Scapegoating the Private School Boy

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/
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There’s no doubt social justice is exploited to further individual interests but just about every human endeavour is. Such is the human condition. But like all other human pursuits that are exploited there are those who genuinely want to improve conditions amongst the bad actors. Are those that are critical of the organisations they work in because they exploit workers, the system & the tax payer only doing it for performative reasons if they maintain their jobs?

To suggest that one can’t be genuinely critical of a system one partakes in is not only unreasonably cynical but unrealistic. Proof of good faith requiring one to take a principled stand by non participation is only cutting the nose to spite the face. Realistically, change comes a lot easier if those in powerful positions are open to it.

And if there’s any malfeasance, this narrative of progressive hypocrisy is usually employed to abscond from responsibility….

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Thanks for your reasoned response to this!

I think we have similar opinions but choose to stress alternating points. To clarify, I consider it my life’s work to criticise the organisations and institutions to which I belong and to advocate for improved conditions. I’m certainly not suggesting that all those who do so are only acting in bad faith. Rather, I think it’s important to try to be open about our own motives and psychic disturbances — to not be guilty of giving ground relative to one’s desires as Lacan famously says. I hope it’s clear from my piece that I have an infinite number of problems with the Private School education system. My own experience was largely a miserable one but this is not the focus of this article. There is a natural tendency in “the long march through the institutions” for reformations to shift the locus of power away from the elected scapegoat, only to assume a different form. This isn’t necessarily the fault or intention of activists that are acting in good faith but it is our personal responsibility to confront this tendency with the appropriate humility and honesty that it deserves. That’s not to say that changes for the good are impossible — just that I think this question of the “human condition” that may seem obvious and insignificant to you actually requires much more attention than we think.

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Ah thanks for that, excellent points. I really appreciate this more nuanced & constructive approach to criticism of progressives. And that was a really beautifully written piece by the way. I do hope you write for Quillette again.

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Ummm…

Once this is generally known, I kind of think that said organisations and institutions, would be reluctant to embrace you; or even admit you. Personally I’ve had to “partner” with folks that act in a way that seems to fit your description of your life’s work. It’s a lot more pleasant, and the mission of the organization gets accomplished a lot more effectively, when there is less of that, rather than more.

In other words: the persistent, chronic critic, who is always looking for something to criticize, complain about, fight over - thanks but no thanks, I’d prefer to work with someone else.

Apparently, according to John Gottman and the Harvard Business Review, a good ratio of positive comments to negative, is 6 to 1. I believe in Gottman’s case, if the ratio falls below that, the marriage is in trouble. Personally I can attest that higher ratios (like 30:1 or 100:1) are better yet.

I’ve been to schools like you describe and from what I could tell, though there were many students of privilege, the mix of personality types was much the same as in other scholastic environments. Sure, there was some felt entitlement, also there were some jerks. But not any more than on the shop floor in the furniture factory where I worked 56 hours a week, later in life.

There’s a mix of good and bad, pretty much everywhere.

I grew up working class and had to fairly quickly get over any vestiges of class hatred. Maybe the author isn’t participating in class warfare - I can’t tell and don’t accuse; I’ll just speak for myself. Love’s better than hate, peace is better than war, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, it’s better to make allies who can then partner with you in beneficial efforts, than to snipe and gripe.

I repeat, I don’t accuse the author of anything bad - I don’t know her, can’t tell how she acts. Maybe she’s a good person of good will working with others in good faith.

I hope so. That’s what works for me, and for others.

The Christian practice of seeing Christ’s face in the face of every person you meet - that works not just when you’re dealing with the downtrodden, such as mentally ill homeless drug addicts. The trick works also when interacting with the fortunate, the blessed, the rich and powerful and mighty.

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An interesting article. One of the more salient stories of the mechanisms of class privilege comes from Titania McGrath creator Andrew Doyle. The BBC is willing to spend hundred of millions of pounds on diversity, when by every definition (other than perhaps Asian) their camera facing talent is over-representative of UK diversity- whether LGBT, Black British or female. In terms of senior and middle management at the BBC, however, the story is quite different. It’s overwhelming white and privately educated- but does well in terms of gender.

