05 March 2007

Reflections on "chippiness"

Further to a comment on "Comprehensives: worse than prison", inspired by a disagreement between Daniel Finkelstein and Chris Dillow.

What follows is pure speculation. This is what I think are the psychodynamics of so-called “chippiness” (aka “having a chip on your shoulder”).

1) Something bad has happened to you, against your wishes, which did not happen to a significant number of other people in your peer group. E.g. your parents dumped you, or you were sent to a comprehensive school, or you went to a not-very-prestigious university, or you were at one of the “also ran” Oxbridge colleges, or you didn’t get a good degree so you couldn’t get to do research.

2) The experience made you feel unimportant, inferior, or otherwise bad, and you suffered as a result. You wish it hadn’t happened.

3) When you interact with those members of your peer group who didn’t suffer what you did, you observe they are better set up psychologically.

4) Deep down, you feel this is unfair, and you feel angry and resentful.

5) However, you are not sure whether these feelings are socially legitimated. They probably aren’t. In other words, it isn’t socially acceptable to mind about the handicaps you were given. (As it has become partially acceptable to mind about certain specific ones, e.g. being given a hard time as a member of an ethnic minority.)

6) This gives you a conflict. You can’t exactly stop yourself minding. But do you allow yourself to be aware of it? Do you allow yourself to express it? With whom precisely should you be angry? “The system”?

7) Typically, therefore, you have the resentment, but it’s semi-suppressed and unarticulated. Thus the key behavioural symptom of classic “chippiness”: being grumpy or sulky, but in a defeated, screwed up sort of way.

8) There may, however, be a socially acceptable outlet for your resentment, albeit involving a certain amount of displacement. If the subclass of your peer group who didn’t suffer what you suffered can be identified as fair game for ridicule, hatred, contempt, scapegoating or other socially legitimated resentment (e.g. as representing “social injustice”) this gives you a way of satisfying your aggressive reaction. You go in for hating those who had the “privilege” you didn’t. This is a bit harder in the case where they represent the majority, but not impossible. (Think e.g. black vs. white.)

9) Alternatively, there is the reaction of denial. You pretend you didn’t really suffer, you don’t care, you’re quite well off thank you very much, you have nothing to envy the other group for, they’re a bunch of idiots anyway, etc. Seeming like you’re indifferent can be a bit tricky to pull off, however, if these reactions are expressed in an aggressive tone.

10) The counter-response is also of interest. Those who didn’t suffer can feel smug about their fortunate status, and can bask in the knowledge that you can’t complain without opening yourself up to ridicule. They can pretend their advantages are not really that great. “Oh, you went to a state school? I’m sure that was fine. Myself, I went to Harrow, but it was pretty awful. (Smirk.)”

11) Or if you do look at all sulky, and don’t take enough care to suppress your symptoms, they will accuse you of being “chippy”. Which, of course, is really a sort of jeering insult. What it’s typically saying is something like: “You’re pathetic. Look at you. You (e.g.) went to a crap school, so you’re second rate. Everyone knows (even if they pretend not to) that this makes you sub par in all sorts of ways. And you’re not even tough enough to keep your feelings hidden. Ha ha ha.”

12) What the “privileged” like less, I think, is what a psychiatrist (well, the old-fashioned kind) might say was the healthy reaction. Accepting that you were given a handicap (however awful it seems to do so), but in a spirit of defiance. Not regarding it as your fault, therefore not feeling ashamed about it, even if other people look like they want you to. Feeling it shouldn’t have happened to you, you deserved better. Not hating those who didn’t suffer your adversity, because they are not the ones to blame. (*)

I’d like to close this meditation with an excerpt from Henley’s Invictus.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
The poem expresses a psychological position which Celia Green has called “centralisation”.

(*) Unless, of course, they are.