sorrow at such feeble attempts to distinguish oneself from everyone else, and that lead to a terrible uniformity of taste and opinion.

Moreover, it is an easily observable fact that children saddled with such unusual names are often, perhaps usually, destined for a sordid life in the lower depths of our society. It isn’t their names as such that confer this destiny upon them, of course, but the impulses that led to them being given such names.

Actually, I am not against unconventional names given in a different spirit. Children in Africa are often given strange names just because the parents like the sound of them: for example, I work at the moment with a charming African nurse whose parents christened him Delegate. This is a rather beautiful name, and was clearly given him in no egotistical or antinomian spirit, but simply for aesthetic reasons, and perhaps because delegates are important people.

Another symptom of the desperate search of people for self-expression, at a time when our sense of true individuality is fragile, is bodily adornment, by tattoo and various metal accessories. People who put studs in their nose and spikes through their eyebrows will claim that they are thereby expressing themselves, though the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of their compatriots have similarly adorned themselves does not seem to reduce their faith in this means of distinguishing themselves from others. Yesterday, I saw a slightly porcine girl with a ring through her lower lip, which must have been inconvenient to say the least. She was obviously prepared to put up with the inconvenience in order to attract the dismayed stares of others. The fact is that one could not avert one's gaze from the ring through her lower lip: it exerted a horrible fascination, like snakes in the zoo. By this means, she ensured that she did not bore people.

This kind of bodily adornment, that people hope will give them personality at a time of increasing uniformity, both of opinion and taste, is rising up the social scale. I suspect also that young people of the middle classes who have themselves tattooed and pierced believe that they are thereby expressing their social solidarity with people of the lower social classes, and thus expressing their political virtue and lack of prejudice. Even young doctors do it now, especially the women: a butterfly under the bra-strap, or a rose on the ankle.

Why? It is self-expression, of course. No one nowadays can acknowledge that, actually, he has nothing unique to express. It is not enough in life to be a useful, decent member of society, who takes his place in the great stream of history. Such humility is not fashionable. Either one is unique, or one is nothing.

I suppose the cult of celebrity must have something to do with this untimely death of humility, of this understanding that one is not so very important. All men are created equal, some are celebrities, therefore all of us are, or ought to be, celebrities.

I suppose also that the doctrine of rights has much to do with it. The possession of rights convinces us that we are uniquely precious, uniquely valuable, otherwise we wouldn’t have such inalienable rights. And if we are those things, that is to say uniquely precious, uniquely valuable, then we have to prove or establish our uniqueness: hence the butterfly under the bra strap.

A social historian of the future will write a book entitled The Rise of Mass Self-Importance. It will be a pioneering work of a neglected subject.

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.


Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Comments

Is Dr Daniels not aware that there is a practical purpose for metal jewelry in the tongue or lip? Or does he just not approve of the purpose?

Posted by: Andrew at September 8, 2004 12:27 PM
•••

I find it rather difficult to disentangle the arguments here. It appears to contain only the dismal voice of the lonely old fogey - 'It wasn't like that in my day'.

And of course much is conjecture. Children with silly names will be destined for a sordid life in the lower depths of society? Admittedly MacDonald's may be populated with assistants called Zechrussi or Cinchona or Buntti, but what Daniels is observing is the simple truth that the lower depths of society are largely populated with poor immigrants whose names are unfamiliar to the upper classes. Doubtless the somewhat wealthier 'Zowie' Bowie, son of unconventional David, is not drowning in the sewer. I understand he acquired a doctorate of philosophy and is now at film school.

Or perhaps Daniels' sordid depths of society are the worlds of pimps and prostitutes, about which the good doctor may know more than I. However, from my limited perusal of the calling cards placed in London's telephone kiosks, I suspect that the pierced dominatrix call-girl Vixenette wasn't actually christened thus. Or is this more correctly the sordid world of the upper classes? - Vixenette's fees certainly did seem on the steep side to me and her 'punishments' did recall fond memories of public school.

Daniels argues that the young middle classes have themselves tattooed and pierced to show their political solidarity with people of the lower social classes. But it seems Daniels is only concerned with the middle class young lady who has lost her charm and respectability, whereas the lower classes have always been pierced and painted, so what does their moral plight matter? And he does reveal a curious fascination with the porcine girl's piercing which he fails to explain. Would it not be polite to avert one's gaze rather than stare - or worse drool? What sort of example is this to our youth?

Maybe young people don't recognise the difference in social class which Daniels is so keen to emphasise. And I suspect that young people, whether named Anne or Zenobiashian, will care very little for the insightful views of the good doctor or indeed for my own ramblings.

Posted by: H Root (Jnr) at September 8, 2004 06:41 PM
•••

Um, what is the practical purpose?


As always, I enjoyed Dr Daniels' writing. Although I must admit to a slight giggle reading: "Even young doctors do it now, especially the women: a butterfly under the bra-strap, or a rose on the ankle"

Entirely low minded of me I know, but a "Butterfly under the bra-strap?" How does he know?

Posted by: James McQueen at September 8, 2004 07:03 PM
•••

Curious

Yes! - The sexual undertones are in full flow here. The repeated butterfly under the bar strap, the voluptuous girl with the hypnotic snake like tongue who you couldn't help but watch like a dumb adolescent, the glimpse of ankle, the sordid life in the depths of society, the great stream of history, the urgent needs, the intimate moment reserved for the use of the diminutive, and even the rise of mass self importance!

Posted by: Henry (Jnr) at September 9, 2004 12:01 AM
•••

i remember, in an art class many years ago, using my pencil to point out some feature of a fellow student's drawing. our instructor pushed away my pencil in horror, as if what she had in her possesion were a leonardo or a rembrandt. and yet it was nothing more than a beginner's rather amateurish drawing! but since it expressed, i suppose, his "individuality", it was sacred. poor woman, if she had any children, she must be drowning in crayola filled paper by now.

Posted by: frml at September 11, 2004 03:34 AM
•••

The main thrust (sorry, that's enough) of Dr Daniels' argument is being lost in the rush to condemn him as some kind of Colonel Blimp (a figure, for anyone who's seen Powell and Pressburger's film, admirable and heroic in many ways) - an argument summarised in the line "Self-expression is to art what modern individualism is to individuality: a pale and much distorted simulacrum, based upon a romantic rumour."

Perhaps the line from the Life of Brian (Massive crowd, as one: "We are all different" Single lonely voice: "I'm not") sums it up best. When self-expression and individuality become ends in themselves, they die. In the same way eccentricity is often admirable and courageous, but who is less impressive than the ostentatiously eccentric?

Qualities that are often potentially virtuous - self-expression, individuality, eccentricity - are simply nothing without any great reason behind them.

Rather than being distracted by our own perhaps more laid back attitude to tatoos or facial jewellry (although I must again say I agree with Dr Daniels that such fripperies are often the sign of a cheap and shallow antinomianism), we should recognise the essential truth of his article.

Posted by: James McQueen at September 11, 2004 10:42 AM
•••

James McQueen - I agree with all you say.

I'd add to the list of shallowly self-conscious eccentricities that I for one am prejudiced against: the habit of not using capital letters at the beginnings of sentences, or of names. (Yes that's a dig at you "frml".) If frml only does this when commenting on blogs to speed things up, then okay, I suppose. But I suspect that he does this elsewhere too, thus drawing that tiny little bit of attention away from what he may be trying to say, and towards his precious "self".

But again, this could be a generational thing.

Posted by: Brian (Micklethwait) at September 12, 2004 05:43 PM
•••

Andrew: why does the practical purpose for the tongue or lip stud, ring, whatever, necessitate wearing the piece all the time? It couldn't be, could it, that wearers wish to advertise the fact they have oral sex to the rest of us (who may or may not do so, but don't feel the need to proclaim it)? In which case Dr Daniels point is strengthened.

Posted by: sally at September 16, 2004 10:14 AM
•••

Short answer, Brian. My previous laptop was so old that it had lost the ability to capitalize letters. I found, as a result of this, that it did "speed things up" quite a bit, using lower case letters throughout. I'm sympathetic to your prejudice, however, and I have, as you see, reverted to the proper way of writing. Thank you for calling my attention to it.
Frml

Posted by: frml at September 19, 2004 03:30 PM
•••

Dr D would appear to be right about those awful 'fashionable' girl's names. As a priest who baptises the progeny of those of modest background, there is indeed a corrleation between that fact and the preponderence of Kylies, Chenniles, Chantelles and Chardonnays. Quite depressing. I know I'm generalising - but so what? As they live by fashion, they'll die by it - and their poor children are left saddled with these ghastly names long after the soap operas from which they derive have ceased and no-one remembers that they were, once, current...

Posted by: Marcus Stewart at October 15, 2004 11:23 PM
•••

While it is clear that Dr Daniels is threatened by change, he makes some valid points about the convention of rebelling against convention. However his rant about naming, piercing and tatooing seems laced with a lack of understanding and a bitterness against social change.

Posted by: Joe at June 17, 2005 10:14 AM
•••

I would like to point out that Zowie Bowie changed his name to something more conventional, so that example doesn't really work.

Posted by: DJ at June 17, 2005 03:34 PM
•••

"Henry Root Jr"' wrote:

"It appears to contain only the dismal voice of the lonely old fogey"

And your own contribution appears to contain only the dismal voice of the phony young leftie.

"But it seems Daniels is only concerned with the middle class young lady who has lost her charm and respectability, whereas the lower classes have always been pierced and painted, so what does their moral plight matter?"

A crass inversion: Daniels has spent his professional life and literary career trying to highlight precisely this moral plight --- these people have been his patients for years. Perhaps you might try acquainting yourself with his books before you accuse him of indifference.

"And he does reveal a curious fascination with the porcine girl's piercing which he fails to explain. Would it not be polite to avert one's gaze rather than stare - or worse drool? What sort of example is this to our youth?"

Fails to explain? Ah, then of course it must be sexual interest! Your comments say more about your preoccupations than his.

"Maybe young people don't recognise the difference in social class which Daniels is so keen to emphasise."

In what way is this incompatible with Daniels's point? His argument is that ideological fashion demands that we don't recognise any cultural difference. This is, as he says, a means of expressing "political virtue and lack of prejudice."

Posted by: Paul H. at June 24, 2007 11:26 PM
•••
Post a comment








Anti-spambot Turing code







Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement