Shoppers on Oxford Street. At least one of them will be crying. Photo: Getty
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Why is it so shameful to cry in public?

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. But it hasn’t got any easier.

“Vern, get a picture of the depressed London millennial,” I imagine one of the American tourists sitting near me on the Piccadilly Line whispering to her bulbous, khaki short-clad husband.

Vern, perhaps, obliges. For real, the space in front of my closed eyes, the place in which I currently exist, turns from black to red, then back to black in a flash. A camera flash.

I’m only just sentient enough to notice it happen and think, in between spasms of embarrassment hot enough to turn my Oyster card into a mini blue cowpat, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

What a thrill, though, to be part of two tourists’ “authentic London experience”. Maybe, when they paid £22.99 a head for plates of rancid fish and chips and two pints of Stella, in one of those pretend West End English pubs, it occurred to them just how tough things must be for members of everyone’s least favourite generation, living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. OK, maybe not. They probably sat, in abject silence, gagging on their expensive mounds of oily, foodish matter, thinking about how, back in Des Moines, you can get a burger the size of an infant for $6.99.

I have a suspicion though that they’ve recognised something essentially London about this publicly distraught pile of young woman.

My head is in my hands and my eyes are in a highly advanced state of shutness. Emergency shutness. “I’m about to cry in public” shutness. But the tears have broken the seal. And there are a lot of them. I sniff as quietly as I can, but I know that I’m officially “making a scene” now. I might as well be naked from the waist down. Why do I feel like my bush is proudly on display to an entire carriage of tourists, commuters and scared children?

A baby starts crying. When I’m not having a public meltdown, I use a special trick to transform the sound of a child wailing into comedy gold. I close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to a hoover dying. It’s never failed to make me laugh to myself like an utter sociopath. And, trust me, having a few strangers judge you to be a nasty and unfeeling human being is way less painful than twenty minutes of unfunny screaming. But, being a complete wreck right now, the hoover trick isn’t working. It’s just me and a baby crying. Me, a 26-year-old grown-ass woman, and something so young and vulnerable that it spends all day shitting itself.

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. It started, I think, with an ostentatious display of angst – again, on a train – when I was twenty and freshly dumped by my first girlfriend. I remember leaving her house and bursting into some tears in which I remained throughout both the mile long walk to Brighton station and the hour-long train ride back to London. I felt like I was whipping out my bush back then too. After all, crying is one of the most private things you can do. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince.

In fact, moments before another one of my more elaborate public cries, I managed to choke back the inevitable for a good fifteen minutes before realising that, around Oxford Circus, there’s nowhere “good” to cry. I was looking for a public toilet. Sometimes, tragically, it’s easier to cry in the same place you shit than to let anyone see you do it. I even tried the Oxford Street Topshop toilets, but there was a long queue for them. I wasn’t ready to risk crying in a toilet queue. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

This particular cry, which ended up taking place on a bench in Soho, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to get into advertising. I’d just been to an interview for a place on quite a fancy creative course. It was at an ad agency full of stupid furniture and smart people. People much, much smarter than me. People much better looking, much more grounded, much better dressed and much taller than me. It was a group interview, which I wasn’t expecting. The guy who ran the course, a middle aged ex adman so jaded he practically spoke in clouds of dust, declared, “I fucking hate adverts,” before telling us to spend ten minutes coming up with a new ad campaign for Babybel, before presenting it to the group (about twenty people plus a panel of hugely successful creatives). Anxiety disorder notwithstanding, I felt like I’d just been told I was going to be having a rectal exam in an auditorium full of the world’s most judgemental supermodels. My presentation went about as well as you’d expect it to, given the circumstances. At the very least, I managed to hold off the tears until way after I’d left the building.

But why is public crying so shameful? For me, I’ve realised, it’s partly a gender thing. Being seen (even by complete idiots) as a woman who can’t hold it together – a madwoman in the attic, where the attic is actually a train – is, well, extremely shitty.

So here I am, feeling extremely shitty again. On a train. I’m crying because I’m feeling shitty and I’m feeling shitty because I’m crying. And salty trails of snot are running into my mouth. And I keep on wiping my nose on my shoulder, where it’s leaving the world’s saddest and grossest snail trail. This time, the cry was brought on by a perfect shit storm of starting a new antidepressant and having just been dumped (a classic, I suppose). As soon as I saw the train coming, I knew I was powerless to the cry.

I’ll never know whether Vern really did take a picture of me in my sorry state. But, in a way, I like to think that – on his Facebook page – I’m there in an album called “London 2015” alongside Big Ben and a selfie with Kate Middleton’s waxwork.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times