The slouching, elongated form of Jacob Rees-Mogg has been the target of meme artists and cartoonists alike, after the leader of the House of Commons languidly slumped his frame across the front bench in Parliament during the latest round of Brexit debates in Westminster.
It felt like the nation's collective hackles rose at the lack of respect shown to the house by the eccentric MP for North East Somerset. Green MP Caroline Lucas described his body language as “contemptuous” of the proceedings. Behind her, opposition MPs turned into a horde of disapproving teachers with their cries of “Sit up!” and “Shame!”
Afterwards, Labour MP Anna Turley caught the mood of the country, calling Rees-Mogg’s slouching the “physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect and contempt for our Parliament”.
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But what is about any sprawling body that makes an onlooker feel personally insulted, and assume all of the above negative characteristics? Should we be making such definitive assertions based only on one aspect of that person’s demeanour? We don't make assumptions on a person's honesty based on how they carry a shopping bag – as one random example – but somehow feel confident we can carry out a character assassination based on the way they sit.
One assumes that Rees-Mogg learned the power of the passive-aggressive slouch at the desks of Eton. It’s a way of sitting that infuriates teachers by its transgressive nature without the perpetrator actually having to be bold enough to break the rules in most conclusive fashion. I must admit, I was master of the slouch while at school, and didn’t have to attend Britain’s “most prestigious school” to learn how.
I had a slouch which said, “I am not actually going to do anything wrong, but please don't bother trying to educate me.” My frustrated teachers, who couldn't find a reason to punish me, instead took their revenge by christening me “The Big Lump” because of my posture and demeanour in every class.
The mildly rebellious student chooses to slump to show their contempt for the educational proceedings, but knows the worst that’s likely to happen is a reprimand and reminder of possible back problems in adulthood because of their poor posture. (Of course, if schools really cared about pupil's backs, we wouldn't be asking them to lug around twice their body weight in books in their school bags.)
Slouching obviously pushes teachers’ buttons, mine included, just as elbows on the table while eating dinner causes consternation among adults. I know I’m programmed to think it’s rude, but I’m not totally sure why it should be.
Maybe we should just let the slouchers slouch – they get to make their mildly rebellious point, doing little harm along the way. Rees-Mogg was flaunting his disdain to a nation, but that boy or girl in the corner is striking a pose for a far smaller audience, and is seeking a far smaller impact.
I’m inclined to ignore them and get on with more important things.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland