Thoughts on Michael Bywater's Big Babies or Why Can't We Just Grow Up
Originally prepared for a talk and discussion at the South Place Ethical Society Book Club.
Why do people seem to behave differently these days? Why do young girls appear to be more interested in sex? Why do young boys appear to be more restless and inattentive? Why do so many adults comport themselves like overgrown children, always eager to indulge in new high-tech toys or score with members of the opposite or indeed of the same sex as if they were playing for the primary school football team? If our sole guide is the biogenetic theory for the development of personalities, then presumably these expressions of human behaviour have always been with us, just undiagnosed or unnoticed in other times. But maybe, our behaviour has changed because our society has too. One recent BBC-publicised book on the Invention of Childhood by Hugh Cunningham suggests that this phase in life is a mere social construct, building on Neil Postman's much more serious and insightful 1986 book, The Disappearance of Childhood, in which he concluded “If all the secrets of adulthood are opened to children, cynicism, apathy or ignorance replace curiosity for them.” One may argue that childhood and adulthood have not so much disappeared as merged with the former losing its innocence and the latter its responsibility. If the progressive end of childhood labour in the 19th century ushered in an era of playful childhood and mass schooling before entry into the workforce in one's mid to late teens, today this transition into the adult world has been both blurred and extended. American author, John Taylor Gatto, himself a teacher until 1991, has extensively documented how the expansion of state education has transformed the crucial early part of our development as a huge social engineering project thwarting creativity and artificially extending childhood way into our twenties and beyond. Indeed of the average 102 waking hours US children spend 56 hours glued to mass electronic entertainment, chiefly TV and video games, and 36 hours at school leaving only 10 hours for independent development. In the 1950s and 60s John Bowlby, a renowned pedagogue and child psychiatrist still respected today, though I believe widely misunderstood, demonstrated in his works on attachment theory the importance of early bonding with the primary caregiver paving the way for a smooth transition into early socialisation experiences. Over the last fifty years we've seen not only an increase in the percentage of household units with two working parents or a single parent with a commensurate rise in the provision of day care, but also in the impact of consumer culture on child development. Whether these trends necessarily go hand in hand is open to debate. Certainly the predominant role of mothers in child care in civilisations spanning the globe stems partly from biology and partly from historically higher infant mortality rates and shorter life spans, meaning married women spent much of their adult lives either as procreators or as caregivers. These observations are by no means unique to Bywater, with a plethora of sociological commentary emanating the belly of the Anglo-American beast. Books such the “The Other Parent” by Joseph Steyer giving an insider's perspective on the workings of the video game and children's TV business and Toxic Childhood by Sue Palmer, reasserting the crucial role that parenting plays in childhood development and offering a counterbalance to the current emphasis on genetically determined personality and learning disorders, both attack the same underlying issues of infantilisation of adulthood. Oliver James, himself the subject of much derision by the growing psychiatric support sector, for reasons that will soon become apparent, recently wrote a book describing the myriad stress factors and psychological problems people face in one succinct word, Affluenza. Oliver James goes out of his way to ally himself with the trendy left on most lifestyle issues, but clearly his findings point to the same diagnosis of what is wrong with our society. Once our basic living needs have been met, it is largely family and society rather than material possessions that determine happiness. If a society values materialism and aesthetics more than social cohesion and authenticity then many of its members are doomed to feel forever unsatisfied. One can only cringe at the NHS offering treatment for gambling addiction as if it were a disease when the environmental causes are so obvious to all but the most hardened evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker.
We bear witness to media-induced early sexualisation [the average age at which girls have their first period has fallen from 16-17 in the mid 19th century to just 11-12 today (Average age at menarche in various cultures )], Reality TV both exposing and trivialising people's psychological weaknesses, broken marriages and a nanny-state philosophy. Combined all these trends promote the intervention of teachers, social workers and other so-called professionals into the lives of families deemed dysfunctional and serve to undermine the authority of parents, who are increasingly infantilised through the identification of their psychological weaknesses such as manic depression. This belittling of mother- and fatherhood, complete with parenting lessons and TV edutainment programmes on dysfunctional families, remove much of the innocence of our pre-teen years that once gave way to a gradual period of discovery with emotional equilibrium built around stable personal relationships and hard work as the most likely outcomes for those afforded sufficient opportunities. It would be unfair to cast our eyes back to the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Every epoch brings with it a new set of social injustices and contradictions, but rising material and aesthetic expectations have made us some of the hardest to please.
