Jane Austen, Outrage Culture, And Me

One of the ways that the WordPress Reader function slightly increases the stress of life while also enriching my own capacity for wry and ironic social commentary is in the irritating but common phenomenon of “womansplaining” that takes place on many blogs [1]. In comparing the tedious nature of much of what passes for the public writing of practitioners of women’s studies with the vastly more worthwhile corpus of literature written by men and women in previous generations, it struck me that our contemporary culture is not well-suited to the writing of worthwhile and lasting material, and that the outrage culture that is designed to encourage the study of women and other subaltern groups in fact harms the likely longevity of those efforts. Too much of contemporary writing, fictional and nonfictional, written by both men and women, focuses too much question on the identity of the writer, and not enough on the quality of the writing itself. Whereas previous writers, like Jane Austen and Shakespeare, had layers of complicated and nuanced meaning that rewarded intense study and that subverted the genres that they wrote in, a lot of contemporary writing has been marred by a certain defensiveness and relentless adoption of the codes of cultural discourse that are tedious and unreadable, and will likely be entirely forgotten by future generations, if we are fortunate.

Part of what makes the writings of Jane Austen, for she makes a worthwhile case study in this matter, so worthwhile is the fact that she draws so little attention to herself as an artist, and focused her attention instead on crafting excellent works. Her works are not perfect—she had a good editor who smoothed out some of the eccentricities of her writing, and she made at least one notable blunder in confusing the gender of a certain pug dog at different parts of Mansfield Park, to note a couple of brief matters—but they are compelling works on their own terms. Austen wrote no tedious and lengthy articles in literary journals defending the legitimacy of a woman writer in a man’s world. Instead, she wrote women’s novels that were capable of being enjoyed by men and women, and that demonstrated the worthiness of a woman’s writing by demonstrating their obvious level of quality while being written merely by “A lady.” Austen sought little or no attention for herself, personally, but considered her works, somewhat poignantly, to be her children, and the glory that was given to her works, both then and now, which has been richly deserved, is glory that reflected back on her. Her heroines, who are all spirited and capable women, defend the legitimacy of women as being able to speak critically on such issues as the slave trade, class, literature, and other qualities. The author, herself, obviously is sympathetic to the desires of her characters to be treated with respect, as serious and rational beings, and in this she is successful, as these women are appealing even today to contemporary women.

Yet where Austen parts ranks with contemporary company is the fact that Austen also had respect for men. Her characters longed for respect, but they also longed for love and relationships, and Austen was very keen on presenting their spirited nature as being appealing to the right kind of man. Whatever one may say of the parade of Austen’s heroes, who are less filled in than her heroines largely because Austen, as a woman, did not pretend to understand men as well as she understood her own kind, they are worthy men. They are different kinds of men, as some are brave and obvious men of passion, like Wentworth, others are shy and reserved and proud and easily misunderstood, like Darcy. Some are immensely witty, like Henry Tilney, and others are somewhat stiff and serious, like Edmund Bertram, and others are gracious and kind if a bit stern, like Mr. Knightley. Yet they are all worthy men, of a kind that a woman would be wise to love. For Austen, seeking the respect of a woman for her own rationality, and for the freedom and honor in writing her own words and thoughts and feelings for herself, did not imply any disrespect of men. She wished to be a part of a greater conversation, and she believed she had something worthwhile to bring to a conversation about love and relationships, about honor and respect and finding one’s place, that had gone on for centuries, millennia even, and she got her place on the merit of her works, and did in fact have much to say that remains worthwhile today. Yet although she vigorously defended her right to speak and write as a woman, she did so without insulting men, and in fact has always had a large amount of support from fair-minded men from her own time down through today.

