Saluting the Flag: Gender Orthodoxy in 21st Century Britain (and Not Even This)

Further orthodoxy, although of an older sort, appears in Jack Underwood’s dismissiveness of masculinity. This is characteristic of a generation of liberals (like myself) who cut their political teeth supporting Feminism before Transgenderism arrived on the scene: people in their 30s or older, really. Thus, Mr Underwood talks of “the limits of patriarchal language and imagination… its erasures and violences”, “the absurd yet enduring alpha-male fantasy of hetero-patriarchy”, how he finds masculinity’s “toxic forms repellent” and how “the fear of being afraid that we cisgender heterosexual men carry inside ourselves is most commonly and violently re-directed at those who are not cis, heterosexual men.” He also admits to fearing if he had a son, he would grow up to be a rapist. 

That’s all well and good, and I would agree that these unpleasant traits are characteristic of maleness and patriarchy at their worst. They are the deserved caricatures of traditional patriarchal societies, when all the complexity and individual variation has been bleached out by generalising. It is to our shame, as men, that our society is recognisable in such generalisations.

However, sweeping statements are the abstractions of theory and statistics, and assumptions cannot be made about individuals on the strength of them. That is prejudice. When Underwood talks of “we cisgender heterosexual men” and uses phrases like “most commonly”, he is suggesting that conformist fear and potential violence is universal. That is deeply unfair to all the lovely, kind men I know.             

Mr Underwood also says, “I know that my class and my whiteness have afforded me more pathways and easier access to cultural spaces where I do not have to perform a strictly normative version of my gender.” In trying to acknowledge his white male privilege, Mr Underwood seems to imply that less privileged men are forced to enact a swaggering and violent form of toxic masculinity that he has been thankfully freed from. In other words, poor folk, he suggests, are violently misogynistic and sexually bigoted, whereas he has the privilege not to be. This is unfair and is society’s fault, he implies, so it’s not prejudiced for him to point it out! Isn’t this a form of sorrowful, compassionate superiority?

All these confident pronouncements are delivered as articles of faith, without any evidence to support them. They are presented in the face of all evidence to the contrary, such as the fact that nearly all human societies, throughout history, have maintained the significant distinction between men and women, no matter how culturally, chronologically, and geographically separate these societies have been. He ignores the profound biological changes caused by sex hormones, especially during puberty, and the distinctive physical, phenological differences that these changes give rise to, from bigger average size and physical strength among men, to penises and vaginas, to breasts and body hair, to the bigger noses and jaws of men, to women’s menstruation and the ability to carry, give birth to, and feed babies. 

Marked biological differences could give rise to markedly different behaviours. Why not? The brain is a biological organ. I have a son and a daughter, and work in a co-educational comprehensive school, and my experience is that boys seem much more likely to be more active, physical and (sometimes) physically aggressive than girls, who are more likely to negotiate their environment and relationships verbally. The physical differences could also give rise to significant different behaviours and roles – in heterosexual sex acts, for example, and in the consequences, and subsequent reactions to these acts. Male sexuality is inevitably projected and invasive while female sexuality is likely to be receptive and discriminatory. Women are also biologically incapable of running away from unwanted pregnancies. 

I’m sure these dissimilarities are at least partly socially conditioned, but there is every reason to believe biology plays its part. After all, social conditioning, especially among the very young, can be indiscernible, and therefore may not always be occurring, whereas biological differences are glaringly obvious from birth.

Jack underwood makes no mention of any of this, nor of the influence these differences may have on behaviour in assigning social roles or social behaviour. All this is so markedly at odds with the thoughtful tenor of the rest of his book that it sounds like he is hurrying through a checklist of orthodox thought to avoid being purged by the secret police. He reminds me of a writer in Stalinist Russia fearfully trying to show his loyalty to the state! 

Perhaps this section is as performative and insincere as the paeans of those oppressed Soviet writers. I hope so. 

The Neo-Liberal Creed on Gender and Sexuality

I was brought up as an Anglican, a member of The Church of Ireland. On Sundays, the church service included a recitation of The Creed, otherwise known as “an affirmation of the faith.” This began, 

            “We believe in one God,

            The Father, the Almighty,

            Maker of heaven and earth,

            Of all that is

            Seen or unseen.

            We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

            The only son of God,

            Eternally begotten of the Father,

            God from God, Light from Light, 

            True God from true God… (etc.)

Jack Underwood recites his version of a neo-orthodox Liberal creed throughout his discussion on gender and sexuality, in Not Even this (2021, London: Corsair.) He labours the points I quoted in my previous post, saying, for example, “Feminist theory also taught me to reconsider my own gender in relation to my body… I am sexed… This aspect of who I am is only considered significant because I live in a society which is already gendered and so politically prioritises such a division and rewards its upkeep, and punishes those already subjected to the violent erasures and brute reductivism of this peculiar obsession with this kind of difference, in the face of all others.” (p36) 

This statement is made with such assurance, in the absence of any corroborative evidence, that it must be regarded as an affirmation of faith. We should not forget that he is a senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Goldsmith’s College. Universities used to be havens (and advocates) for freedom of thought and expression, and of debate. Now they have become repressively dogmatic environments, fiercely policed to ensure everyone holds the correct views.  

Strange, that. 

Mr Underwood and False Consciousness

It’s only when Mr Underwood starts taking about gender that his book strikes a false note. Suddenly, rather than scrupulously exploring his own thoughts and experiences, he is reciting a catechism of Liberal pieties. He announces, “The specifics of your sexual anatomy are beside the point of your personhood… but the world as it stands will summon your dormant reproductive organs to give a primary account of your ontology… You should not be subjected to this binary sexualised cleaving” (p34) No discussion or interrogation follows these doctrinaire statements, despite being highly questionable and unscientific. My own experience of Graves’ disease and anorexia have demonstrated how biology, hormones, even levels of nourishment, are inextricably linked to human thinking and thus the experience of self and of society through the interactions with those around you. This conclusion is supported by over 200 years of scientific research. 

Unfortunately, you do not own yourself. You are the common property of your community. Your identity is a construct negotiated between you and those you interact with, a compromise between your aspirational self-perception, how you are perceived and treated by those around you, and how you respond to that. 

The raw material of Jack Underwood’s daughter’s “personhood” will be fundamentally shaped by her gender because of the inevitably biologically gendered development of her body and brain, the recognition and reception of that by the society around her, and her response, in turn, to that reception. Trans men and women, because of the difficult journey they must embark on, are denied the defining formative experiences of the gender they aspire to. Those who wish to be regarded as non-binary must actively renounce their own biology as well as the social constructs that attend it and are founded on it. 

The assumption of self-ownership and authorship is a legacy of naïve cartesian mind-body dualism. This theory privileges a mythic spirit with a fully formed identity that is randomly assigned to an alienated body-casket. The theory encourages hostility to our own bodies because, rather than viewing them as an integral part of who we are, we view them as obstacles to our inalienable right to be who we want to be.

This heroic individualism is the monstrous child of consumer capitalist self-gratification. That Economic theory sells us lies that selfish, individual self-actualisation is the highest good, that it is a fundamental and inalienable right which trumps all social obligations, that it can, and should, be demanded of social providers such as governments, and that it can be expressed through purchasable merchandise. In other words, heroic individualism can be very effectively monetised.

Heroic Individualism is the very opposite of community-mindedness that is the basis of all brands of socialism. It is a capitalist Trojan Horse. Socialism has been infected by capitalism.

What I Like about Jack Underwood’s writing

Jack Underwood’s love for his daughter contrasts horribly with my own cack-handed disasters of parenting, giving me further reasons to dislike Not Even This. I was already prepared to be heartily annoyed by a self-congratulatory record of the joys and successes of his principled parenting. I was looking forward to it. 

But, disappointingly, I was charmed by this book. For a start, it is a courageous endeavour, trying to engage a reader in such an esoteric and personal set of musings. They are so rarefied and so meticulous that there is no room for pretention. He is thoughtful, honest and sincere, unashamed of his abstruse cerebrations and heartfelt in his feelings for his daughter. It’s sweet. 

And his prose is beautifully lucid. In fact, when he distils these vivid thoughts down into poetry, they seem banal and tepid by comparison: fragments of summary, abstruse and imageless referents, of  what he has already discussed so movingly.

Jack Underwood and the Love of Sons and Daughters

Mr Underwood’s feels that becoming a father made him more insular. The intensity of his passion for his daughter distracts him from his former concern for humanity. but then, he probably started with a far greater capacity for philanthropy than my shrivelled walnut of a heart would ever allow me. 

I think, over time, fatherhood enormously expanded my capacity to care, not just in how I responded to my own kids, but how I felt towards all young children and their parents. My immediate reaction on the birth of my first child, though, was blank bewilderment. I held in my arms a dense little package of preciousness, but I felt no unique or special connection with it, no sense of authorship or ownership, no particular responsibility. I guess I had never experienced anything like this before and so didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t even particularly worried about my blankness: I assumed this was a fairly normal reaction and that love would grow over time. 

Then my hard-nosed, unsentimental friend had a baby. He told me that the first time he looked into his daughter’s eyes he formed an instant, thrilling and unbreakable bond with her. I was horrified.

Now I feared my own reaction showed an inability to love, that I was some sort of psychopath. I hoped it was numbness. I hoped I just couldn’t access that subterranean reservoir of feeling, but that it was still there, somewhere, deep down. My fatherly concern for all small children allowed me to reassure myself that I had the capacity for love, even while I messed up my own attempts at parenting, and thus my children’s psychological and emotional well-being. 

In Not Even This, Jack Underwood’s powerful, intensely felt love constantly reminded me of my own shortcomings. The book is studded with declarations of love: “I want to know you, and to be known by you more and more . I want you to be more arrived … I want you to meet me here, where the words are! (p10)… You have cured me. With hope. You have given me so much hope (p39) … I am learning to live within the fear; it is huge, architectural, orchestral, my fear for you (p60) … It is strange how readily expendable I feel. Not the same as wanting to die, but a total willingness to die should the need arise(p61)” And so on. 

Mr Underwood even celebrates his daughter’s physical body, her little back, against which he leans his loving cheek, even her “shit and piss” because “it reminds me of all your neat little organs in there, working away. (p93)” 

This is a brilliant, impudent bit of writing, and it reminds me of how beautiful, articulate prose can distil emotions and ideas into clean and intensified little pellets: I respond to Jack Underwood’s declarations because, in a vague diluted and distracted way I have felt a watered down version about my own children, but being unable to express it in such a terse and focussed way, I have been unable to feel it so intensely. 

Or so I kid myself. I forgive myself. The truth is, that Jack Underwood’s writing on his daughter makes me feel inadequate[1]. Jo really picked a dud when she chose to have children with me!

[1] Ironically, though, my daughter and I bond over our dysfunctional relationship, and in mutual resentment of these self-congratulatory, wholesome father-daughter relationships. 

Jack Underwood Says Becoming a Father Made Him More Selfish…

There are certainly things to disagree with and reject, in Mr Underwood’s[1] meditations. There’s an element of Dadsplaining (The new-parent version of mansplaining), something you’d expect from any writer who became a parent. For some reason, adults who have not (yet) had children have a visceral and indignant hatred of discussing the experience of parenthood[2]. Anyone who’s interested will have, by definition, already experienced it, so there’s a bit of “No Shit Sherlock!” about the reading. 

At other times I simply disagree with him. For example, on page 100 he states, “parenthood has made us more selfish, more insular, always directing our heart’s resources inwards … speaking as a parent, there is nothing about parenthood that extends the reach and breadth of your capability to love beyond the inner machine of the family, or endows you with special insight into the lives of others … What fresh understanding you have is only applicable within the confines of the family paddock. In that sense parenthood makes being a good person in a broader sense much harder.”

Notice the declarative, dadsplaining statements of universal truth, in the present simple tense: “parenthood makes being a good person in a broader sense much harder.” Period. Fact. Note, also, the universal “you” and the claim of superior knowledge of “Speaking as a parent…”, with its assumption that his readers do not share that experience and so cannot refute his claims.

In fact, my own experience of parenthood was markedly different. My empathy and understanding of the experience of other parents, including my own, expanded enormously: the dilemmas; the fear; the enduring guilt; the confusing moil of irritation and passionate care when they did something incredibly stupid and hurt themselves; the shame, irritation, disappointment and self-blame when they did something selfish and hurt others. Yes, most of all, the constant, mortifying self-blame.

I also suddenly acquired a fatherly concern for all small children. I loved seeing sweet little babies asleep on their mothers’ shoulders. I suddenly cared passionately about lost, abused, unhappy creatures I had never met. The unfolding story of Madelaine McCann’s disappearance nearly killed me because she was roughly the same age as my daughter. I burst into tears upon reading about children lined up for extermination in Auschwitz, a subject that had left me angry but dry-eyed on all previous encounters. I even started snivelling while teaching a class on Rudyard Kipling, when I had to mention the death of his beloved daughter Josephine. 

I sense Underwood dismisses the idea that parenthood makes you more loving as a lazy, sentimental cliché, but my experience, and the fact that it is a cliché, suggests that it is a common experience. After all, I’m a cold, selfish old bastard, with a pedestrian and unimaginative intellect, so if can feel this way…

[1] This is such a hobbit name! 

[2] Somebody ought to research why this is, and why it’s so universal. 

Jack Underwood’s Not Even This: some Preparatory notes about Gift-Giving

Traditionally, at birthdays and Christmas, grown-up women give each other scarves. Have you noticed this? It makes sense: they can look beautiful, feel luxurious, are practical, and you don’t have to enter the minefield of trying to estimate size. However, since his wife’s reinvention as a writer, my father-in-law has specialised in gifts of the most recent, talked about books. 

