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