The Private School Boy is an object of endless horror and fascination. Every few years, the media outrage cycle will crest towards another scandal—a leaked video of a sexist chant, allegations of sexual misconduct or orgiastic excess—and the discourse machine will dissect the sexual mores of elite teenagers with a libidinal investment that speaks to its own lost youth. A prurient moral panic is fomented by the likes of the Sydney Morning Herald, which reports in graphic detail how “young women are raped while comatose at parties; they wake up naked, sometimes with penises in their mouths, or with their underpants soaked in blood, after having been groped, penetrated then discarded like a used condom.” Private schools have a toxic masculinity problem, we are reminded over rolling footage of gangly, pixelated boys in uniform, sickeningly unaware of their class privilege.Sex, schoolkids and where it all goes wrongPrivilege. Porn. Parent-free parties. An alcohol-fuelled climate in which being nice to girls is considered uncool. A wave of sexual assault allegations involving students from some of our top private schools underlines the need to foster a healthier brand of manhood. WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT.
In 2016, police investigated an Instagram page created by students of Brighton Grammar called “young sluts.” In 2019, St Kevin’s College in Toorak made international headlines after a viral video emerged of students chanting that they “wished that all the ladies were holes in the road.” A few weeks ago, James Robinson photographed his burning blazer in the middle of St Kevin’s School oval in protest against the “bubble where privileged men can rehearse oppression without consequences…”St Kevin’s ex-student says burning blazer protest symbolised ‘regeneration’James Robinson said the protest on his former school’s grounds represented his hope “a new kind of St Kevin’s can rise from the ashes”.ABC RadioRafael Epstein
What appears at first to be edgy and transgressive has all the trappings of a politically correct viral news-item—to be applauded, shared, and retweeted in the age of meme warfare. In response to Robinson’s work, many private school alumni came forward with their own stories of trauma and victimisation. This is a telling indication of the internal expectations of the Professional Managerial Class—be both hypercritical of the privilege from which you came, and offer stories of triumph over the social inequalities you conquered as a means of legitimising your successes and failures. This is a function of what Blake Smith calls the new “woke meritocracy” and its inner contradictions.
I am a private school graduate whose migrant parents worked in hazardous waste removal and on automobile assembly lines to afford the exorbitant school fees. I harboured a great deal of animosity towards the Private School Boy for his bravado and self-assurance. Those of us who did not come from dynastic wealth felt as though we were observing Australia’s liberal elites in order to carefully study and appropriate their cadence and intonations. From that perspective, the Private School Boy seemed to represent a kind of narcissism par excellence. As a teenager, I wanted to be him, go out with him, and possess the capacity to publicly reject and humiliate him. But, with maddening nonchalance, the Private School Boy appeared to already have everything he could possibly need—his desire functioned only in service to himself, like a hermetically sealed, circular self-obsession. I felt psychically impoverished by my own lack of cultural capital in contrast to an archetype I had created from a composite image of real and imagined characteristics in my head. I’m therefore sympathetic to James Robinson’s protest and confess that part of me felt a revenge-of-the-nerds-style vindication when I first saw his photographs. But then it occurred to me that those images—and the responses they elicited—were also a kind of competitive narcissism and psychic projection.
René Girard’s theory of conflictual mimesis proposes that our desires arise from the desires of others—“I’ll have what he’s having.” Mimetic rivalry stems from an ever-expanding locus of interpersonal conflict before reaching a fever-pitch of chaotic self-expression that threatens to destroy everything in its wake. It is at this point that the violence of all-against-all within a community is transformed into the violence of all-against-one in the form of a “surrogate victim” who can be blamed for the community’s misfortune and ritualistically purged to restore social cohesion and harmony. The history of humanity, according to Girard, can be explained by the “scapegoat mechanism” and its ritualised re-enactment in all forms of religion. Similarly, according to Peter Turchin, an overproduction of elites graduating from private schools and universities into a diminishing job market causes social unrest that threatens to destabilise the entire community. And, because we are unable to satisfactorily blame the complex mechanisms of neoliberalism, the Private School Boy is our porn-addled, homophobic, misogynistic instantiation of the Patriarchy and a convenient receptacle for our inchoate rage and frustration.
Freud observed his grandson playing a game in which he would repeatedly throw a cotton reel out of his cot. He theorised that the baby, with his limited agency, enjoyed this game because it gave him a sense of mastery over his own situation and allowed him to play-exact a kind of revenge over his own powerlessness. The powerlessness we feel in the face of private-school educated elites who run the country, who own property portfolios from which we rent, and who continue to consolidate their generational wealth can be ritualistically purged from time to time through mass outrage generated by the misbehaviour of the Private School Boy. Because he represents a miniaturised version of the shadowy cabal he will someday join, he is neutered of any actual power and authority. So, he can safely be sacrificed now and then as a representative of “Capitalism” or the “Patriarchy” without rocking the boat or upsetting the prevailing order of things.
This is neither an attempt to dismiss the real pain and suffering experienced within the private system, nor is it an apologia for Private School Boys, because this is not about the Private School Boy. It is about the stories we tell ourselves when attempting to legitimate our own power. The reason Robinson’s photographs and the yearly investigative news reports fall short is because they pantomime protest and the pursuit of Truth and Justice while really just rehashing what has already been established as the status quo. The mainstream media has lambasted the behaviour of the mythical Private School Boy for the past decade or so—either about a particular individual or about the “culture” of toxic masculinity in general. And each time a scandal erupts, it provides those within the private school orbit with an opportunity to portray themselves as exemplary symbols of perseverance and humanity while the principals and co-ordinators of these institutions grovel and promise to do better.
The moral panic surrounding Private School Boys is a symptom of cultural impoverishment and our inability to think through what education is for and who it should serve. The private school in turn has continually found ways to justify its own existence. And if the current attitudes of the ruling elites are any indication, the tide is turning towards nebulous forms of power that are difficult to detect let alone critique because they are hidden behind the noblesse oblige of traditional land acknowledgments and anti-racist sensitivity training. It’s no secret that a private school education offers little more than an opportunity to develop the affectations of the rich. So, when the media class performs its annual horror show about the debauched activities of their sons and daughters, they are really just helping to manufacture cosmetic reforms that will bring these institutions into line with the Overton window of liberal tolerance and progressivism. The goal of course is that the Private School Boy may continue to pursue a path of unbridled ambition—albeit as a newly re-educated feminist ally.
With each new PR crisis comes a variation on the theme of how these boys are being institutionally groomed to believe that they will be tomorrow’s leader, that they shall inherit the Earth, and that the women they accost are merely the spoils of a victory won by virtue of their birth. They are alpha-males-in-waiting and rampant misogyny and heteronormativity are baked into the system’s crust. This, we are told, is a conspiracy that requires urgent redress despite the fact that it is largely a reflection of their immediate, material reality.
I respectfully counter that the opposite may also be true. That the Private School attempts to instil in its students a sense of outward-facing tolerance and integrity—not because they are virtues to be upheld in and of themselves—but because they effectively couch our mercenary class interests behind a thin veneer of likability. Seen in this context, the violent outbursts, the sexual aggravations, and the lewd comportment of the Private School Boy is not a function of his design. It is simply the cognitive dissonance of a child who is told with a wink that yes, he will inherit the Earth but it’s best not to act like it.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/26/scapegoating-the-private-school-boy/