Apart from the other lazy assumptions about me, mentioned in my previous post, it is thoughtless to risk giving these presents to anyone in the household of a compulsive and obsessive book-acquirer. In fact, of the last 9 book-gifts given to us by my father-in-law, Jack Underwood’s Not Even ThisPoetry, Parenthood & Living Uncertainly was the first one that I didn’t have already, and that was only because I’d considered and rejected it. (They clearly read the same reviews that I do.) 

I found this so exasperating and patronising that I wanted to point out the fact to them, but Jo put her foot down and refused to let me. I know she’s right. It would be incredibly rude, and my annoyance comes from an infantile, grasping love of being given presents I’d want. This is an attitude that sometimes persists, beyond childhood, among those of us who continue not to have enough money of our own to buy nice things on a whim. We must rely on others to gift them to us. I have to grit my teeth, and bow and simper with feigned gratitude and wonder, while Jo whispers in my ear a series of threats mixed with promises to allow me to buy books we don’t have already, in compensation. 

So, I think I was predisposed to be hostile to this text because it came from my Father-in-law.

I’m Back, and Ready to Bitch about my In-Laws (and Jack Underwood)!

Sorry about the break, dudes. I’ve been on holiday, walking in the Swiss Alps: the most spectacularly, almost unbelievably beautiful landscape I’ve ever been in, but also the most expensive. In one hotel restaurant, a main course was 44 Swiss francs. That’s about £38. We had coffee.

Jo wouldn’t let me bring my laptop, because she said it should be “family time”, hence the blog-silence. However, I read Jack Underwood’s Not Even This: Poetry, Parenthood and Living Uncertainly (London: Corsair, 2022), and hand-writing notes on it in a notebook. 

It was a gift from my infinitely patient and forgiving father-in-law and his wife. They are always absolutely lovely to me, something they do, I think, for Jo’s sake. I resent it deeply. It’s not easy being such a wanker that other people can demonstrate their virtue and superiority by tolerating you. The resentment goads me into being breath-takingly rude, thus giving them further opportunities to prove their loveliness, their superior virtue, and their patient, forgiving tolerance, dangnammit!

My in-laws are all high-flyers: Cambridge-educated doctors or successful executives; senior civil servants, as well as nurturing and loving parents and spouses, who produce well-balanced, socially productive children. Jo’s professional success is the reason we can go on holiday. I earn about £10K a year.

I have very few qualities or achievements. With no other way of praising me, my father-in-law clings to the idea that I am a “poet”, even though I abandoned poetry for fiction and non-fiction prose (probably) a decade ago, due to a complete lack of poetic ability. 

A few years ago, his wife took up fiction writing, entering short story competitions, self-publishing a novel, running her local writing group, and blogging about her “journey as a writer.” 

I was wary of admitting to her that I had already switched to prose-writing, fearing direct comparison. Her competitiveness and industrious professionalism mean that she has been more successful than me, and I would deeply resent her tactful triumphalism if she knew. 

I have spent my whole life, since I was a teenager, trying to commit myself, wholly, to the study of serious literature both as an art and as a source of soul-deepening and mind-broadening knowledge that allows profound communication and empathy with other minds and is thus enormously beneficial for any society. I have failed in my endeavour due to laziness, inattention, and lack of intelligence, but those are my values. 

I feel my father-in-law’s wife lacks any serious commitment to literature as a transcendent quasi-religious art. She has never exhibited any of my interests and values. She has always been a Booker-Short-List, book-club type, reading easily and eagerly, interested in the stories and issues these works throw up, and in the discussions they stimulate, but has never had any critical, stylistic, theoretical or philosophical interest. She only began writing in her 60s after retiring in her 40s and using her time to dabble in other areas – she did a psychology degree, for example. 

Now, more used to my own utter lack of success as a writer, I am less cagey about her knowing, but it would seem as if I was copying her, even though my prose-writing pre-dates hers by years, so I keep quiet.

In any case, my father-in-law’s lazy characterisation of me insists on pigeon-holing me as the poetic foil to his novelist wife, so Not Even This must have seemed a particularly appropriate present, for me. 

When Innocent Bigotry Goes Rogue…

It is important to re-familiarise ourselves with old-school explicit prejudice and discrimination, because for many of us that was the definition of Racism. That is what we condemned and campaigned against when we were younger. 

Prejudicial attitudes used to be cringe-inducingly extreme: sweeping, ignorant generalisations based on no evidence or experience at all. (You should listen to my dad!) Yet the Liberal-Humanist principle of individual value could balance out all of this, as long as the strange foreign ladies and gentlemen were encountered singly or in small groups. American servicemen of colour in the UK, in the 2nd World War, were often treated very well. 