Bywater's book has certainly made some readers cringe with horror, but has made many others laugh tearfully. He details with insightful clarity how we are all treated as babies not only by government agencies, but equally by advertisers and the corporate media eager to tempt us with their wares and trivial pursuits. It's not just the spin put on everything by the government, it's the lies that we're told, day in day out, in the hope and expectation that we'll remain compliant and not ask any awkward questions. Our life is lived in a miasma of catchy jingles, branding and a succession of scare stories, so that we will place our trust in the very people who instilled fear into us in the first place.
Many Guardian-reading, politically correct, health and safety freaks would dismiss this book as a mere Daily Mail rant, camouflaged only by its literary excellence. But perhaps they didn't get as far as page 19 in which Bywater writes “There is, in Great Britain, an entire newspaper devoted to ranting (The Daily Mail) and in America an entire industry, (the media). But declaring that things are not what the were, and that changes means worse, is as old as the hills.”. Indeed much of the liberal intelligentsia believes it suffices to criticize someone with the recalcitrant Middle England press to defeat an argument. Such comparisons do little justice to the calibre of the social critique occasionally permitted to raise its ugly head in the Daily Mail, admittedly alongside patriotic nonsense, scare stories about terrorist immigrants plot to invade this island and celebrity gossip, when compared with the sheer chutzpah of the cruise missile lefists cum Blairite apologists given free reign in the Guardian and Independent. These so-called left gatekeepers of permissible thought like to define what it is left and therefore good what it is right and therefore evil and reactionary, and I'm thinking in particular of Polly Toynbee, Johann Hari (infamous not only for his support for the invasion of Afghanistan but also for his vociferous advocacy of MDMA or ecstasy), David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen. They often build a reputation on the student left on largely lifestyle issues, often exposing the duplicity of establishment figures many of us love to hate and then, when push comes to shove over some geopolitical issue of primary strategic importance to our ruling elite, they support their government citing humanitarian motives. The last-named individual, Nick Cohen, has recently published a book denouncing the left for not supporting the allied liberation of Iraq and accusing them in not too polite words of siding with reactionary Jew-baiting, Holocaust-denying Islamic fundamentalists. Sadly while many on the left understand the true economic causes of recent conflicts, many feel uneasy about such high-profile associations with any official enemy du jour portrayed as the latest reincarnation of Hitler. As Bywater opines in the closing paragraphs of Chapter 11 on the Mummyverse:
“It's your own fault for not bracing up! But we don't listen either, otherwise we would surely have risen in the streets before now. I know very few people who do not feel deeply disenfranchised by the current political system. Most of us feel we are not being listened to. But after the fury – whichever side you were on – that Parliament or public demonstrations over the invasion of Iraq were simply ignored, most of us have also retreated into a sullen impotence. We have had our tantrum. We have screamed. 'Not fair!' LISTEN TO ME! Won't! Shan't! You MUSTN'T! and have been sent back to the nursery.”
... by the likes of Johann Hari and Nick Cohen, I hasten to add. Now let us consider reactions to the much publicised announcement of Britain's first Supercasino in Manchester. Only the reactionary Daily Mail, described affectionately by trendy lefties as the Grumpy Old Men's rag, featured a powerful condemnation of government policy (with Roy Hattersley of all people exposing the sheer criminality of New Labour's domestic and foreign policy) putting social values before the profit motive, while the Sun and Guardian, both of whose editorial teams are neolabourite to the hilt, gave the move much more favourable coverage. Indeed last Sunday's Observer's leader contained yet another eulogy for the mendacious master of sound-bites under the title “Let Mr Blair Get On With his Job”. Why should we trust the Observer to tell us what to think? Are the individuals co-opted onto its editorial board not treating us gullible wishful thinking pseudo-intellectuals as insolent children who need to brought back into the fold?
Consider this gem:
! According to an AP-AOL Games poll, 40 per cent of American adults play games on a computer or a console, and 45 per cent play over the Internet. More than a third of online gamers spent more than $200 last year on gaming. Associated Press, 9 March 2005).
In practice, a new species has evolved in fewer than 20 years. The very fact millions of Anglo-Americans define themselves as gamers speaks volumes about our culture, or precisely the tight grip that the giga-buck entertainment industry has on the collective psyche.
Stephen Law, author of The War For Children's Minds, asks us in the Guardian book review to “Think of it rather as a post-mortem carried out with surgical precision on the corpse of any pretensions that we might have had of being grown ups”. I think there is much merit in his conclusion:
“How much of what we see in Bywater's mirror is real, and how much due to its distorting effect? As the anecdotes about children forced to wear safety goggles to play conkers or BBC staff being advised on how to use revolving doors start to accumulate, so we begin to see ourselves transform into gurgling babies.”