The privately educated are only 6% of the UK’s school population. The BBC could achieve greater diversity in terms of class and race by simply limiting the percentages of those from private school backgrounds, both in terms of entry-level positions and promotions. The resulting BBC would be far more reflective of Britain’s viewpoint diversity and modern British values. But they don’t- they would rather mouth platitudes about diversity than affect real change. There are plenty of worthwhile candidates for recruitment to higher echelons both within the commercial and independent media spaces, where promotions are a good deal more meritocratic and less bureaucratic. But they don’t- why not?

This is the genius of wokedom. It draws attention to ethnic inequalities whilst camouflaging the main cause of these inequities- class privilege. In America, as one strips away the top 1%, 5%, 10% and 25% of the socio-economic spectrum the races become more equal in outcomes, until there is almost nothing to divide them in terms of income, housing equity, savings or debt. But this is a point which the talk of white privilege studiously avoids. They know full well that the commodification of higher education means that their target demographic possesses overwhelming class privilege- as such they must ignore the fact, provide a means of expiating or transferring class guilt- and race provides the perfect mechanism, because once one acknowledges race privilege and becomes an ally, one can all but forget one’s incredibly privileged circumstances of birth and deign to lecture those born far less fortunate than oneself.

In this wokeness is the perfect formula for both assuaging class guilt and preserving class privilege- because the vocabulary and semantics of the oppression wheel serve to exclude anyone from the bottom 60% of the socio-economic spectrum like the label-less designer clothes they used to wear to distinguish each other. It’s why those from elite private school background travel to summer retreats focusing on intersectional workshops, so that everyone else will be hopelessly behind in the new status game, the meritocracy of publicly proclaimed ideological knowledge. Of course, they will allow the chosen few with the right ethnic pedigree into their exclusive and all-pervasive private club, but only so long as they mouth the platitudes which instantiate the castigating ritual of white sin and eternal redemption through admission, which helps them feel like white saviours in their own minds, intent upon a noble cause.

It’s all a mask for the preservation of class privilege. Their representative racialism is almost always drawn from the best class origins they can find and social mobility for most has almost completely stalled as a consequence. The masquerade slips somewhat when they encounter minorities which don’t fit their preferred reflected of shared belief- they will hurl the most disgusting epithets at Black police officers, Latino marines, or worst of all minority or female conservatives. They are only comfortable with those help enable their narcissistic self-image. Of course, many of the woke are blameless, kind and only intent upon building empathy across divides- but none of them were born into the top 10% so they will never be thought leaders or influencers. Too many of them know moderates or mild social conservatives and are too temperate to be trusted. Those spots are reserved for the children who attended Harvard or Stanford and had a massive head start in the prelature of the new religion, and have been gated away from political diversity their entire lives.

The children of the class privileged will rule us forevermore, as they have always done- only now they are no longer honest about it. Thankfully, the working class revolt and meritocracy of the sixties and seventies was just a blip- now they will never have to deal with the riffraff ever again, except, of course, in the political sphere where humble class origins can play well with the voters.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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Beautifully written and spiritually mature piece. Thank-you!

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Indeed, it is some kind of Kabuki theater, pretending to fight against shadows. You describe the on-camera talent on the BBC as over-representative of diversity. Here in the US, I don’t watch much television, except for sports programming. The commercials during the time-outs are, as you say, over-representative. About the corporations which are buying the advertising time, I don’t know the exact make-up of their boards, but increasingly they have some nominal balance of ethnicity and gender. But I will bet dollars to doughnuts that a very high percentage of them are from Ivy League schools, and that a significant number of the token representatives of the minorities did not grow up Working Class.

The author understands this well, and apparently the parents of the author understood it, and made the sacrifices to buy into the system.

And the message the author conveys, I believe, is that the system there is hard enough, even for those who we see as having gotten there thru ‘privilege’. It is not an ‘easy’ path. Those who succeed in it may or may not have been deserving, but we can be neutral when comparing them to those who advance thru other channels.

And, and… the occasional expose and scandal are all part of the kabuki, and we shouldn’t make too much of it.

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