What's behind the fashion for labelling cultural critics who are dissatisfied with the present (such as himself) as ‘grumpy old men’?

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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In the second instalment of his monthly column, Frank Furedi grumbles about the fashion for labelling cultural critics who are dissatisfied with the present (such as himself) as ‘grumpy old men’.

Some of my friends self-consciously refer to themselves as ‘grumpy old men’. Like the celebrities who appeared in that four-part BBC series Grumpy Old Men (which was followed by Grumpy Old Women) they flaunt their acerbic attitude and try to make a virtue of their scandalous behaviour.

Yet their defiant attempts to rehabilitate the term ‘grumpy old man’ and inject it with positive connotations is bound to fail. The term is underpinned by some powerful negative ideas. Like many of the phrases associated with ageing – ‘old girls’, ‘old bats’, ‘codgers’, ‘crotchety’ – the term ‘grumpy old man’ is designed to demean and belittle. It is a label attached to those who apparently should not be taken seriously. The views of these grumpy old men are derided as the whinges of sad, irrelevant has-beens left behind by the pace of change. It is assumed that being grumpy has little to do with the real world – rather it is simply the unattractive character trait of the emotionally maladjusted grumbler.

In a politically correct culture where we are continually lectured to mind our language, it is striking that we have permission to disparage certain people as grumpy old men. Usually, the language used to describe older generations is very carefully policed. We’re encouraged to say ‘veteran’, ‘senior citizen’ and ‘distinguished’ rather than ‘old goat’, ‘no spring chicken’ or ‘past one’s prime’. I’ve been corrected on numerous occasions for saying ‘old’ rather than ‘elderly’. Yet some of the same people who would like to abolish the word ‘old’ seem to relish its use in the term grumpy old men. What is it about the grumpy old man that means he can be singled out for this special (mis)treatment?

A couple of years ago, a bitter academic from the University of Sussex who took exception to my criticism of the state of higher education wrote a letter to the Observer. In it, she demanded that people like me should be unveiled as ‘grumpy old men’. At first I couldn’t see what she was getting at. Like others labelled as grumpy old men, I do not need to be ‘unveiled’. I am not yet a statue or a monument. I am what you see. I don’t dye my hair or resort to cosmetic surgery. No one flatters me with comments such as: ‘Frank, you don’t look your age.’ I certainly don’t pretend to be pleasant or agreeable. So what is there to unveil?

It then dawned on me that my critic was not concerned with my age or my looks or my disposition, but rather with my views on contemporary life. In her view, I am a grumpy old man because I refuse to venerate the present. Likewise, newspaper columnist Suzanne Moore dismissed the talking heads on the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men series as people who ‘do not much care for contemporary life’.

There was a time when criticising the status quo was considered radical. Throughout history, refusing to accept the world as it existed has been looked upon as a form of rebellion. Those who did not ‘much care for contemporary life’ were very often inspired by the conviction that human life and culture could be – and must be – improved upon. Today, such an aspiring outlook is seen as a social faux pas, something that can earn you the label of grumpy old man or woman. This suggests that there is a fairly formidable mood of cultural conformism today. Labelling objections to today’s institutional practices as a ‘grumble’ or a ‘moan’ is not only a way of dismissing these objections; it is also a way of defending and even justifying the world as it exists against what is viewed as an army of bad-tempered, fussy, ill-natured, irritable emotional cripples.

It is this conformist outlook which demands that critics of the present should be ‘unveiled’ as grumpy. Contemporary conformism is most clearly expressed in the fashionable view that, for better or worse, we live in a world where public institutions and cultural conventions are far better, and far more responsive to the needs of society, than they were in the past. This Panglossian view that we live in the best possible world encourages people to regard the practices of the past as nothing short of barbaric. From this self-flattering view of the present, any criticism of contemporary life can be branded as a treacherous attempt to turn the clock back to the bad old days of oppression and ‘cultural exclusion’. It is not surprising, therefore, that often concerns about contemporary society are written off as merely the emotional deficits of old men stuck in their ways.

One of the most disturbing features of the new conformism is the tendency to assume that criticism of the present is fuelled by a desire to return to the traditional hierarchies of the past. Those who argue that there is an alternative way of living, of doing things, are accused of having impossible dreams about ‘restoring a mythical Golden Age’. It is rarely even countenanced that maybe, just maybe, we are motivated by visions of a better future rather than nostalgia for the past.

Criticism of contemporary life and society is castigated as negative or destructive. Any suggestion that things may have deteriorated, or that standards in education, the arts or elsewhere have declined, are dismissed as the lament of irrelevant old gits who insist on living in the past. Some find it inconceivable that anything could have been better done in the ‘bad old days’. Those who point to examples of exemplary practices in the past are just grumpy old men who have failed to keep up with the exciting creative innovations of today’s cultural elites. In reality, though, many critics of the present relish life and enjoy many of the benefits of science and technology; but nevertheless they have high expectations about what can be done in the future.

It is striking that the tendency to stigmatise the old and the grumpy is not balanced out by a celebration of daring youth. Our conformist culture seems singularly incapable of celebrating the spirit of experimentation and adventure that was once a part of being young and ambitious. In previous times, thinkers embraced the romantic cult of the young, and talked and wrote excitedly about the heroic and risk-taking virtues of youth. These days when we talk about the adventurous young we usually mean a school-leaver working his way around the world on a carefully organised gap year scheme. Today, youthful risk-taking is dismissed as ‘too risky’ or as ‘overly macho’, and instead young people are encouraged to stay young, and childlike, for as long as possible. This attempt to preserve the state of being ‘forever young’ shows that we only value being young for its own sake, not for the virtues it once embodied.

It is not really surprising that a society so uncomfortable with celebrating youthful idealism should also be cagey about those middle-aged men who have strong views about the shortcomings of the world around them. Those who seem determined to ‘expose’, ‘unveil’ and ‘denounce’ grumpy old men are only expressing their own uncritical veneration of the present. Wedded to the present, they are as estranged from the future as they are from the past. They seem to have no strong views about anything, and lack the capacity to imagine, dream, explore. If they did have working imaginative faculties, they could not help but grumble with a roar about the way things are.

Of course, some elderly gentlemen have decided to become professional grumps, flaunting their cynical dismissal of every innovation. Their default position is that everything that exists today is useless and has no real point – as captured in books like Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? and websites such as ‘Grumpier Old Men’. Turning their backs on the future, these cynics actually end up having more in common with those who condemn grumpiness then they suspect.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website here.

Last month’s Really Bad Idea: Denial

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Topics Politics


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