On the vilification of rail enthusiasts and what this tells us about contemporary society

Rail enthusiasm (or ‘railfanning‘ as it is known in the US and some other countries) is a hobby with an international following which involves and incorporates a number of different interests in railways and trains. In the public imagination (at least in the UK), rail enthusiasts in general tend to be automatically seen as ‘trainspotters’, despite trainspotters actually being a minority in the rail enthusiast community.

Trainspotters are people who go out and about seeking to ‘spot’ as many locomotives as possible. The point is not, as some assume, to simply ‘collect’ numbers as such, but really to enjoy watching trains in action and to attempt to see as many as possible. As noted above, trainspotting is really a minority interest in the overall rail enthusiast hobby, which has many aspects including railway photography and videography, researching railway history, and an interest in art and architecture related to railways, the mechanics and engineering of trains and railways, the politics of railways, railway preservation and heritage, the building of intricate models of trains and railway settings, and, of course, an enjoyment of rail travel. While some enthusiasts may have an active interest in all of the above, it is more common for enthusiasts to have their own specific areas of interest.

To be a rail enthusiast is simply to have an interest in some or many things related to trains and railways. It’s a harmless hobby that gets people out of their houses, travelling to new places and socialising with other enthusiasts. Like many other hobbies, it is also a relatively ‘niche’ interest, with its own specialist language, slang, and so on, and of course it is not a hobby for everyone, just as many other hobbies such as following football don’t appeal to everyone. That said, it is nonetheless a perfectly ‘normal’hobby, not that you’d know it from the negative reputation it has gained, particularly in the UK. Indeed, this reputation is so bad that many enthusiasts are hesitant about telling non-enthusiast friends and colleagues about their hobby for fear of enduring mockery or even bullying.

Until relatively recently, having an interest in railways was seen as a perfectly ordinary thing, and in previous decades trainspotting was a mainstream hobby, particularly enjoyed by children and young people. Many children today continue to love trains, and Thomas the Tank Engine days at heritage railways provide a major revenue stream for many enthusiast-run preserved lines. While this is generally seen as unremarkable, for some reason if someone continues to have an active interest in trains and railways through adolescence and into adulthood they are suddenly seen as ‘odd’, ‘weird’, ‘geeky’, and so on. In the UK at least, this can be traced back to the early ’90s, when a media image of rail enthusiasts developed in which they were presented as ‘a bunch of geeky losers, with no lives, whom society has marked as outcasts and lepers, worthy only of contempt and ridicule’.

Arguably a key contributory factor in the transformation of rail enthusiasm into a hobby with a social stigma was the way in which in which a number of well-known British comedians decided to incorporate mockery of trainspotters into their routines. The most egregious example of this attack on rail enthusiasts was the ‘trainspotters‘ sketches on the popular Harry Enfield and Chums BBC TV series. These sketches took some of the worst stereotypes associated with trainspotters, exaggerated their features, and presented an archetype of the rail enthusiast as an ugly, unfashionable, dirty, dreary oddball with no social skills and an obsessive personality. Rail enthusiasts were presented as ‘weird‘, abnormal, and quite possibly suffering from some kind of personality disorder.

These sketches were not merely an example of observational humour or gentle teasing, but were arguably designed to encourage viewers to revel in mocking and ridiculing trainspotters and, by extension, rail enthusiasts in general. The underlying message was that here we have people who are not ‘normal’ and are worthy of ‘normal people’s’contempt, and the image of trainspotters presented in the programmes has stuck firmly in many people’s imaginations. A BBC article, illustrated with a Harry Enfield and Chums image, begins:‘To many people, train-spotters are a joke’. This is no great surprise, and the BBC was actually instrumental in bringing this about, although it was far from alone in doing this.

Some examples of ‘definitions’ of trainspotters found online are based precisely on the image of enthusiasts seen on Harry Enfield and Chums. For example, here is an everything2 definition:

Incredibly sad people … Many trainspotters fall firmly into the “nerd” catagory [sic] and there are more of them than anyone would like to believe. Should you ever decide to go trainspotter-spotting, look out for anoraks and parka jackets, National Health Spectacles, thermos flasks, packed lunches and someone whose mother dresses him funny.

The creator of a Facebook group entitled ‘sad trainspotters , Who need to get-a-life’ writes:

sad losers who sit on station platforms for hours on end day after day.you know the ones with a woolly hat on, a flask,happy shopper bag, twix bars, fold up seats, packed lunch by mommy, wax jacket, massive jumbo note pad, numerous cameras and binoculars, dictating machines. sandles?, spotting books

And an Urban Dictionary entryon trainspotters states:

Things such as trainspotting and stamp collecting have that age old ‘shit hobby’ cliche tagged onto them, with the stereotypical fanbase of anorak and NHS spec wearing, flask and clipboard wielding spod.

The ’90s attacks on trainspotters by ‘comedians’ arguably constituted the mainstream stigmatisation of a minority ‘outgroup’by a majority ‘ingroup’, and their effects continue to be felt today. The website of the Youth Rail Enthusiasts Association includes a page on bullying which states:

Most bullies pick on something different about their victim, and for most people at the YREA this will be because they like trains. You have got to remember there is nothing wrong with liking trains and doing what you do and nobody has the right to make you think otherwise, but its something which some bullies might pick up on.

Of course, in order for this bullying to be successful, there has to already be a social stigma surrounding an interest in trains and railways. An attempt to bully someone for being a football fan, for example, would get nowhere.

