Touchy selfhood: what Princes, punks and peddlers have in common

Tomalin It is an open question and a topical one: whether all cultures are equally endowed with the ability and inclination to embrace economic, political and cultural liberty. 

If you are an exceptionalist, you say, "no, this is a peculiarity of the West.  It does not occur indigenously and robustly in other cultures, and it’s not for exportation there.  If they don’t have it, they won’t ever get it. Don’t even think about forcing it.  Liberty will not take." 

If you are a generalist, you say, "nonsense, every member of the species yearns for freedom.  Give them an inch and, eventually, they’ll take a mile.  Liberty is inevitable.  Plant the seed in any soil.  A mighty oak will grow."

I’m torn.  Sometimes I’m an exceptionalist, sometimes a generalist.  But I found myself wondering the other day whether we shouldn’t treat "touchy selfhood" as a necessary (or at least generative) condition of liberty.

Consider the moment in which someone with standing (the superordinate party) asks anyone with less standing (the subordinate party) to do something.  Sometimes the subordinate party will bristle a little.  He might go further than this, and resist, performing the task but doing so "ungraciously."  He might actually refuse the task altogether.  In all cases, he is likely to make a show of his irritation with a standard nonverbal vocabulary. He will glare, grimace and/or glower.  Even when compliance is forthcoming, the superordinate party is sent a message.  The subordinate resented being asked and may in fact doubt the authority and even the standing of the superordinate party.

Harrumph! When the subordinate bristles, resists or refuses, the superordinate takes umbrage, too.   Other subordinates would perform this task willingly and with good grace.  What’s the matter with this guy?  Someone asks, "Don’t you find him a little prickly, difficult, contrary?"  The answer is resounding, "Oh, totally.  He’s touchy!"

This little status drama can be played out in any number of venues.  The classic locus for contemporary culture is the relationship between a parent and a teenager.  There is always a couple of "contested" years in which parents insist on an authority that teens are reluctant to accept.  When parents persist, teens respond with spectacular displays of touchiness, complete with phrases like, "you’re not the boss of me."   

When the West was more hierarchical, touchiness was the order of the day.  I’m reading a biography of Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, and there is lots of contretempt between Pepys the master and Jane, the servant.  It surprises us to learn that Jane was Pepys’ sister.  But the problem was much bigger than servants.  Everyone in the hierarchical West was, with the exception of the monarch, subordinate to someone. Aristocratic touchiness was especially common when differences of rank were not clear, or when one party demanded too much deference or gave too little.  It is easy to find many instances of touchiness in the historical record and it looks as if the West has been vibrating with same for many hundreds of years.  Princes, punks and peddlers all have this in common.

Touchiness was (and remains) symptomatic of a certain status tenderness.  It tells us that there was some question about what is owed to whom.  Touchy selfhood is never quite certain what the boundaries of role and obligation are.  And this lack of clarity means that everyone is inclined to wear away at the wharf to which they are tethered.  Any liberty that is not nailed is snapped up.  Any liberty that is disputable is disputed.  Even when obligations are clear, they are still protested with a theater of gesture and attitude.  Westerners chaff.  What looked like bad manners or bloodymindedness is  actually a collective declaration that the present "liberty allowance" is  not enough, and that acts of compliance are offered under protest.

Now the question is this: is touchiness universal?  You’re asking me? My guess is that it isn’t it.  I would be surprised if touchiness were exclusively Western.  But I would also be surprised if touchiness were exhibited equally  by every culture.   I think there are some cultures that refuse touchiness.  And where touchiness is prevented, I think it’s probably true that liberties of every kind are harder to achieve.  It could be that economic, political, and cultural liberty sometimes starts as touchiness. 

In the long term, every culture must fight a war between two phrases: "don’t you know who I am?" and "who do you think you are?"  It may be that the latter wins, and liberty flourishes, more surely when selves are a little touchy. 


Tomalin.  Claire.  2003.  Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self.  London: Penguin. 


Mark Yellin


For the image found at Fictional Cities: Florence, Venice, London here

10 thoughts on “Touchy selfhood: what Princes, punks and peddlers have in common

  1. Casimir

    Grant, why do you assume generalism and exceptionalism are the only options here?

    All cultures are equally predisposed toward liberty or else only the West is – surely this is a false dichotomy. It seems intuitive that there are certain cultural traits (individualism, ambition/achievement glorification, history of oppression by foreign culture) that are conducive to fostering an inclination towards liberty and that cultures may have these in greater or lesser extents?

  2. Peter

    Interesting post, Grant. As I’m sure you’d agree, part of the challenge we westerners have to overcome in discussing this topic is a certain culturally-driven blindness as to what constitutes free and individual behaviour. One may express one’s individual opinions and one’s self-hood in many different ways besides those we in the west are used to. For example, among the maShona people of Zimbabwe, about whom I know a little, disagreement is often expressed in the form of parables and stories from traditional myths, told in an extremely elaborate, slow and outwardly-polite form. Merely watching the respectful body language and hearing the expressions of politeness, agreement and respect, without knowing the myths being referenced, an external observer could easily fail to realize that any disagreement or personal opinion was being voiced.

    This situation is similar to the use of irony or sarcasm (words meaning the opposite of their usual meanings) in English — only someone who knows the culture deeply can apprehend what is really being expressed here. In other words, we should be careful not to assume that there is only the one idiom for expressing one’s self-hood.

  3. jens

    “I think there are some cultures that refuse touchiness. And where touchiness is prevented, I think it’s probably true that liberties of every kind are harder to achieve.”
    from my experience with socialist countries – former gdr for example – that is quite true.
    to my awareness, touchiness did not exist in public. you’d rather call in the guards. – kind of a dictatorship thing too.

    touchiness in our colourful internet should be an interesting research topic.

  4. Lester Hunt

    Is touchiness universal? Ortega y Gasset makes an interesting comment in The Revolt of the Masses: “For the ‘common man’ of all periods, ‘life’ had principally meant limitation, obligation, dependence; in a word, pressure. Say oppression, if you like, provided it be understood not only in the juridical and social sense, but in the cosmic.” In other words, no.

  5. John McCreery


    I took the liberty of cross-posting your blog entry on anthro-L, where it has stimulated an interesting discussion. My latest entry is as follows:

    On 1/21/07, Richard Wilsnack wrote:

    > For example, if one compares pre-Civil War
    > and post-Civil War southern states, were there more (and more severe)
    > interpersonal confrontations over insults, unjust demands, ridicule,
    > etc. after the War? If
    > the evidence is contrary, can anyone offer a hypothesis why?


    I have never seen anything like the quantitative evidence you seek. I
    have, however, read a superb piece of American history, _Affairs of
    Honor: National Politics in the New Republic_ by Joanne B. Freeman,
    which documents exhaustively the obsession of the founders and their
    immediate successors with personal honor, an obsession that led, among
    other things, to the Hamilton-Burr duel and the creation of the
    manners still sometimes enforced in the U.S. Congress, e.g., the
    description in speeches on the floor of both houses of someone the
    speaker thoroughly detests as “The Honorable….”

    Still, there is something in what you say. Cultures that make a big
    deal of honor often embrace legendary figures that exhibit what
    literary historian Ivan Morris, writing about Japan, labels “the
    nobility of failure.” The great exemplars of honor are not the tyrants
    who force their will on others, but those who suffer defeat and may
    sacrifice their lives rather than surrender their sense of who they

    Going back to Dustin’s remarks, however, I think he has largely missed
    the point of what McCracken is saying, in his rush to provide examples
    of joking and carnivalesque behavior. To anyone who ever read Gluckman
    or Turner, it is commonplace that these are examples of temporary
    release and inversion of status hierarchies that, once the joke or
    carnival are over, return to the status quo. McCracken is specifically
    concerned with subordinates who feel, rightly or wrongly, that the
    superior has gone too far, and, at certain historically significant
    moments, gone so far as to justify revolution. See, for example, the
    rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence.

    We may see revolution in terms of equality vs. hierarchy and, in the
    manner of Whig history, point to historical precedents, e.g., the
    Lollard’s chant, “When Adam spun and Eve span, who, then, was the
    gentleman?” But, for example, both Magna Carta and the Declaration of
    Independence were signed by men who were not rejecting hierarchy per
    se but rather insisting on hierarchy that included the degree of
    freedom to which they themselves felt entitled. Arguably, if the
    portrait of the founders that Joanne Freeman paints is accurate, a
    punctilious sense of personal honor and the respect due to it, were
    far more powerful drivers of the American revolution than the utopian
    demand for equality that played a far greater role in the French and
    Russian revolutions.

    For those who retain an interest in such things, the Manchester School
    anthropologists distinguished theoretically between ritual, rebellion,
    and revolution. Where

    ritual=joking, carnival, initiation ceremonies, etc., in which
    everyday hierarchical distinctions are temporarily suspended or

    rebellion=political conflict that results in changing the people in
    power without altering the basic hierarchies in question: “The king is
    dead. Long live the new king.” The dynastic cycle of imperial China is
    perhaps the greatest single example.

    revolution=political conflict that radically changes the hierarchical
    structures in place before the revolution; so that new authorities
    take power within a system that has, in some respects, fundamentally
    changed, e.g. by transforming the House of Lords and the Commons in the
    British system into the Senate and House in the American system, with
    Senators now elected and the Lords’ former role as a supreme court
    removed to a separate judiciary.

    From this perspective, the question, when does touchiness get serious
    becomes a series of two questions: When does ritual become rebellion?
    And when does rebellion become revolution? Two thresholds, not one;
    like ice becoming water becoming steam. Our social physics remains
    pretty primitive if all we can imagine is eqalitarian gas and
    hierarchical stone, neglecting all the liquids that organize the one
    and wear down the other.



    It has, serendipitously, led to my being asked if I would contribute 7,000 words to a SAGE press reference work on 21st Century Anthropology. Thanks so much for the stimulus.

  6. John McCreery

    It has been pointed out to me that the chant I mentioned was, in fact,

    “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” is “one of the oldest known English Rhymes and can be dated to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381.”

    For those who might be interested, more can be found at

  7. Carol Gee

    Grant, I want to share a link to a post that is very pertinent to your great writing. I linked to your post in a comment at her site, saying that you would both enjoy reading the other’s great posts. Her name is Margaret and she originally came to the U.S. from Lebanon. She just returned from a visit there and has a number of revealing posts bearing on your question. Here is the link:
    We in the West will probably never entirely understand the differences between us and the East. The dividing question is “who matters most, me or the group to whom I belong? Which must be most protected for the survival of the species?” The question is just that basic, in my opinion.

  8. Margaret

    I would argue that “touchiness” is an example of a person becoming aware that there are inequities in the world and that he/she is not being treated fairly and equally. Paolo Freire would call it becoming conscious. Foucault writes of these non-verbal cues as well.
    I do not believe that the desire for social justice is only a Western concept. It is a universal concept.

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