This is precisely what is missing in our contemporary discourse. It is entirely well and proper to lament that some voices are too loud while others are too quiet. People have, as long as I have lived, complained about my own loud voice, the fact that I have since childhood been so determined to tell my own story from my own very particular and specific and often unique perspective. I have, in light of this continual carping criticism, been very keen on defending my own legitimacy [2]. I do so because I believe I have a story worth telling and that I can tell it better than anyone else can tell it from outside, and the fact that I have been so continually and so horrifically misrepresented by others has vindicated my own insistence in speaking for myself. I appreciate the stories that others tell about themselves, in seeking to defend their own right to speak for themselves, even if from time to time I wince at the way that I am presented in those accounts [3]. Yet just as my account is personal, with its own biases, so are theirs. The way that one overcomes bias is not by silencing any perspectives, but rather by seeking to be part of a conversation, by coming to terms between our own self-deception of our own motives that shades our conduct and our own lack of understanding of the motives of others that shades their presentation in our accounts, with their corresponding mirror images in the accounts of others. It is by respectful and wider conversation, not by a few strident voices and much sullen silence, that one understands the world better.

The world is not screwed up merely because of powerful white men, contrary to the implicit beliefs of many of our contemporaries, who have demonstrated through their own blundering and misconduct that folly and misrule and wickedness is a universal human problem, not limited by age, ethnicity, gender, class, or any other such lesser determinant. To the extent that any of us participates in a greater conversation with respect for those who are trying to speak at the same time, to those who spoke before, and to those who spoke afterward, we are worthy of being remembered for our works, and for our words, and to have later generations appreciate whatever aspect of nobility and wisdom could be found in our modest offerings to posterity. We should expect that those voices that show respect to others will gain the most appreciative hearing from others, and those voices which spoke with respect that were also filled with deep layers of irony and wit will be appreciated first on the basis of how pleasant and beautiful they were to the ears or the eyes of the hearer and reader, and then on whatever qualities were recognized and appreciated. Those writers of today whose shrill complaints justifying the outrage culture and the politics of contempt will at best be forgotten. At worst, they will be ridiculed for all time for their turgid prose and their endless and obvious self-serving hypocritical double standards.

The only way we can avoid this fate, the unpleasant dilemma between ridicule and oblivion, is to conduct ourselves better. There is much in this world to be outraged about, much violence that is committed against the helpless and the innocent. That violence is committed by the poor as well as the rich, by men as well as women, and so on. There are many stories that people want to tell, but few people who have any patience in hearing any stories but their own. Let us therefore be more patient, for even if we may not always like or appreciate what others have to say, we are the better for having heard it and shown respect to the person telling the story, for it is the respect and love we have for others alone that can win their hearts, and change the way their stories tell about us. Once people know that we are listening, and that we truly care, then they may speak in such a way that no longer cuts and offends, but that sharpens the steel of our own rapier wit, and that reminds us of our common humanity and common frailty, for if others are so dreadfully wrong about us, perhaps we are just as wrong in being harsh about them. Let us therefore be more kind, even if it is hard to be kind when one is irritable and under such heavy burdens as we all are. If we would replace our arrogant contempt with a willing ear and an open heart, we might be surprised at the conversations we could have when we replaced the cycle of violence and silence that marks our present cultural discourse with a witty conversation like those that Austen wrote about so well. We would all be the better for that change.

[1] Womansplaining is the feminine form of the phenomenon known as mansplaining. Many contemporary feminists, including a large amount of bloggers, complain about mansplaining, where a man apparently typically explains something in a manner that they consider demeaning and condescending. Their reply, equally demeaning and condescending towards men, is therefore “womansplaining,” and usually includes a certain amount of outrage about the supposedly gender coded nature of language that is biased against women, and other such nonsense.

[2] See, for example:





[3] This tendency began early in life. When my younger brother was in elementary school, he took the opportunity to write a short story called “Skinned Knee,” where I was presented as a villainous bully justly punished at the end for having pushed my brother off of his bike. Thus did my misrepresentation by wannabe victims in outrage culture begin very early in life.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Church of God, Graduate School, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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