Sunday, 8 May 2011

Semiotics of Hysteria: Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender" and Cameron's gaffe.

To start with some bald facts: on 27th April 2011, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, (Conservative) told Angela Eagles, an MP from the opposition (Labour,) to “calm down, dear” during Prime Minister's Question Time. The resulting furore was predictable. In the midst of this, Samantha Cameron – David's wife – laughed off the criticism saying that she often told her husband to “calm down, dear.”

Now, if we can ignore for a moment the difference in register required by (respectively) a personal tiff and the kind of professional, political contact which is broadcast on national television, we can, perhaps, let the word “dear” fall by the analytical wayside. No, what I want to examine is the assumption that Mrs Cameron makes: that, when a woman say “calm down” to a man, it means the same as when a man says “calm down” to a woman.

What can she mean? Surely this is Political Correctness gone mad? Words are words, whoever says them. The gender of the speakers can't make that much difference, can it? Hmmm. Well. If I may digress for a moment.

A couple of weeks back, I read a very interesting book called Delusions of Gender, (Cordelia Fine, Icon Books, 2010.) In the introduction she quoted one Thomas Gisborne, an 18th Century clergyman, writing on the gender difference as it is called. He describes at length the female virtues and especial abilities “to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse, throughout the family circle, the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.”

Why, we might even imagine such a paragon saying – to an overwrought husband or rumbustious child, “calm down, dear.”

But surely, times have changed? Women are no longer confined to the family circle, nor, indeed to the caring professions. But, as Fine explores, we still have the lingering spectre of gender difference which lets us know that women aren't better or worse than men just... well, suited to different things. Men, for example, are still considered to have the advantage in maths, sciences and technology – they are still the critical, analytical thinkers, but women have something else. Something called, to use a cultural buzz word, 'emotional intelligence'.

Well, yippee! What is this strange and wonderful thing? I no longer care that my brain is totally unsuited to position of power or responsibility! I have emotional intelligence which allows me to feel empathy. It allows me to interact well with people. It makes me a good communicator. It gives me nigh on telepathic powers of intuition into other people's feelings. This is great! I feel so empowered! What does this great, newly discovered facility allow me to do?

Actually, as Fine points out, it makes me ideally suited to interpersonal engagement, dealing with people – especially the young or the vulnerable. It equips me perfectly for the... er, the caring professions. Or, better still diffusing throughout the family circle the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness. Calm down, dear. Quite.

But who am I to argue with neuroscience? (I'll leave that to Cordelia Fine – and a damned fine job she does of it, too.) What I want to do is come back to is the fact that this idea of emotional intelligence is not new. Fine traces it back to the 18th Century, but I recognise it from my days spent studying Medieval Literature. However far back you go into this Christian patriarchy of ours you will find facts which are intended to uphold the established order. You will be told that men are the thinkers, the reasoners, and that women are handed, as a consolation prize, the ability to feel. We are the mothers (just like the BVM,) we are the listeners (just like Mary Magdalane,) we are the mourners (who knew about the resurrection first?) and we are intuitively faithful. In fact, when we stay in line, listen, don't question authority and are content to feel rather than analyse we become so spiritually enlightened that some of those great theologians sought to emulate femininity in their souls because it was such a privileged position.

Thanks, Bernard of Clairvaux, but all the same, I'd rather have the vote.

Because there is a drawback to this privilege. It is all very well and good to be emotional – to be enlightened by a direct and uncritical interaction with spirituality, but it always leaves the patriarchy with a very powerful weapon. Because when we take it too far, when a woman starts to show what would, in a man, be seen as masculine anger, well, that's just our phlegmatic temperament making us hysterical. You see, that's the problem with emotional spirituality. It makes these poor girls a little bit unstable, prone to the old wandering womb1. Nothing else for it. Calm down, dear.

Which is exactly what happened in during Prime Minister's Question Time on 27th April 2011. Angela Eagles was doing her job, was making her point and arguing as well as she could and David Cameron – consciously or otherwise – felt his masculinity threatened. So he snapped into that old control mechanism which has been reinforced by centuries of theories, from ideas of the humors to neuroscience – that women are better at emotion. And because they are better at emotion, they can get emotional. And, as a fine, upstanding member of that patriarchy what else could David Cameron have said when out manoeuvred by a woman?

1The root of hysteria being womb, as any good dictionary will tell you...

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