“Is this reflection accurate? What is true is that, back in the 50s, when Bywater supposes we really were grown-ups, we were not so addicted to instant gratification. And we were treated more like adults too. But we could be infantile in other ways. Our views on authority, social position (divinely determined) and role (mummy: behind the stove) were often child-like.”
“On balance, are we more child-like now, or less? I don't believe Bywater's accumulation of anecdotes is well-placed to settle the matter. Which is not to say that it is not both thought-provoking and amusing. It is.”
Consider, if you will, the expressive power condensed into a succinct comparison between Italian and Anglo-Saxon coffee drinkers, neatly arranged into a user-friendly bold-faced text box complete with a warning symbol on page 65 of the hardback edition.
“See the sophisticated person drinking her small ristretto at a pavement café in the morning sun. Now see the AmeriBrit, clutching a cardboard pail of fluffy frothy milk dusted with NutraSweet, sucked through a Suc-U-Like lid spout, like a toddler's training beaker, and believing himself a sophisticate. (The soul-sucking Starbucks now has instructions on how to order your coffee. Coming soon: Why Despite Everything You Should Try to Enjoy It or You Will Get a Smack. We apologise for the inconvenience, Have a Good Day.)”
As an aside the Suk-U-Like trade name may seem veridical, but the author invented it probably to test the reader's credulity. Had anyone noticed how in the space of a little more than a decade, everything virtual, or rather with no physical existence, has been prefixed by the infantile first person possessive pronoun, my. Suddenly a location on a hard drive is referred by one monopolistic software vendor as 'My Documents' and a popular social networking Website is known as 'My Space'. I hear people refer to 'My Outlook' and 'My MSN' when they mean bug-ridden overpriced proprietary software installed on their machine over which they have amazingly little control (and which also have perfectly functional open-source alternatives). Refreshingly for me at least, Bywaters nearly always calls specimens of our species people, apparently unaware of 'best practise' diktats that hereinafter said subjects are to be known as individuals.
Bywater's Franco-Latinate pretentiousness under the subtitle “Tempora Mutantur, Plus c'est la même chose” asks us to consider what most office workers do these days:
“Walk around any great city towards dusk on a winter's afternoon – the lights coming on in the offices, people at their desks, unaware of being watched, or possibly all too aware of being watched, glad of it, happy to be observed being ratified, vouched for, significant, employed. Ignore the signs on the big glass doors boasting of telecommunications or corporate law, services to the food industry, public transport consortia, web consultancies, outsourcing consultancies, debt management consultancies, .. ignore them. Just look at the people. Two things spring to mind.
What on earth are they actually doing?
Whatever it is, they are all doing the same thing.
And what they are doing - when we all grew up it would all be different – is gawping.
Indeed Bywater leaves much to the imagination. Here is a huge corporate bureaucracy employing millions of office workers to gawp at screens in a drive to seek new ways to manage the system so that manufacturing costs can be driven down and sales boosted. But the author's anger at corporate hegemony surfaces three pages later, page 203 I believe:
“Companies demand terrible loyalty but respond with unutterable capriciousness; senior managers – who believe that management is a noun [as an aside a colleague of mine showed me a book she had read titled Project Management in the Real World after UCL had paid for her to attend a conference on the subject], not a verb, a state, not a process; a purpose, not an adjuvant to purposes – arrive, shriek for a space in the corporate playpen, disgrace themselves and depart, rewarded, to do it again elsewhere. Meanwhile, the middle ranks and below must learn to live with the knowledge that loyalty is a one-way street, and that their job is to comply, to feign ethusiasm at every fatuous new 'initiative', to swallow the latest mission statement, to spout the pre-emptive corporate jargon of the 'ever-changing world' and 'cutting-edge technology' and 'scalable solutions' and 'fast-paced business environment' and everything else imaginable (and much that is not). The corporation is a giant bully, frantic and selfish, and, just like the bully in the schoolyard, has no real idea what it wants its underlings to do, except to comply. To comply, and ... to suck it up when they have to go.”
Bywater's sense of irony rises in tone as he addresses the thorny issue of health and safety. In my experience if you want to justify a policy without too much discussion, just claim that is 'best practice' or is in line with latest guidelines on 'health and safety'. These excuses have been used for anything from the enforcement of expensive proprietary Microsoft or Oracle software packages, favouring one vendor over others, to overpackaging (Morrison's justified wrapping coconuts in clingfilm on the grounds of hygiene) or the outsourcing of routine maintenance tasks like changing lightbulbs. This is because the consultants who draw up the 'best practice' guidelines at great expense to the tax payer, as detailed in David Craig's excellent exposé Plundering the Public Sector, also represent huge multinationals with vested interests in the maintenance of the quasi monopoly. As a temporary contract analyst programmer at University College London I had to attend a 2 hour health and safety presentation, which seemed about as informative as your average pre-flight emergency landing drill.
