Australian A.A. Phillips coined the term “cultural cringe” in his landmark 1950 essay of the same name. The writer, critic and teacher wholeheartedly embraced his culture and chaffed at his fellow Aussie’s tendency to regard their art, literature and music as inherently inferior to that of their European counterparts.
More recently, the term has taken on a broader meaning and is used to capture the essence of what it is to accept an outsider’s ill-conceived perceptions of a culture and the inevitable aftermath of such folly — the shame that is born from looking down upon oneself.
Robin Short’s recent “Newfoundlanders perpetuate their own stereotypes” column in The Telegram is a pitch-perfect example of an internalized cultural inferiority complex. Short has apparently fallen hook, line and sinker for the mainland notion that a Newfoundlander’s ability and resolve to make the best of a bad situation is a defect somehow. His worry that the jovial group of passengers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport singing along with talented musicians, Sean Sullivan and Sheldon Thornhill, were bound to be seen as “goofy Newfies” by our “betters” seems to have been for naught. Online response to the viral videos has been overwhelmingly positive, with international news outlets, including CNN and the Daily Mail, covering the feel-good story with nary a hint of ridicule.
When I first viewed the videos sent to me by a cousin living in Toronto, I was filled with joy and pride, much as I was last week when I attended an author reading at the Tattered Cover, an iconic Denver bookstore.
In my naïveté, I thought my husband and I would be among a small group turning out to hear a Newfoundland author doing a reading of his latest book. Granted, Alan Doyle is well known and beloved at home and abroad, as it were, but I never imagined he'd have what you’d call a following in Denver, Colorado. Well, he does, and even though we arrived a half hour before the event was to begin, the room was nearly filled leaving us relegated to the last row of seats.
Despite being nearly overcome with homesickness when Alan treated the crowd to a stirring rendition of “River Driver,” I couldn’t help but notice the crowd sang along with him word for word. A gifted performer who’s as adept at capturing a room speaking his written word as he is belting out a song, Alan was more than happy to oblige a Denverite’s request for him to sing “Sonny’s Dream” as he wrapped up his talk. Not a person in that crowd looked at Alan Doyle, the author doing a presentation and book signing, and thought goofy Newfie when he broke into song. They marveled at his talent and were buoyed by his obvious pride in all things Newfoundland.
During the question and answer period, a gentleman from the Midwest asked Alan how people in Newfoundland were coping with the downturn in the local economy. “Like we always do,” Alan told him. He spoke with no small amount of awe in a Newfoundlander’s seemingly endless reserve to make the best of any situation and to persevere regardless of the odds against us.
Robin Short would have you believe that dancing and singing our way through adversity makes us a laughing stock. Admirers of the likes of Alan Doyle and the crowd of Newfoundland passengers at Toronto Pearson Airport the world over know better. Short’s breathtaking disdain for his own people doesn’t make him the “humourless curmudgeon” he invited readers to call him, but a sad example of what happens when you buy into an outsider’s flawed notion of your culture.
It’s bad enough that mainlanders cling to Newfie stereotypes due to their own arrogance. It’s much worse when one of our own toddles along at their direction weighed down by a self-loathing that for all intents and purposes tells them they are right.
Dr. Rhonda Hackett