An Englishman says "I'm a bit crap at that." He really means:
In Venice I interviewed a highly successful illustrator. He also happened to be an Englishman. In the course of our interview he told me three highly self-deprecating things:
1. His life wasn't glamourous at all.
2. He couldn't draw.
3. He understood nothing about the world.
But when I actually went back and listened more carefully, I realised that his self-deprecation concealed some rather different messages:
I did a Google search on "English self-deprecation".
First of all I found Minette Marin saying (in the Daily Telegraph, in 1999):
"To me, as an American on my father's side, one of the most unattractive aspects of Englishness has always been false modesty. It's called self-deprecation, but springs from a deep sense of superiority (not unjustified, and all the more annoying for that) and it was traditionally both a ruse to placate inferiors and a game to tease equals - a national form of self-aggrandisement and exclusion. These days the self-deprecation with which the English accept their marginalisation in their own country may not be quite in the grand old English manner. But it is deeply insincere for all that. Those contemporary English liberals and intellectuals who cry stinking fish in their own backyard, and celebrate every ethnic identity but their own, do so out of the same deep sense of superiority as their forebears, but it is today a superiority which they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge to themselves; that would be racism, and indeed it is. And that is why the hypocrisy of English self-deprecation is greater than ever before, and why it is accompanied by a new bad faith and a new subliminal guilt. It is dishonest and patronising; respect to others depends on truth to oneself. I believe it may be this which has distorted contemporary discussions of ethnicity, race and identity. It is understandable that these questions should provoke so much anxiety and confusion; they are painful and intractable subjects. But no good purpose can be served by dangerous and dishonest self-deprecation, which others will take only too literally, with disastrous results; that is one aspect of Englishness, at least, that the English must renounce, at the end of the 20th century."
This is clearly an attack on self-deprecation from the right, a call for the masters to remain masters and to rule unashamedly, rather than cede, be marginalised in their own homeland (presumably by Johnny Foreigner), or celebrate the Other.
This relationship between self-deprecation and appreciation of the Other appeared in the next thing I looked at, a piece about travel journalism by Elaine Wolff. She compares Joseph Rosendo, American producer and host of Travelscope, with Cash Peters, a British travel journalist:
"There's a little Marco Polo in all of us, and [American] Rosendo views his programs and eponymous publication as a way to encourage conscientous travel. "Try to impact the destination as little as possible," he says. "Try to get into where these people are coming from; try to mirror them instead of imposing your views of what this society should be like on them."
"Oh, my gosh. I wish I were so virtuous," [Englishman] Cash Peters says, laughing, in the heavy English accent (Ringo Starr-like in its heavy nasality and muddled vowels) familiar to fans of NPR's Marketplace and the Savvy Traveler. While filming his new Travel Channel series, Stranded with Cash Peters, the host spent time tempting the confirmed Luddites of the South Pacific's Tanna Island with radio and other wonders of Western civilization. "I tried several times: 'Wouldn't you just like to sit in a car?'" he recalls. "I couldn't understand why they wouldn't wear trousers. It really was the most phenomenal experience. There are people in the world that genuinely don't share your enthusiasm for progress."
"That charming English self-deprecation aside, Peters' curiosity about other people - about "the other" in all its forms - drives the show," Wolff assures us. But here Cash Peters' "self-deprecation" is in fact a statement that he refuses to meet 'the Other' on its own terms, and considers his own civilisation more advanced. In other words, he's using self-deprecation in quite the opposite way than the one described by Minette Marin, with the opposite result on his relationship with 'the Other'. She would presumably approve of his refusal to embrace Rosendo's wishy-washy left-wing relativism. Self-deprecation here is clearly a way of saying "I'm better, and I won't change". The statement "I wish I were so virtuous" actually means "I have no intention of being a Goody Twoshoes like Rosendo". Click radio buttons 1,3 and 4 above.
Next I found an interesting passage about D.H. Lawrence, an old hero of mine. Ryan McCarthy wrote:
"What runs through Lawrence's body of work like a vein of thought is his sense that England stands at the edge of demise. Scott's rhetorical question burns through him: "Breathes there a man with soul so dead?" Lawrence's perception drives him to answer in the affirmative, on behalf of every man in England — the land of the "darkness that doesn't speak" (II 250). He feels the "strange germ" (253) of the English way closing in around him. Yet he is undeniably an Englishman. Where does that place him among the sugar-sprinklers of complacency, those men he derides so vehemently? A better question might be to ask where it places us. This presents a complicated dilemma, since Lawrence's conclusions seem so sudden and arbitrary. In the case of "On Coming Home," his imagery brings us the scene. We are to imagine an "absentness," a "soft, vague . . . curious stillness" that makes everything seem "dead, muffled" (252). Lawrence compares the feeling to that of being placed in the smallest of many boxes that fit inside each other-a "shut-in-edness" (253). Those of us who do not share Lawrence's acute power of perception gain its result when the language drives our minds to a claustrophobic state. What he hopes we see, despite the English ego that he observes, is a fear in his kinsmen, a sad way of self-deprecation. They are self-contained and self-protecting, and the land to which Scott refers becomes for the Englishmen a "crystal bubble" of isolation (252). Lawrence concludes "On Coming Home" condemning the half-hidden English self-deprecation, saying, "Men have no business on their knees"."