“Picture a great European capital city in the 21st century. Look down. What do you see? Not holes, I imagine, unguarded holes, holes with men in them, men not wearing any protective clothing, (no hard hats, no Kevlar-toed work boots, no luminous high-visibility jackets, no ear defenders, no safety glasses), holes not properly demarcated with proper exclusion zones and proper cones and barriers and signs and tapes; holes with pedestrians – the general public, untrained – can cross via planks no thicker than a plank from which the untrained general public (who have carried out no risk assessment, received no site induction ,briefing or toolbox talk, signed no access permit) could fall, if jostled by another member of the general public, into the unguarded hole and on top of one of the men-not-wearing-any-protective-clothing.”
“Look up, too; and I bet, in your mind's eye, there are no projecting girders, loosely dangling high voltage cables held together with duct tape, no curling, razor sharp pieces of corrugated iron, no filed-down-pointed-brackets poised at you'll-have-someone's-eye-out-with-that height. You won't be thinking of the sparks flying from the angle grinders grinding metal on the pavement, of the hammering and welding and flying dust and brick-grit, the motorcycles on the pavement, the broken paving stones, the pavement itself suddenly stopping and decanting you into the street of the not one- or two- but apparently three-way traffic, defeating the laws of space-time.”
“Welcome to Athens 2004. Whether or not people get hurt more in Athens than in London or Minneapolis, Nottingham or San Diego or Stockholm, is not immediately discoverable. But what seems to happen is an odd kind of vigilance; an autonomous regard for self and others kicks in. People's eyes are constantly in motion, like fighter pilots'. Instead of being cocooned in iPoddage, bumbling through their protected environment like carefree children wrapped in auditory cotton wool, people in Athens are alert, watching the city above their eyeline for things about to drop on them, watching the ground beneath them for things to avoid tripping over or falling into. When nothing can be taken for granted (the quiet back street may at any moment swing round a corner, past an unguarded crane hoisting insecure pianos, and become an urban motorway, a precipitous gully, or just stop altogether) the primary skill of the citizen is expecting the unexpected.”
Having lived in neighbouring Italy for ten years I can only confirm the paradox that the very European countries with the least respect for politically correct decrees on health and safety, have the longest life expectancy, 2000 more Italians may die in car accidents every year than in the UK (5000 compared with just over 3000), but fewer die as a result of bad diet, eating disorders and or alcohol-induced absent mindedness. I recall raising the issue of in-car safety with Italian friends in the early 90s and encountering the almost universal belief that seat belts impede emergency exits when vehicles veer into roadside ditches or canals.
On paedophilia Bywater risks courting controversy and I fear many over-sensitised souls may misinterpret his musings as implicit approval of adult-child gang bangs.
“Paedophilia is the modern Satan. We see it everywhere. It is the one crime for which we hold the tacit – or often vociferous – belief that rehabilitation is not possible. And in a sense it exemplifies everything that has gone awry in our way of thinking about sex; everything that is infantilised.”
Indeed in the eyes of an ultra-pc gatekeeper Bywater digs his grave deeper in a footnote on page 189 of the hardback edition:
“Actually paedophiles are completely harmless, driven by 'philia' (φιλϓα), the asexual brotherly love which motivates some of our finest teachers. It's pederasts we should watch out for; theirs is 'erastés' (ἐραςτής), the desire to posses and consume.”
This pedantic explanation of the etymology and semantics of a word whose prevalence in the mass media has risen exponentially over the last decade - I think at age of sixteen, I would probably interpreted the meaning of paedophile literally - invites us to reconsider the difference between love and exploitation. Apparently according to the media, we cannot be trusted to show the former without being accused of malicious intent to engage in the latter.
Pat Kane, a Glaswegian musician of Hue and Cry fame and author of the Play Ethic, critiques the book in the Independent as the “Grumbulist Manifesto”, but then goes straight to the point of his objection to this vehement attack on the sacred cows of political correctness, claiming that for Michael Bywater “apparently, Mother is to blame”. Pat Kane no doubt referred to Chapter 11 “Mummy is Everywhere, and Mummy can see you”, which leads, without citing evidence other than biased interpretations of thoroughly satirical prose, to his concluding words “On and on goes the systemic misogyny, and you're wondering at which point Bywater becomes aware of his own problem.” Before we reach this anticlimactic accusation of misogyny we are entertained with a psychoanalysis of the author. “Woven through the argument is enough biography to explain some of Bywater's rage. This is a baby-boomer who loathes the consumerism, infantilism and irresponsibility of his generation, partly because he seems to have liberally partaken of it himself. He's designed silly computer games; he's abandoned his child to 'find himself' in an affair; he can fly a light aircraft, but still has to wear an ostentatious pilot's watch to show everyone he can.”
