by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 3
July 2020
Idea
08:30

Let’s put an end to macho cultural pessimism

It has been a common feature of elite outlets for decades
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Jeremy Paxman described his political interviewing style as “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

The only ‘Big Book’ I’ve managed to catch up with during lockdown is a year out of date. Fleishman is in Trouble was last summer’s high-status holiday read, and coming to it now feels almost nostalgic. The central themes have been well treated elsewhere, but one side thread stood out, around tone. Our narrator (Libby Epstein), a female reporter, describes trying to write like macho, superstar journalist Archer:

 The way he had of releasing the valve of his anger slowly, tensely, beautifully….created a generalised disgust for the state of the world that seemed like the only conclusion a smart, thinking person could come to.
- Libby Epstein, Fleishman is in Trouble

The narrator envies the cultural power of this style of writing. Archer’s womanising, entitled, expense account-milking behaviour is tolerated, encouraged even, because his sharp sardonic prose sells magazines.

This acute observation has stayed with me long after the novels’ more obvious themes of marital discord have ceased to be interesting. One of the reasons I started my career at the BBC was a sense of the power of the media, the way our understanding of the world is framed and formed by the voices we pay attention to. This style of writing, precision-tooled to enable the reader to feel contempt, has been a common feature of elite outlets for decades.

Distanced, critical and typically male, it does indeed leave the conclusion that the only intelligent response to reality is a sort of resigned despair. Hope, earnestness, sincerity, the assumption of goodwill — all these things have accumulated cultural debris which leave them sidelined as naïve, non-serious, and not for smart, educated people like us. We who really see can see past this optimism and into the bleak underbelly of humanity.

There should always be a place for shining a light on injustice and poking the powerful to be better. That scrappy, determined streak in journalism is one of the things I love. My fear is that this instinct that all the best political interviewers (“why is this lying bastard lying to me?”) has bled out from its proper place to colour our whole framing of the world.

The best antidote to this is, for me, Marilynne Robinson. She’s no intellectual slouch, but decries the kind of cultural pessimism which is “always fashionable”. Right now, in a world ravaged by Covid-19 facing the complicated and more existential threat of climate change, is exactly the moment to resist the kind of resigned ‘generalised disgust’ that certain types of voices instil in us. This kind of posture depresses “the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible”, she writes.

Relationship expert John Gorman famously listed contempt as the worst of his ‘four horseman of the apocalypse’ in marriages. It has the same corrosive effects in societies. I am trying to shake off decades of seeing the world framed by voices like Archer’s, and shifting to those like Robinson, who reminds us:

There are always as good grounds for optimism and for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact, that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had….We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been……To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.
- Marilynne Robinson

Join the discussion


  • Hmmm … I agree with disgust for, and total rejection of, cultural pessimism, but I tend to think of it as effeminate — highly, highly effeminate and phony, especially when practiced by males.

    Not coincidentally, methinks, effeminacy amongst males (especially those younger in age) has been on the increase for decades now, at least in the wealthy more liberal societies.

    To me, there is a strong association between lack of independence of thought and character and weakness of intellect, and behaviors such as cultural pessimism. It is a naked and pathetic attempt to “fit in”.

  • What I think is more important is not the (vague and unspecified) more balanced journalistic approach, but constructive criticism from journalists and between politicians.

    It should no longer be acceptable enough to merely criticise a viewpoint, but all attempts should be made to provide a constructive counterpoint or solution to the issue at hand.

    Too often politicians and journalists (and people in general) are fast and aggressive to dismiss and criticise – but don’t provide a solution themselves either.

    As a final note, this article could easily have been written without the unnecessary sexist “macho” epithet. It cheapens and undermines an otherwise good point.

  • I found the ‘macho’ term decidedly odd, in that contempt and scorn has usually been the first weapon used by girls and women who want to bully and hurt other people. This is not too surprising given that the approach used by the macho bullies– just threaten to beat somebody up — is commonly not available.

    Incidentally, I have been able to reduce a significant amount of contempt expressed by the children of both sexes that I work with by telling the children that contempt is both cowardly and egotistical. This approach — for now — seems to work better than telling the children that they are insufficiently compassionate.

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