It is when larger groups start to appear that individuals stop being judged on their personal merits and are lumped into a faceless type. Hostility grows as these groups are seen to unbalance and alter the communities that longer-serving inhabitants have grown accustomed to, and to love. 

This change seems to fundamentally alter the mind-sets of some members of the earlier populations, who view themselves as “indigenous.” Prejudices can lie quietly dormant, I think, in most law-abiding citizens, amounting to little more than a tendency to associate a certain group of people with a certain behaviours or looks or beliefs or ways of living. These associations may not even be negative, and can be so momentary, so trivial and instantly forgettable, that the thinker may consider them passing fancies rather than harmful or biased assumptions.

They are undoubtedly the foundations of openly racist thought, a sort of gateway proto-notions, but there is an actual, qualitative difference between brief associations that we know to be wrong and instantly supress, and a conscious commitment to inequality and discriminations. Random, embarrassing thoughts and fancies, associations and assumptions float through everybody’s brains all the time. Many are probably intrusive thoughts: things we explicitly condemn and fear thinking. Most are instantly banished with a sheepish pang. 

Our natural, occasional tendency towards Wrong Thoughts – unhelpful or unfair associations and stereotypes – need other psycho-emotional factors to be transformed into naked bigotry: fear, aggression or grievance, anger, frustration, humiliation, suspicion of difference or change, a desire for the excitement of conflict, rejection of a world that has left us feeling neglected, powerless and belittled, the reassurance that having the power to hurt may bring… They need to be consciously accepted and fostered, returned to repeatedly, to build up a sense of brooding resentment.

It’s a dangerous alchemy, and we must all remain vigilant against allowing it to happen. Many, many of us will experience some form of unfairness or discrimination in our lives, although not all to an equal extent, or with equal impact, and will cast around for culprits to blame or victims to vent our feelings on. We must school ourselves against the brooding resentment, supress it when we find it, make an active effort to imagine things from other people’s points of view. 

This is a personal, individual struggle, the greater jihad, that all must attempt. You are not exempt if you are from a persecuted minority. In fact, you may be more likely to experience such feelings, because you are more likely to be treated badly. 

British, Locally Grown, Organic Racism

Thoughtless, xenophobic British racism has never been so relentlessly violent and catastrophic as the institutionalised and rationalised American version, because it is not founded on the memory of monstrous crimes. The history of genocidal slavery and exploitation is continuously present in the United States. It took place right there, on the soil still occupied by the descendants of both perpetrators and victims.  

British cultural discourse has managed to distance itself from all this, at least to its own satisfaction, by emphasising the role played by British abolitionists in ending the slave-trade in this country, ignoring its traders’ role in setting up, managing, profiting, and continuing to profit from the business. It’s a bit like awarding terrorists the Nobel Peace Prize for agreeing to stop murdering people, officially, while they are still setting up contract killings abroad.  

Such an interpretation of history does justice to no-one, not even the abolitionists, who faced far more resistance and hostility and had to find the resilience to deal with far more defeats and highly compromised achievements than this sunny narrative implies. 

However, culture and society are profoundly influenced by the stories their citizens tell themselves. By liberating themselves from their colonial guilt, modern British people can innocently believe in the principle of equality, of equal value and respect in a sort of integrated multi-cultural Britain without a sense that they are condemning themselves. Most of us believe racial distinctions are illusory, fictional, inapplicable in the chaos of millions of individual differences.

Everyone approves of the statement “we have more in common than divides us.” Few believe that division along racial lines is natural, inevitable or desirable 

Of course, the statistics deny this happy state of affairs. There is no excuse for allowing racial inequality to persist, for ignoring or being overly lenient of racial persecution and injustice when it occurs.

But it has allowed us to pursue Civil Rights more whole heartedly and without ambivalence, with more consensus and less division than in America, and thus, I’d argue, we have made some progress towards these goals and have derived from our fantasies slightly kinder and more integrated society for a larger proportion of our ethnic minorities.

We still have a long way to go. Racist incidents and attitudes, racial inequality are all far far too common. It is shameful, but we are different from the US, with a different social landscape and history, different problems and, therefore, different solutions.  

Attempts to import American models of activism and theory have increased tension and division. Too often, Critical Race Theorists and Social Justice activists have said, recently, that racism and hate-crime is going up.

We can’t assume this is push-back that proves the haters feel threatened. That is narrow-minded self-justification. If our campaigns are increasing hate crimes, they aren’t working. We need to change our tactics.