No doubt Pat Kane is coolness incarnate devoid of psychological hangups, but probably dislikes Bywater's satirically crafted thesis because it challenges his own 'Play Ethic' manifesto advocating the spread of fun culture to every place of work, which might work fine if everyone worked in a creative design agency. Yes there are new media agencies where young programmers will take a mid afternoon break to indulge in a moronic networked first person shooter game, only to continue work for their ultra-cool Armani-jeans-clad bosses until 9pm. Pleasure and entertainment are of course relative concepts. If you work hard all day long at a mundane but socially useful task, you may enjoy relaxing in front of a TV movie or having sociable drink at your local and then feel reinvigorated for another day in the service of humanity. But I don't know how we could apply Kane's Play Ethic to paramedics or workers in the Chinese semiconductor factory that produces components for branded mp3 players. By contrast someone raised on a constant diet of sensory hedonism or , as Jean Baudrillard would define it, simulacra, essentially an update of Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, would inevitably feel estranged with the absence of constant audio-visual stimulation in the form of fast-beat pop music, flashing imagery and exciting action. Miraculously some of us actually enjoy our jobs, play and work merge into one as our creative exploits yield results that others not only appreciate, but benefit the community as a whole. Alas individual creativity has little place in a society controlled by concentrated political and economic leviathans that despise intellectualism.
Kane's suggestion that “David Cameron's back-room wonks would undoubtedly endorse“ Bywater's “distaste for the increasing regulation of daily life” is a classic example of guilt by association. As Pat Kane probably retains some faculty for critical thinking, it may one day dawn on him that much of what he considers healthy entertainment is part of a massive social engineering experiment that renders us subservient to none other than the entertainment industry forever preoccupied with our failure to emulate the coolness of media-generated role models, a cause, as Oliver James notes in Affluenza, of much emotional distress. In many ways Pat Kane's Play Ethic, dedicated 'To the Net' with the byline, 'She's everything 2 me' (in which the preposition to is spelled in the same way as its numeric homophone), is antithetical to Bywater's delightful rant. Kane makes a case for an indefinite extension of childhood play, but clearly fails in over 350 trendily illustrated pages to realise the full extent of mass media manipulation, merely seeing Naomi Klein's No Logo movement as an encouraging counterbalance to branded culture. Maybe he only felt the need to pay lip service to Naomi Klein's rejection of corporate culture because of her status within the advertising industry, in whose milieu Kane hobnobs. I've seen this book on the book prominently displayed on the bookshelves of two design agencies where I've worked. Incidentally Kane's book benefited from the graphic creativity of sugarfreedesign. We may think of play as unproductive creativity, undoubtedly an essential ingredient in any child's development, increasingly submerged by highly structured virtual worlds that only multi-billion enterprises can successfully create and market. In the bygone age when people had lives, but not lifestyles as Bywater notes in a short biography of his late father, most of our adult lives were engaged in productive pursuits, whether at home or at work. In post-industrial societies like post-modern Cool Britannia, only a minority of workers are employed directly or indirectly in the production of goods or provision of services essential to living. Both the public and private sectors are dominated by project managers, clerical staff, information technology support staff, consultants, accountants, lawyers and various guises of assistants. The only people who apparently do anything useful these days tend to provide catering, plumbing and house maintenance services to workers too busy managing the system to have a clue how to make the building blocks of the society on which we all depend. One wonders how Kane would have dismissed the lessons of the prescient movie, the Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and I say that as someone who cycled to the nearest HMV store to purchase my copy of God Shave the Queen back in 1977.
But let us sample some of the evidence, where Bywater controversially likens Big Brother with Big Mother. Bywater did not coin the latter term, which prompted Kane's accusation of misogyny. As the online Double-tongued Dictionary of English slang notes:
“Big Mother n. a government attempting to exercise total control over the well-being of its citizens; parents attempting to constantly monitor or control the activities of their children, especially by means of electronic devices.”
