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Touchy-feely politics

In April 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama met Queen Elizabeth I during their first state visit to England. At one point during their encounter, Michelle Obama put her arm around the Queen’s lower back and rubbed her shoulder, and the Queen reciprocated. It was the kind of gesture that might seem quite unremarkable when exchanged by friends, or even casual acquaintances: but, given the participants on this particular occasion, it unsurprisingly attracted a great deal more attention. The British tabloid press responded with all the measured calm for which it is so famous. The Daily Mail called their interaction “utterly astonishing,” and saw it as evidence of a “new touchy feely protocol.”

Responding to this scenario with faux amazement of this sort, however, wrongly suggests that the rules against touching a monarch differ fundamentally from those that govern the non-royal lives that the rest of us live. Rather than brewing a storm in a royal teacup in this way, we can instead use this moment to reflect upon the role that quieter, implicit, unspoken codes and rituals continue to play in our everyday interactions. The fact that the Queen cannot typically be touched doesn’t make her unlike the rest of us: it just means that the rules are clearer and less ambiguous in her case, and so too are the moments in which they are contravened.

Nowhere is the presence of such tacit codes clearer, perhaps, than in moments of greeting and parting, those ritualised exchanges that book-end so many of our daily interactions. Even something as routine as a handshake has a deeper symbolism buried within it. It is likely that the gesture first came to prominence among Quakers in the seventeenth century, as a deliberately egalitarian alternative to the doffing of hats, so it carries a political message of equality in addition to its social utility. The precise way in which a handshake is carried out – its degree of limpness or firmness, say – can tacitly set the tone for the conversation that follows.

Then there are the more intimate alternatives to the handshake – an embrace, or a peck on the cheek. It’s only at such a moment that both I, and the person with whom I am speaking, have to specify and give expression to our understanding of our relationship, and its level of intimacy. It’s a potentially fraught moment. What if I reach my hand out to be shaken at the precise moment that my interlocutor leans in for a hug? What if we exchange kisses on one cheek, but I swoop in for a kiss on the other side while the other person has already withdrawn his or her face, leaving me awkwardly to pucker up at thin air? It’s hard to say whether it is more embarrassing to be the one who has expected a greater degree of intimacy and been denied it, or the one who issues an accidental rebuff. A stiff moment of silence typically follows.

Described in this way, the most routine moments, which usually pass without incident, start to sound like a potential minefield of awkwardness and humiliation. We might hope to avoid experiencing such emotions ourselves, but the very fact that they are possible confirms just how important are these quiet, everyday exchanges. The more overt rituals that still structure touch-feely politics at the highest level are simply a magnification of the role that these rituals play in our everyday lives.

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Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Public Domain via Flickr.

Once restrictions on touching the monarch have officially been formulated, it increases the political significance that casual acts of touch can assume. While restrictions of this sort have existed in many different cultures and eras, the point at which they were codified in English history can be pinpointed quite precisely. This occurred during the reign of Henry VIII, in the form of the Eltham Ordinances of 1526, orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. These regulations stressed that only Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber could dress the King, but insisted “that none of the said Grooms or Ushers do approach or presume…to lay hands upon his royal person.” The fact that Henry’s body couldn’t routinely be handled enabled him to invest those moments in which he did deign to touch his subjects all the more significant.

The implications of this situation were sharply recognised by Thomas More, as reported in the posthumous biography by his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper recalled the King walking with More in his garden after dinner one day, and “holding his arm about his neck.” Roper recognised this as a great sign of favour, and congratulated More, who wryly replied that “I believe he doth as singly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France … it should not fail to go.” More’s bleakly prophetic words recognised both the importance of these moments of unobtrusive intimacy, and their tendency to pale in comparison with the brutalities of realpolitik.

This moment suggests that the “new touchy-feely protocol” between the Queen and Michelle Obama was not in fact new, but continued a long-standing tendency for rulers to allow their bodies to be accessed in casual ways at carefully chosen moments. Barack Obama has shown himself to be no less aware of the symbolic force of striking moments of gentle contact, as with the 2012 photo, shown around the world, of the President allowing a five-year-old to feel his hair and confirm that it felt like the boy’s own. The real interest in such moments, however, lies less in what they tell us about the behaviour of rulers, than in the opportunity that they provide for reflection on the significance of such moments, so often fleeting and barely registered, in our own lives. The rituals that govern everyday conduct are less explicit than the Eltham Ordinances, but it is their unspoken nature that grants them both their quiet importance, and their perennial capacity for embarrassment.

Header image credit: ‘No Touching’ by Scott Akerman. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

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