To continue from my previous post about responsibility, I give you Michael Bywater (an article from Arts & Letters Daily)…
Bombarded by petty rules, bossy advice and celebrity tittle-tattle, we have forgotten how to be adults. It’s time we grew up, says Michael Bywater.
I imagine myself to be a grown-up, as, presumably, do you. You think that because you negotiated puberty and developed secondary sexual characteristics, and got qualifications and opened a bank account and subjected yourself to the scrutiny of anti-terrorism laws and anti-money-laundering laws and learned to drive and got a job and perhaps a spouse and maybe children, and quite possibly even pay your taxes, you are a grown-up.
It’s time to stop behaving like children and face up to responsibilities. Sometimes, things strike you as a bit odd. It strikes you, for example, as out of kilter that between getting off the plane and reaching the outside world at London Heathrow there were, at last count, 93 notices telling you off for things you hadn’t done or which it hadn’t even occurred to you to do. The plain fact is that you are being treated like a baby. You, I, all of us are on the receiving end of a sustained campaign to infantilise us: our tastes, our responses, our behaviour, our private thoughts, our decisions, our buying habits, our philosophies, our political sensibilities. We are told what to think. We are talked down to. We are distracted with colour and movement, patronised, spoon-fed, our responses pre–empted and our autonomy eroded with a fine, rich, heavily funded contempt.
Here is a random sample of what is implicit in the assumptions that are made about all of us:
1. We are unable to control our appetites;
2. We cannot postpone gratification;
3. We have little sense of self, and what we do have is deformed;
4. We have no articulable inner life;
5. We are pre– or sub-literate;
6. We are solipsistic;
7. We do not have the ability to exercise responsible autonomy;
8. We require constant surveillance and constant admonition;
9. We are potentially, if not actually, violent;
10. We have no social sensibilities beyond the tribal;
11. We have no discrimination. Do we still want to sign up to this? Do we want to be Big Babies?
My grandfather was born in 1888 and he didn’t have a lifestyle. He didn’t need one: he had a life. He had a hat and a car and a wife and two sons and a housekeeper and a maid and a nanny for the children, and the housekeeper had a dog and the dog had a canker and lived in a kennel. My grandfather read Charles Dickens mostly. Sometimes they went on holiday. His house was furnished with furniture. There were some exotic things in it, brought back from exotic places. The most exotic things were African carvings and Benares brassware. The African carving had been brought back from a war, possibly the Boer one. The brassware was brought back from Benares by my grand-father’s friend Dr. Chand, who lived next door but was a brahmin from Benares. Dr. Chand didn’t have a lifestyle either. Nobody had a lifestyle then, because there was nobody to tell them to, and anyway they were too busy having lives. They were grown-ups. They went about their business. In my grandfather’s case, it was seeing patients and making them better, where possible. In Dr. Chand’s case, it was the same, because he was a doctor too.
I suspect that my grandfather’s life was real in a sense that my father’s life hasn’t quite been, and my life is not at all. The crucial difference is my grandfather’s lack of self-consciousness, and that self-consciousness is a hallmark of the perpetual, infantilised adolescents we have all become, monsters of introspection hovering twitchily on the edge of self-obsession, occasionally aware that the life that exists only to be examined is barely manageable; barely, indeed, a life. It is a preparation for a life. The consistently introspective life of the Big Baby is as much a simulacrum as life on Big Brother. To keep the simulacrum going we need help. And we need that help because that help is available.
It’s the old paradox. We need distraction from our fragmented and solitary lives because the distractions available to us have rendered our lives fragmented and solitary. And we need lifestyle advice from magazines and websites and newspaper supplements and health advisers and personal trainers precisely because we are being nagged about our lifestyle all the time b
y magazines and websites and newspaper supplements and health advisers and personal trainers. If one of the markers of adulthood is autonomy, then one of the preconditions of autonomy is being left alone. My grandfather wasn’t nagged. Once he turned 21, he was a man, and a grown-up, and nobody battered him round the clock with opportunities he was missing, miseries he didn’t know he had, aspirations ditto, inadequacies doubly so. Nobody told him about being good in bed, grooming tips, what his car said about him, what he should have to eat, how much he should drink, what his house said about him, how Benares brassware was so over, where he should go on holiday, what this season’s must-have product would be, how his suits should look. He knew some of these things, and didn’t care about the others because nobody was drawing them to his attention. He knew what his suits should look like: trousers, waistcoat, jacket, all made out of the same material. He knew about grooming: you shaved. He knew what he should eat: breakfast, lunch, dinner. He probably had no idea that good-in-bed even existed, or that furniture did anything except furnish, or that where he went on holiday was of any significance, or that his car said anything about him at all, except ‘Oh, here comes Dr. Bywater, I recognise his car.’
But the Big Babies have no such autonomy, and are harangued to death; nor have they learned the adult trick of simply ignoring the fishwife-and-huckster voices. Instead, Baby tries to comply. Believing it when he is told that he is unhappy, he then believes the cure the same fishwives and hucksters proceed to offer. The house, the furniture, the car, the exotic holidays, the new wines to try, the squid and worms and foreign muck cooked in jam with the gravy underneath the meat, the peculiar vegetables like weeds or tumours, best thrown away; the uncomfortable places to go, the uncomfortable ways to get to them (‘Travel the Amazon on anaconda-back’), the uncomfortable and dismaying sex (‘Do we have to do buggery?’), the uncomfortable and dismaying life, funded on credit, built on debt.