Bywater chose big mother rather big parent or big father because it rhymes with Big Brother, itself a gender-specific metaphor for an omni-present oligarchy that is not necessarily composed solely of males. But what gems did Bywater include in his chapter on the Mummyverse that vexed editorial staff at the Independent:
“it's the ultimate statement of power. As we've already mentioned, in early 2006, the British Government, under the very peculiar Tony Blair, attempted to shovel something called the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill through Parliament which would, if unchecked, have given them the power to pass laws without the frightful inconvenience of consulting Parliament, that shabby and disobliging collective of elected representatives.”
“Had they been more honest, they would have simply called the Because I Say So Bill and we would have known where we stood. As it was, people were surprised to discover the extraordinary and unabashedly anti-democratic provisions buried in a Bill that the government did all it could to present as a model of plodding dullness, which history indicates, is generally the method by which dictators come into power, and so they knobbled it while they still had the chance.”
“Mr Blair was, of course, being a bad Mother, simultaneously treating the lot of us like Big Babies, and behaving like an ever bigger one himself. But rather than thinking that egregious and peculiar, we might consider it as the root of the problem: that the people who wish to infantilise us are, if anything, even less grown-up than we are, and so their version of Mummy, is an insecure tyrannical, manipulative fishwife, a sort of older sibling irritating Mummy in order to be able to boss the younger ones around, and whose response to any problem is to lash out, shrieking – and not just in the political arena.”
“Big Babies like nothing more than throwing their weight around, and in politics, the best way to do that is to ban things: junk food and fizzy drinks, end-of-exam parties at university, car advertisements which show people driving fast, knives, smoking, mobile-phone pornography, Australian wood which might have bugs in, consensual sadomasochist sex, seeds, unlicensed church fêtes, beef, cloning, euthanasia... like a dog licking its privates, they do it because they can; and the same mechanism applies to the increasing web of surveillance inflicted on citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.”
“Surveillance – data collection, phone tapping, monitoring and any other preferably undetectable and high-tech method for invading people's privacy – is the absolute highest good that governments can imagine. Mummy wants to keep an eye on Baby all the time, and, while the innocent (as they always say) have nothing to fear, we should all fear the rapidity with which a government (even without the Because I Say So act) can redefine the word guilty. As Cardinal Richelieu said 'Give me six lines written by the most honest man and I will find something in them to hang him'. As Cardinal Richelieu might have added: 'But I won't tell him what it is he is being hanged for'. The infantilised, after all, do not have enough rights to participate in their own governance. Their duty is merely to comply, and who has not been told by an irate parent: 'If you don't know what you've done, then I'm not telling you?'”
“Once getting the knock on the door at 4am, being pulled out of the line for questioning, being turned away at the boarding gate, having documents demanded – Papiere bitte – or just simply disappearing, were marks of a police state. Now they are becoming increasingly common in the English-speaking West, in the form of immigration authorities responding to hysteria about 'the Other' in our midst, or police enforcing a protest-free cordon sanitaire around Parliament, or little old ladies being told they can't bring their knitting needles onto aeroplanes in case they overpower the pilots, or mysterious unmarked 'rendition' flights touching down in the dark.”
If we skip a few paragraphs, Bywater resumes his tongue-in-cheek analogies dabbling in psychobabble:
“Looking at how politicians behave we might well conclude that they, too, are built on the Asperger's model. All too often their social behaviour seems carefully learnt; they seem curiously like a dog shaking hands – it's not that it doesn't do it quite well, just that it has no idea at all what it's for or why we do it. When we hear a Bush or Blair make a joke to lighten the atmosphere, we also hear some inner dialogue box opening in their brain: Tell ... Joke .. Lighten .. At-mos-phere .. Click <OK> to con-ti-nue or <CANCEL> to can-cel. When they play the air guitar to show the regular guys they are, what they actually show is a certain semiotic ineptitude, since they usually give the odd effect of having had lessons. Not guitar lessons, but air guitar lessons,”
“Now they are not Asperger's people. Nobody with Asperger's Syndrome would even contemplate the world of politics, dependent on schmoozing and dissembling, a world of words where a talent for ambiguity is the prerequisite of success. Yet see them in the mass and they are clearly in some way differently wired, and the only plausible explanation is that they have rewired themselves. Overwhelmed with a terrible neediness, these unpopular ones at school at school now desperate to get their own back, have stopped listening to what they themselves say in case it stops them in their tracks, and have lost the ability to listen to anyone else, except in the most calculating way, just as some men know that if you listen to a woman until two in the morning, she will go to bed with you.”