We supposedly live in a liberal society which rejects bigotry and embraces a ‘live and let live’ philosophy. However, one cannot help but question what kind of a society this actually is when young people have to be warned of the likelihood of facing bullying simply for having a hobby. Perhaps, seemingly ironically, it may well actually be the growth of an institutionally mandated culture of tolerance and opposition to bigotry that has led to this phenomenon, or allowed it to emerge.

Human history contains numerous examples of minority groups and individuals being used as scapegoats, hate targets, and objects of ridicule. However, today, many of these outlets have been taken away. People can no longer freely bully, harass, and demean others based on things such as ethnicity and religious belief. Yet, it seems that this desire to bully and ostracise may well have roots in our evolutionary past and that the capacity to hate may be an essential component of what it is to be human.

Human beings enjoy being members of ingroups (of which mainstream society is the ultimate ingroup), they generally enjoy ‘fitting in’and a degree of conformity, and the flipside of this can be the rejection of non-ingroup members and even hatred of them. It is amazing how encouraging hatred of groups or individuals can act as a social glue that binds an ingroup together (Hitler, for example, didn’t simply promote a Germanic identity but did this througha hate campaign against the Jewish people). Indeed, ingroup hatred of outgroups can arguably lead to ingroup members feeling at home, comfortable, included, and ‘right’. Stigmatisation, as Robert Kurzban and Mark R. Leary note, is consensual, and therefore communal, and ‘[n]ot only do the members of a particular group mostly agree regarding who is and is not stigmatized, but they can typically articulate this shared belief’.

In an age in which the traditional forms of ingroup hatred of outgroups (based on tribalism, race, nationality, religion, and so on) are no longer socially acceptable on a wide scale, are people seeking new outlets (albeit on a lower level) for the same old hatreds? In the case of the vilification of rail enthusiasts this is arguably the case, and other groups also find themselves in a similar position of being victims of socially tolerated kinds of bigotry, as witness the insults, bullying, and contempt experienced by ginger-haired peoplei n the UK.

The contempt expressed towards rail enthusiasts cannot be solely explained via an ingroup/outgroup model, as there are a number of minority interest groups who do not experience the same kind of bigotry, but there does seem, overall, to be a growing tendency to view traditional hobbies and pastimes in a negative light, and arguably this can be closely linked to the growth of a consumer culture.

In 2010, research commissioned by the UK Army Cadets organisation made some revealing discoveries:

Hobbies such as stamp collecting, train spotting and model making are dying out, a study has revealed.

Researchers found the quintessential British pastimes are now considered ‘boring’or ‘for anoraks’.

Other hobbies which modern kids turn their noses up at include collecting marbles, completing jigsaws and constructing train sets.

Instead youngsters now count ‘watching television’,‘playing computer games’ or ‘Facebooking’, as their ‘hobby’.

[...]

Half of kids said they found old hobbies are ‘boring’or just ‘weird’.

Instead eight in ten youngsters count watching television as their main interest, while two thirds play computer games and 58 per cent log onto Facebook.

The notion that traditional hobbies are ‘boring’, whereas simply sitting in front of a television set apparently is not, is a telling one. We live in an era in which when it comes to how we use our free time there has been a shift from the notion of ‘making your own fun’ to that of ‘entertainment’ as a commodity that comes ready-made. Arguably, society in general is moving more and more towards a culture of superficiality and instant gratification. Increasingly, anything that takes time, effort, and patience is seen as ‘boring’ and outdated. Interests that involve or lead to reading and research are seen as ‘geeky’, and it is in this context that people who do have hobbies and interests are marginalised as ‘weird’.

‘Dumbing down’ is not merely a right-wing buzz term, as Western society in general does seem to be moving steadily in an anti-intellectual direction (not least in politics). Respect for knowledge, learning, and intellectual pursuits has been rejected in favour of ‘entertainment’. The cultural icons of our age are ‘celebrities’ who appear on‘reality TV’ shows. Watching television is classed as a ‘hobby’.Children sit inside playing online computer games rather than playing traditional games in the fresh air. Bookshops try to keep afloat by filling their window displays with cut-price celebrity autobiographies. The most popular articles on the websites even of serious newspapers are often trivial, bizarre, or related to celebrities. Obsessively updating one’s Facebook status or‘Tweeting’ the day away is seen as normal, while having real interests makes you an ‘anorak‘(a term of abuse derived from the raincoats worn by rail enthusiasts when practising their hobby in inclement weather).

Many people seem confused by, perhaps even suspicious of, those who have hobbies and interests that revolve around something that cannot be bought or doesn’t come with a corporate stamp. Rail enthusiasm isn’t a straight-off-the-shelf hobby – you can’t simply throw money at someone or some company and find yourself instantly ‘entertained’. When people move from defining themselves by their values and their interests to instead defining themselves by the products they own and the ‘entertainment’ they fill their free time with, there is little space for an understanding of hobbies and interests, or of those who engage in them.

The conclusion I have reached regarding the vilification of rail enthusiasts is that it represents the meeting of two of the worst aspects of our society: the still-present desire to hate and persecute those who do not ‘fit in’ to mainstream culture, and the descent of that mainstream culture itself into a state of mindless consumerism and anti-intellectualism. What this says about our society is that there is still a lot of work to be done. If people now define themselves as consumers who pay to be‘entertained’, rather than thinking for themselves and making use of their potential for creativity, and if those same people harbour a barely sublimated hatred for anyone who dares to think differently, quite how free and liberal a society we really live in is surely called into question.

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