And it is all a world of make-believe, a set of status symbols notable only for symbolising someone else’s status. Except that when there is nothing but status for the Big Baby in the Age of Distraction, then our symbols are our status. We live on a diet of shadows, and we can only imitate them, stuck in the playpen, waiting to be distracted. Admittedly, it’s tricky, being grownup. The great thing about being a Big Baby is it’s so easy and so rewarding, and everybody else can just bugger off. Once one has embraced the ‘isms’ that characterise the Baby Boomer’s creed of modernity – individualism, relativism, voluntarism – and lapsed into the hooting, crooning self-validating babyhood that inevitably follows, then one is beyond criticism. Anyone who says otherwise just doesn’t understand us and, what is more, is just plain wrong. Being grown up is not nearly as comfortable. Let’s, just for a moment, beg the question and say that one of the qualities of being a grown-up is what the Romans called discrimen and what we would perhaps call discrimination’, though that doesn’t quite cover it. Discrimen is the ability to judge a situation and to take right action without being sidetracked by peripheral considerations. Sailors would call it ‘seamanship’. Surgeons speak of ‘decisiveness’. In all cases, discrimen is about knowing what to do in the circumstances, even if there is no guarantee of pulling it off. But if discrimen is a cardinal virtue of adulthood, the tenets of infantilism work against it. Discrimen calls for right judgment; but the idea of something being ‘right’ is in profound conflict with individualism (which says I can only claim my judgment as being right for me). It is in conflict with relativism (which says others may have different ideas, which are right for them) and with voluntarism (which says that those different ideas are just as valid as mine, because they, too, have been chosen).
Infantility, indefinitely prolonged, is also the indefinite prolongation of (false) promise. It’s never too late. Never too late to stomp, cadaverous, around the stage singing ‘Can’t get no satisfaction’. Never too late to castoff the old wife and find a new one. Never too late to make the big killing, to score the goal, to find the perfect shoes, to acquire the perfect six-pack, rack, complexion, butt, pecs or thighs. Never too late (hell, someone must be answering the spam) to get the perfect dick, pumped up with a scoopful of mail-order Viagra; never too late to give her the perfect orgasm, get the perfect house, fill it with the perfect furniture, take the perfect vacation, drive the perfect car.
As the body ineluctably decays (the mind’s long gone, of course; who needs it?), perpetual infantility glosses over the rheum, the pains and creaks and flaccidities. As the opportunities dwindle, perpetual infantility offers us illusion on easy terms with pick-‘n’-mix spirituality, self-improvement, angels and goddesses, diversion and aspiration. As time slides past, doling out its irreversible quanta, perpetual infantility offers us. The perfect wristwatch: shockproof, waterproof, antimagnetic, a perpetual movement which says everything about us except the single intolerable truth: that we have had it and are headed for oblivion, tick by tick. We have had to make it up as we go along, we Big Babies. And we have not done a terribly good job. We want (don’t we?) to grow up. How? Here’s the simple answer: watch carefully, ask why, and mind our manners. It’s really that simple. How would the world be if everyone did it?
It would be grown up.
How to be an adult:
1. Don’t be affronted. Being affronted (or offended, or complaining about ‘inappropriateness’) is no response for a grown-up. Only children believe the world should conform to their own view of it: a sort of magical thinking that can only lead to warfare, terrorism, unmanageable short-term debt and the Blair/Bush alliance.
2. Mistrust anything catchy, whether it’s the Axis of Evil, advertising slogans, or blatant branding (‘New Labour’). Catchiness exists to prevent thought and to disguise motive. Grown-ups can think for themselves.
3. Ignore celebrities, except when they are doing what they are celebrated for doing: acting, playing football et cetera. Skill does not confer moral, political or intellectual discrimination. (Except in the case of writers. Writers know everything and can lecture you with impunity.) If a celebrity is not celebrated for doing anything but being a celebrity, smile politely but pay no notice.
4. We should not assume that market forces will decide wisely. The market is rigged by manipulation and infantilisation.
5. Consider our own motivations. We may rail about being treated like children, ordered about, kept from the truth, nannied and exploited. but are we complicit in it? Could the reward actually be infantilisation itself?
6. Autonomy is the primary marker of being grown up. Babies, children and adolescents don’t have any. We don’t want to be in their boat.
7. Suspect administration. Its purpose is to free the organisation to do what it’s meant to do: but the triumph of the administrators – the lawyers, the accountants, the professional managers – means that too many organisations now believe that what they are meant to do is administer themselves. This is a profoundly infantile attitude.
8. Do not love yourself unconditionally. Such love is for babies and comes from their mothers. Ignore fashion, particularly in clothes. You don’t want to look like a teenager for ever.
9. Never do business with a company offering ‘solutions’ as in ‘ergonomic furniture solutions which minimise the postural strain associated with sitting’ (chairs) and ‘Post Office mailing solutions’ (brown paper). The word suggests we have a problem, but since we are grown-ups, that is for us to decide.
10. Denounce relativism at every turn. Shouting ‘not fair’ is childish. Demanding respect without earning it is childish. Don’t fear seriousness. Babies aren’t allowed to be serious.
11. Watch our language. Is there really much difference between a six-year-old in a fright-wig and his father’s waders shouting ‘I’m the Mighty Wurgle-Burgle-Urgley-Goo’ and an ostensible grown-up demanding to be called ‘Tony Blair’s Respect Tsar’?
12. Hide. Grown-ups are not required to be perpetually accountable, while the instincts of government and big business, both of which are, almost by their nature, great infantilisers, are to keep an eye on everyone all the time.
13. Eat it up. There is nothing more babyish than having dietary requirements.
14. Never vote for, do business with or be pleasant to anyone who uses the words ‘ordinary people’.