As an aside, I might add that had Bywater done his research more methodically, then he might have concluded that the recent invention of Asperger's Syndrome is another example of the way Big Mother, in the guise of the psychiatric establishment, infantilises us with new labels as a means of gaining greater control over our lives. If we skim some of the humoristic generalisation, the litany of actions and objects politicians have considered banning reveals a libertarian laissez-faire bias that risks benefiting the very rampant hedonism that motivated Bywater's anti-consumerist sermons in other parts of the book. But then we should hardly expect luxury car advertisers to do anything but extol the most appealing virtues of their wares and we cannot cease to be amazed by a two-headed establishment, one encouraging us to gamble, booze, play moronic games and hop on cheap flights to exotic locations and the other regulating and banning many of these same activities. One legitimate criticism of the Grumpy Old Men's manifesto is its failure to spell out these obvious contradictions. If you want to enjoy dirt cheap flights to partake in an extended pub crawl, should you marvel at the way you're treated like an overgrown teenager. Likewise, one should not demand a refund from the management of an all-night discotheque because one objects to the noisy ecstasy-ridden atmosphere. If you want a pleasant relaxing evening away from the riff-raff, book a table for two at a posh upmarket restaurant. Likewise if you demand a minimum of respect from airline staff and have a couple of grand to spare, consider splashing out on a business class ticket. I've nearly always travelled economy class and until one memorable occasion had grown accustomed to my diminished status as a low-margin customer. I had to stand in for the sales manager of an Italian engineering firm and was booked on a first class flight to Delhi. I was treated almost like royalty, almost feeling inconvenienced by the flight assistants' persistent preoccupation with my well-being.
Kelly Smith interviewed Michael Bywater in a more favourable light, admittedly as a journalist and one of his former students. Ms Smith correctly applies a concluding phrase of Chapter 12 to the author himself. “Whenever we read something, we should ask ourselves: 'Who wrote this? And why?' And we should then try and imagine the circumstances of its composition. So why Big Babies and why now?”
“Good question. There is a whole constellation of complaints that people make: nanny state; notices ticking us off; regulations; the encroachment on our position as clients of the government. There was a time when the government were there under our sufferance; with the current government it looks as though we are allowed to be citizens under their sufferance. There has been a radical change in the attitude of the government particularly in the United Kingdom and USA.”
“And we are whining about all sorts of things: people eating hand burgers in the streets; consumerism; grown-ups wandering around in nylon shorts and baseball caps; men not shaving… There is something underlying the whole thing which is a kind of infantilism, or perhaps the word, very briefly touched upon in the book is neoteny.”
Michael Bywater can admittedly come across as a tad supercilious. Asked about his use of the word neoteny, he informs us:
“Well, neoteny is really very interesting. It’s where the adult retains the characteristics of the child. Now evolutionary theory says we are physically ‘neotenous’ apes. I think emotionally, psychologically and politically we are becoming neotenous people – characteristics of infantilism persisting in to what we laughingly call adulthood – and it does explain the underlying, or one of the underlying, causes of an awful lot of people’s complaints about society.”
Contrary to claims made by his detractors, Mr Bywater does not believe in some mythical golden age or as he spins it:
“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. We are surrounded by a sea of faces: a roaring ocean of voices, speaking to us in baby talk. And we don’t quite notice it.”
“Well, we move through the world in the face of constant noise” Bywater explains, “Of ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘fill this in’, remember your position is contingent on someone else’s approval, ‘we’re keeping an eye on you’, ‘don’t walk there!’, ‘careful! you might trip up!’, ‘mind the gap’, ‘don’t do that, don’t do that’, ‘coffee may be hot!’, ‘Please leave the lavatory as you would hope to find it’.” Bywater casts his eye across the room and points to a sign outside. “What does it mean when all these notices are everywhere? ‘Bus lane cameras,’ why? What does that mean? And another one: ‘24 hour CCTV.’ Great! Hello! I’m on television!”
Bywater agrees that both American and British literary fiction have gone a long way to examine the state of our culture in these terms. He discussed the dystopian worlds of George Orwell’s 1984, Don DeLillo’s White Noise and, more recently, J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come. So has a non-fiction investigation been long overdue? And is this particular ‘Lost World’ a lost cause? A dystopia?
“Is it a ‘lost world’? Was there a time when democracy worked and the people’s voice was heard?” asks Bywater lighting a cigarette, “You’d have to be a better historian than I am to answer that.”
"However, the idea of an infantilised or controlled population has long been a theme in literary discourse. Looking back to Greek tragedy, Bywater traces parallels with the predicament we now find ourselves in:
“Go back to Aeschylus and the Oresteia. It starts with an infantilised people at the mercy of some kind of divine, retributive, disproportionate, so-called justice and it moves towards a negotiated, grown up society. What seems to be happening now is we are going back - the Eumenides are coming back up from under the ground and they are getting us, they are in Westminster playing guitar and saying ‘we’re just like you are’. I don’t know about long overdue: it seems about due.”
