I recently stumbled across my HSC copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which I had annotated in those days when our group’s competitive over-exuberance might have unwittingly – witlessly – harmed schoolmates. Aside from getting top marks for stating the obvious bleeding, Young Malcolm’s notes showed a peculiar viciousness towards Mrs Bennet. Austen makes her a comical figure, of course, but her interfering and alarmist ways de ella evidently got right under Young Malcolm’s skin. He felt sorry for Elizabeth but sorriest for poor old Mr Darcy, the uber-wealthy landowner victimized by the hysterically anxious mother-of-four. Young Malcolm’s notes escalate into misogynistic territory, egged on by extra comments by friends, towards what we all knew were outrageous slurs against a type of woman. So much for the civilizing power of Austen. We knew it was wrong; being wrong was what made it funny. This was two decades before social media, two decades before the private school fee explosion. It wasn’t as hateful or propagated as widely as what Knox boys in groups do in 2022, but it was on the way.
So, although all the usual suspects feed into today’s brand of excess, I really believe the enduring toxicity goes back to competition, group dynamics and boys performing for each other. Unfortunately, it lies in a continuum with high-status performances in sport, on the stage, in the classroom, and in social life. Excess, good and bad, comes out of competitiveness. If we are going to deal with the dark side of boys trying to outdo each other, we also have to come to a more mature and rational reckoning with all sides of the competitive encouragements of late-stage capitalism. Boys conceal all sorts of emotions, not least their fear of the future and fear of who they really are, under the cloak of competitiveness that they are constantly told is a good thing.
I do harbor hope. My son would never have dreamt of behaving like those Knox boys, even though he was on his device a lot and had a privileged education. I don’t put it down to good parenting. I put it down to his innate morals of him, his empathy of him after having been bullied himself, and his of him not being part of an alpha male group inebriated on their own performances.
He’s a better person than I was at the same age, despite – or really, because of – not having as many friends, not being as full of himself and not being over-rewarded for competitive success. It also helped that he went to a school that did not see competitive success as the be-all and end-all, or ingrain the fear in young people that life would eventually sort them into winners and losers. I know for sure that in 30 years, he wo n’t be kept awake wondering if he unknowingly made one of his schoolmates’ life a misery.