This made me think about another of my English heroes, David Bowie, and his relationship with self-deprecation. Listen to this short clip of a Bowie interview from the 70s, for instance, and then listen to comedian John Shuttleworth's put-down, and the audience's reaction:
David Bowie clip (mp3 file)
It seems that Bowie is being fairly realistic in his balanced self-assessment. "I'm not very reliable as an artist. Sometimes I'm bloody awful... and sometimes I'm incredible." So why does that make him "a pretentious git"? Is there a "fuck you" hidden in the too-easy confession of unreliability, as if he's dismissing reliability as boring and unartistic? There's certainly no earnest promise to improve the consistency of his quality control. This is an apology without an apology, like so much self-deprecation. But I suspect that if Bowie had limited his statement to the two negatives, the bits I think are most arrogant;
a) I'm not very reliable.
b) Sometimes I'm bloody awful.
nobody English would have complained. It's these bits they don't like:
c) I'm an artist.
d) Sometimes I'm incredible.
It's interesting that Bowie went to live in America shortly after giving this interview, and has never returned. Attitudes to self are very different in America. There, it's not only acceptable to hype and trumpet yourself, it's expected. People who don't do it are shooting themselves in the foot.
One thing I've noticed about my own life is that in England I "couldn't get ahead". To this day, when I get offers to write books, stage art shows, teach, write journalism and so on, they come from Japan and America, not Britain. It still rankles that I was never offered a Peel session when I was working in the UK—which meant that I basically couldn't get onto the map of indie there, let alone the map of the mainstream—while someone like Dave Gedge seemed to live at Maida Vale, his life an endless BBC session. What did Dave Gedge have that I didn't? Talent... or self-deprecation?
I look up Amazon customer reviews for Gedge compilations and there, sure enough, the term is quick to appear. Twice in the same paragraph, in fact:
"David Gedge writes romantic songs. Not Barry-White-silk-sheets romantic, nor Jacques-Brel-gauloise romantic, and definitely not boy-band-xmas-single romantic. Gedge's songs are a kind of realistic romanticism - he can turn a one-night stand into a self-deprecating tale of regret and recrimination (Interstate 5), he can capture that story of a relationship which never really takes off, but does just enough to survive until someone calls time (I'm from Further North than You). He has a very English self-deprecation (even though many of the tracks on this album are tales from America, where it was recorded), and he is fascinated with the mundane but telling exchanges which more often mark a relationship than the big bust-ups and make-ups."
The most self-deprecating blogger I know—and someone who did, I believe, play a Peel session—is Rhodri Marsden. rhodri and I read each other's blogs with a sort of fascinated horror. We've agreed to incarnate each other's utter opposites, although we share some readers who somehow find it in themselves to love us both. As Rhodri's hilarious anecdotes of self-deprecation (tales of how he was beaten up by little girls at Piccadilly Circus tube station and so on) accumulated, I formed a picture in my mind of someone as ineffectual as his LJ icon, a plump, balding clown holding up a placard that says "I give up!" But when I finally met Rhodri, at a gig we played together at Bush Hall, I found him rather brusque and burly, a bit of a bruiser. He gave me the lion's share of the concert fees, but seemed curiously keen that his act rather than mine should top the bill. Rhodri had a bit of a secret rock star ego, and having a rock star ego, it seemed, was far from incompatible with telling humiliating stories about yourself.
I wondered if my "couldn't get ahead" problem with England was due to the fact that I don't do this self-deprecation thing. Am I a boast? To find out, I went back to my very first UK music press interviews. What kind of impression had I made on the writers?
The adjective used most frequently about me is "quiet". Others are well-spoken, nervous, earnest, enthusiastic, optimistic, modest. I'm described as "talking with the slightly gauche, self-mocking air of the academic, quoting proudly, fidgeting constantly". I seem ill-at-ease with the idea of being interviewed at all: "'The language one explains things in is disgusting,' he spits. 'It's self-indulgence.'" Re-reading those interviews, I can see quite clearly why I failed in Britain. It's because (like everybody in my family) I'm a teacher. Britain has always underpaid teachers.
Well, since I'm really an academic, perhaps it's appropriate that my final stop on the journey towards understanding the enigma of self-deprecation should be a piece of research into Cultural Psychology, Beyond Self-Presentation: Evidence for Self-Criticism Among Japanese by Heine, Takata and Lehman. They report their finding that "whereas Canadians were reluctant to conclude that they had performed worse than their average classmate, Japanese were hesitant to conclude that they had performed better... The present findings are important because past self-enhancement studies were conducted via questionnaire, and the possibility remained that the greater self-enhancement exhibited by North Americans was due to false bravado, and, likewise, the greater self-criticism exhibited by Japanese was owing to feigned modesty... This study provides further evidence that Japanese tend to search for their weaknesses and shortcomings in an apparent effort to correct them. Self-enhancing motivations, routinely found within North American research, are elusive within a Japanese context. In contrast to motivations to find out what is good about themselves, Japanese appear more motivated to discover where they are not doing good enough. This cultural practice of self-criticism appears to serve Japanese in their quest to achieve connection and interpersonal harmony with others."
So next time you hear an English person doing the self-deprecation thing, ask yourself whether he's "searching for weaknesses and shortcomings in an apparent effort to correct them"... or doing that weirdly static, invertedly arrogant thing: boasting about inadequacies. If he's a potential lover or husband, remember that his winning annoucement that he's "a bit crap in bed, actually" means that you may never have another orgasm during intercourse, and that he won't be taking notes when you try to tell him how.