“So I don’t think it is a dystopia; it’s a sort of pre-emptive utopia. In an odd sense we are offered all these things that will make everything lovely. Alain de Botton speaks of ‘status anxiety’, but I think we mistake, not status for happiness, but the symbol for the status it symbolises. So we have a signifier/signified confusion. We live in a state of terrible semiological angst and it may be because the only model we have for anything now is business, and at the core of business is the idea of marketing and advertising.”
When Kelly smith suggested that “if we read the human body as a text we are almost walking, talking, living, breathing advertising hoardings – dripping head to toe in designer labels - and by carrying our Starbucks coffees around we are personally promoting the product”, Bywater elucidated:.
“You are absolutely right, but the odd thing is we think we acquire status by doing it. The great mystery which I devoted a whole chapter to, but then removed, is the designer t-shirt: the t-shirt with the logo on of someone who made the t-shirt. Why does someone walk around wearing a t-shirt with – I don’t know – Tommy Hilfiger on it? What are they saying?”
Or what about the famous Burberry check, now a chav status symbol?
“Exactly, and just when you think you’ve got something important its authenticity then vanishes. It’s not only that we are almost walking billboards; it is that we aspire to the condition of living in an advertisement. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’; now the un-televised life is not worth living.”
“So we try and fill the gap, and what do we try and fill it with? We try and attach to the product some sort of emotional value. And what more and more people are selling is the brand, not the product. And I think there are ways in which what the advertisers do is a lot like the spiked monkey experiment, the more spiked we get, the tighter we cling to the mother. The more we buy something and it doesn’t make us fulfilled, [the more] we charge the credit card, buy more stuff: a better mobile phone, a nicer pen. ‘If only I had latest Macintosh’, upgrade fever, new software – ‘oh I can’t wait for Word 2007, because then somehow I will be a better writer’.”
Asked if we sometimes choose a disguise from the ‘dressing-up box’ in order to protect ourselves from the opinions and judgements of those who would sum us up in a few seconds, Bywatersmuses:
“What is it disguising? It’s disguising what we perceive to be the hum and drum nature of our lives. But the other weird thing is that we dress up as what we would like to be. I mean take the pilot watch for example: as I have written in the book, the pilot watch is a complete mystery to me. I mean, why do I wear a pilot watch? What I should do is wear something that isn’t a pilot watch, but it’s amazing how many pilots wear pilot’s watches and are vaguely embarrassed about it. Because if I can fly stuff and I wear a pilot’s watch, I’m actually pretending to be something I am anyway.”
So was it a surprise to Bywater during the writing of the book that he too is susceptible to the same gullibility he defines as infantile?
“Well, exactly, but as a reader of Big Babies it is quicker to dismiss the feeling than before. So is that what Bywater wants his book to achieve? To make people more aware? To look out for the con, the trick and the illusion? For people to say ‘we are not going to be treated like this’. To say ‘no, you cannot have my thumbprint’, ‘no I will not carry an identity card,’ ‘no there is not going to be a DNA database,’ ‘no we do not find ourselves impressed by the sight of the Prime Minister playing f****** air guitar’. ‘Yes it is time everyone grew up,’ ‘no we are not children, and we are not clients of some state’.”
Despite the book's simplistic thesis and its wide publicity, I feel it has at least triggered a debate. In many respects the infantilising trends that Bywater so wittily identifies are a product of consumerism, requiring complex structures of social control. The more we depend on material status symbols and morale-boosting injections of mass-marketed entertainment, the more we tend to delegate control of our lives to other authorities, whether corporate or governmental. One may disagree with much of Mr Bywater's bias, write him off as a reactionary old twat, but that misses the point. Whenever you read something, always ask why it was written and in what circumstances. Buzzwords such as self-empowerment are meaningless unless we begin to actually think for ourselves and not look behind our shoulders in case of member of the thought Gestapo is at large, ready to apply some unspeakable epithet if you sing from the wrong hymn sheet.
The book offers no magic solutions, no manifesto for change, it urges us merely to reject the rhetorical charm of the purveyors of spin and see through a multitude of agendas being sold to us on false pretences. My solution is simply to treat the enforcers of establishment-imposed political correctness, a byword for the party line, like overgrown playground bullies. But for serious research into the undeniable postponement of emotional maturity, I'd look elsewhere. Oliver James' new popularised book Affluenza is good start, but also read Stephen Law's The War For Children's Minds, that's where the real battle is. Get'em young and they'll be your obedient servants for life!