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.


Paul said...

Yes, sounds reasonable to me. I think I'd add a further point, though: often "chippiness" arises because of perceived handicap --- where some attribute is not really a handicap, but is nevertheless regarded as such by one's peers. In this case the "healthy reaction" would not be number 12 (to accept one's peers' assertion that the attribute is indeed a handicap), but rather to disregard the prevailing view --- i.e. something more along the lines of number 9 (the dreaded denial). Having said that, such faux handicaps may effectively constitute real ones if all one desires is conformity with one's peers.

not_saussure said...

Hmm. None of those apply to me -- I went to one of the brainier (and older) Cambridge colleges and got a good enough degree to go one to do post-graduate work for a while, but I used to find the drunken antics of some of the dining societies a bit of a bore.

I think it was the self-conscious nature of it that irritated me; people seemed not to be doing it for fun so much as they'd got the idea that while you were at university you were suppose to go in for drunken japes, because that's what they'd done in Brideshead Revisited (or, they'd heard from someone who'd read it that was what you did) so drunken japes they'd jolly well have.

I got the impression that this was more of an Oxford thing -- at least in my day, which was more than 30 years ago now. Certainly the Pitt Club (of which I wasn't a member but I did get invited there quite frequently) could get quite riotous, but if things got broken it was because people were drunk rather than because they set out to break up the place.

Magdalene Bar was a bit different, of course, but that was Magdalene.

Fabian Tassano said...

Isn't any club which one can't be a member of going to make one feel a bit miffed, even if one wouldn't actually want to join?

I never had the opportunity to be in one of the top Cambridge clubs and although I didn’t have any interest in them, the thought did mildly irk that I probably couldn’t have joined if I had wanted to. Mind you, when (as a postgrad) I was invited as a guest to a relatively exclusive undergrad club, I was disappointed - I thought it might be a bit glamorous but it turned out to be dull and prosaic.

Clubbiness is one of the great joys of life, and people will always find ways to form cliques and exclude outsiders, even if exclusion is made unacceptable or even illegal. That is what’s so stupid/dishonest about the leftist project to abolish all forms of exclusivity. (A) It doesn’t work, and (B) you just end up with new forms of elitism, e.g. il-liberal consensus at the BBC.

I’d like to take this opportunity to express my wholehearted support for the principle that a club should be able to exclude anyone they like, on whatever basis they wish.

BTW, I wonder if Magdalene College Cambridge is still dominated by Hooray Henries. In my day it was kind of like a very large Bullingdon Club.

Neil Welton said...

Don't tell me you've got "a chip on your shoulder" about "Hooray Henries" - a quite revealing "turn of phrase".

Interesting piece - even though it is narrowly defined by a focus on education. Worth remembering around 70% of the population have not been to university. How do they feel? For people can be chippy about all sorts of realities outside of education as well. Take these:

I have "money" / you don't have "money".
I own a "house" / you don't own a "house".
I am a "success" / you are not a "success".
I have "contacts" / you don't have "contacts".
I have "a top job" / you don't have "a top job".

The list could be endless.

The possibilities for chippiness are endless!

Fabian Tassano said...

Is it still as much as 70%? I’m sure before long it will be a minority.

I suppose “Hooray Henry” has become a bit corrupted into a generalised term of abuse against public schoolboys. Still, I think it has some usefulness in its original sense of a person who is loudmouthed and boorish. A posh version of a yob, in effect.

Captain Kirkham said...

I don't peronally think it can be called "chippy" to be annoyed by the type of people who have been given various legs up (by parents etc) and yet don't seem to realise that this contributed to their high and pleasant place in the pecking order.

My own experience of the high born/bred denizens of Cambridge is that they could be split between the ones who did realise (nice, pleasant chaps, no resentment against them whatsoever) and the the ones who didn't and were just sure that they deserved their privilege doncherknow(aka Hooray Henries).

Anonymous said...

I actually didn't read the book... but I do have a comment. I didn't go to Harvard or the get my degrees from the school of choice. I attended a semester, but due to the schedule had to settle for a college that had more night classes. I had to work full time and go to classes full time. I took out loans. I am still paying for them and still attending college (to get my dissertation completed and I will have the privilege to be called Doctor. I attended public school, and state universities. I only went high school for three months, got my GED and went to college.
I worked all the way through it, got married, had three kids. I am now living where I wanted, and I have my dream job. Life is good.
I worked for it and so can everyone else. Chip or no chip. Knock it off and get real. Good luck and God Bless.