Sunday 15 September 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Superiority floors Jacob Rees-Mogg'

Jacob Rees-Mogg
Jacob Rees-Mogg
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I have been pondering on sneering. Rarely has so much sneering been in evidence as has been on display by some of our neighbours across the water of late. On the news, in parliament, on social media, sneering by British politicians, pundits and members of Joe Public has become part of common discourse and I have been wondering why.

It's unpleasant and wasn't given such free rein until recently, so I was thinking perhaps a mask had slipped. But there is more to it than that. Now I think it is the desperate act of someone who believes, or wants to believe, they are better than you - but you aren't playing ball. They know they are more important than you - but you appear not to know it. So how do they get their point across? They act like they're looking down on you. They sneer. Sneering is an attempt to create a hierarchy in reality that reflects the one that exists in their own head. Sneering is about pecking order.

Take Jacob Rees-Mogg (please take him!). Rees-Mogg, who was once described as what a stupid person thinks is clever, is all about sneering. His manner is deliberately condescending and his affectations are an attempt to intimate to others that he is better than them. Hence the smattering of schoolboy Latin. The ludicrous shoe-horning of big words awkwardly into conversation, designed both to show off his knowledge and to exclude - one of his offerings during last Wednesday night's Commons debate was "Let us consider the chaos this concatenation of circumstances could create". There is also his dismissal of those who disagree with him. He was widely criticised last week for insulting and deriding doctors who have been asking questions about medicine shortages following a crash-out Brexit. All of the above is about him desperately trying to get people to recognise his status. So he sneers like a latter-day Lord Snot.

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No doubt this is learned behaviour from the British public school system of hierarchies, where super-wealthy families send their children to be with other super-wealthy children and then they all go on to Oxford or Cambridge or, perish the thought, St Andrews. This elite group is part of a class system which is supposed to be gone but - in a country that has a monarchy, an aristocracy as well as a two-tiered education system - is still very much present.

But there is little point in being upper-class if the proletariat - with their fixations on equality - refuse to recognise you as such. So how do you demonstrate and reinforce that hierarchy? You sneer. And for those susceptible to being intimidated or for those with an inferiority complex, it can be effective. Among certain individuals, groups and colonies, a demonstration of supposed superiority can work very well, convincing them as well as yourself that you are top dog. As a former colony, we have a societal memory of this. It wasn't all tanks and guns here, some of what the British did was more subtle. It was about making us believe they were better; to believe we needed them to govern us.

Where sneering fails is with peers. With those people who, no matter how hard you try to get them to see that you are better than them, simply don't or won't. They just think you are obnoxious. Which is why when JRM lay languidly across the green benches in Westminster, looking deliberately bored during debates last week, he was met with furious cries of "Sit up, man". It wasn't seen as superiority. It was seen as the pathetic posturing and rudeness that it was by other MPs who do not believe JRM is anything special - quite the opposite, in fact.

Ian Dunt described his behaviour as "spaffed off, mock-Shakespearean juvenilia". Another pundit asked: "How can you live your whole life as this absurd cosplay Wodehouse aristocrat?" And Liz Kendall, Labour MP for Leicester, noted that Rees-Mogg was visibly enraging the very Tory MPs he should have been trying to persuade to back the government. Sneering doesn't work with peers and JRM was a liability to the UK government last week. His eccentric arrogance hardened the Tory rebels. Peers are not impressed by faux pre-eminence.

And, of course, another place where the British come up against peers is in the EU. The French, the Germans, the Spanish, they don't believe the UK is superior to them and all the sneering - and let's face it, there has been much sneering in Europe - will do little to expedite a solution to the Brexit mess such as a favourable withdrawal agreement or a workable trading arrangement.

Much like Rees-Mogg annoyed half the House of Commons (even the name, when you think about it, is eye-rollingly sad), Britain posturing like a farcical has-been on the world stage - insisting "I used to be somebody" - is not good tactics. It pushes people in the opposite direction. Deal with people as equals and they might be reasonable. Insult them with your egotism, and it will backfire.

Although considering it's part of the imperialist attitude that brought about Brexit in the first place and I'm only an Irish whippersnapper, who should actually be doffing the cap, it's hard to know if they'll take heed.


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