Where is the stiff upper-lip, the old stone-cold English way that required us to control our emotions in order to apply reasoned thought? Has it been usurped by the purple, superfluous world that the global media presents us with today?
“Never let them see you bleed,” as Q said to Bond. Once upon a time we accepted our fate, good or ill, without a hint of glee or distress. We lost gallantly at sports with a handshake and a clap for those who had bettered us, rather than screeches of “Cheats!” and “Unfavourable conditions!” We queued quietly, whether or not the line seemed to be disappearing off into the abyss, without throwing our hands to the heavens and bemoaning our lot. When stuck in traffic, we did not feel the need to hammer on the horn, screaming profanities and wondering why our hooting had no effect on the car in front.
Ah yes, that was what it meant to be English. And then came Jerry Springer.
Springer’s particular brand of public humiliation became instantly popular during the early nineties. It held the same kind of appeal as the bull-baiting and dog-fighting events of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it was not long before a new genre had been created: reality television. With its garish displays of shallow, back-biting, out-for-yourself behaviour, reality TV instilled a new emotional attitude in the English, pitting diverse groups of people from the same walks of life against each other. Good old-fashioned camaraderie sailed out the window in favour of spitefulness, as contestants tried gracelessly to avoid getting eliminated each week. There seems to be no room for the stiff upper-lip when you risk being voted off the show.
Nowadays, talk-show vernacular has become common parlance. The notorious 'chicken-neck' (moving your neck back and forth whilst shouting vulgar invective), and responding to reasoned remonstrance with a “Whatever” and an outstretched palm, are just two well-known examples. When global media is filling our minds with scenes of such behaviour and language, it is little wonder that the stiff upper-lip is in decline.
Due to our continual obsession with celebrities and the now greater ease with which one can become a celebrity, the stiff upper-lip faces yet another problem. Crowds of relative unknowns fill our screens, all eager to become famous and prepared to do whatever it takes to be loved by the nation. Would we be so entertained if someone came along and behaved courteously, taking everything in their stride and not succumbing to a feeding frenzy of back-stabbing and hysteria at every setback? When in a predicament, the English way has traditionally been to treat the situation with calmness and formality. Now, however, the global media appears to be teaching us that the thing to do in such circumstances is to break down in wild fits of tears and theatrical demonstrations of woe.
It could be argued that to be open about one’s emotions is a good thing, because it is honest. It could also be argued that the stiff upper-lip is tantamount to emotional retention and a denial of one’s humanity. On the other hand, we could say that the English way of facing misfortune with bravery and resolution, rather than screaming, crumbling, or overreacting, prevents our emotional state from affecting our judgement when careful thought and consideration are called for.
With our appetite for confessional television, the downfall of others, and celebrity showing little sign of abating, we may wonder whether the stiff upper-lip will vanish forever. The future certainly looks bleak when television channels promise to provide more reality programmes show-casing more histrionic behaviour, more makeover shows with more ridicule and humiliation, and more talent contests with more examples of the failure of others. Those of us who believe in the positive aspects of the stiff upper-lip can only hope that we will soon tire of such entertainment, if we are to retain our English emotional identity.
Nonetheless, we may not have changed as much as it might appear. At the time of writing several bombs went off in London, leaving many dead and others injured. Of course there was pandemonium, and of course it has affected us as a nation. Such, after all, is human nature. But when the dust settled, we brushed ourselves off and went back to work. Perhaps the stiff upper-lip is still with us after all.—Daniel Bowman