December 22, 2008
I love mocking things. Really and truly, I do. And frequently I offend people as a consequence of doing so. In my eyes, nothing is ever so sacred that it should not be mocked; offense-giving notwithstanding, it is an important part of a free society that such mocking is permitted. This is because the unmockable is frequently the unquestionable, treating a subject as if it is beyond the bounds of humour involves giving it a moral primacy above its fellows. Indeed, there is a correlation between the boundaries of what people hold to be sacred and the boundaries of, to them, acceptable humour – the obvious examples are the Danish cartoons dealing with the Prophet Mohammed.
What’s interesting in a Western context is the personalisation of the sacred. Our society permits any form of humour without recourse to the law, even racist jokes are not actually illegal except in cases where it can be shown to lead to incitement to violence. But individual people will hold certain things to be unmockable – in most households in the UK, racist humour is frowned upon. Treating other races as equals is something that is widely held as sacred, and that is certainly a good thing.
And so we reach Christmas time, and given our Christian heritage it’s worth having a think about what we wouldn’t mock, what is sacred to ourselves as individuals. After all, it forms a core part of what we ourselves are, even if it is unacknowledged – how often do you say to yourself, “I wouldn’t mock this or that – they’re too important to me,”? I’ve been doing just that. The results have been somewhat surprising.
I frequent a website devoted to scraping the underbelly of the internet and laughing at what comes off. I won’t link it in, for reasons which will shortly become obvious. One day, an article was posted on this site which began with a discussion of the antics of anti-abortion campaigners near the writer’s home town. They’d paid to have a billboard-sized photograph of an aborted foetus towed behind a plane in order to shock people into getting behind their campaign. He made the point that this sort of activity is a frequent recourse of the anti-abortionists: to present an emotively compelling image to the public in an effort to sway opinion. The writer then raised the very serious point: what’s stopping the pro-choice movement using similar tactics?
To illustrate his argument, he brought up the case of a little girl born with Treachers Collins Syndrome. Children born with this disease are born without a face. They require a tracheotomy to be simply able to breathe, can barely see through their shrouded and distended eyes, and are simply too hideous to be able to engage with society. In a terrible example of nature’s cruelty, unlike with many similar diseases suffers of this syndrome are normally born with normal intelligence, and are fully aware of what has happened to them.
It is a heartrending article, but it’s not this disease that I consider to be unmockable – although anyone doing so would be open to the charge of trying to make humour from something that’s too pathetically easy to mock to be ever be funny. What I realised I found sacred was what the writer mocked next. The girl’s mother had created a website about her daughter, wherein she kept a diary of her life along with a collection of photos – the sort of photos that any mother would take of her child. But in this context they were horrifyingly wrong, and rather felt like the mother was illustrating a freak show. I will not link the page, because as its title says, it would mean that, “I’m here to ruin your day”.
The thrust of the article was, as you may have guessed, that the child’s mother had known of her daughter’s condition before birth and instead of having an abortion the devoutly Christian woman had chosen to carry her child to term. And this, the website, and the mother’s behaviour were the subject of the writer’s mockery, and it was the combination of all of this that I realised I could not mock myself.
Certainly, the life of the child is so awful that it is the case it would be better if she had not been born – I will admit I very nearly welled up on learning the girl’s favourite film is Monsters Inc – but what’s important here is that despite the number of chances the mother (and the father, of course, although he doesn’t really get a look in) to allow the girl to die or to be shut away from the world, they had refused. And what comes out of the diaries and the photos is an overwhelming impression of unconditional love. They love their daughter, and what they want more than anything else is for her to be happy. And, as a consequence, they’ve received an enormous amount of pain – from society, from other children and from the media. It is certainly the case that their lives would be easier if they had never had the child.
I feel as though in contemporary society the notion of unconditional love is in some way denied. Certainly, you can say in the above case that, “Oh, well, clearly the parents are just using the child to attract attention, and they’re dressing it up for photos because they wanted it to be normal, and so they’re hurting the girl”, but what this illustrates is a modern tendency to believe that somehow any tawdry motive instantly devalues even the most sacred; as though doing good was somehow diminished by enjoying it. It’s as though the capability of modern psychology to identify the many and varied ways in which human thought works has married the ancient religious tendency to claim that any pleasure is bad, and created a situation wherein no action can ever be good.
And this is where I’d like to wrap up this Christmas discussion of the mockable and unmockable, both with my surprise upon learning that there’s something I wouldn’t mock, and also with the advice that even if you enjoy performing a good act it in no way stops it from being good. Unconditional love, or agape to use its ancient name, does still exist.
Merry Christmas to one and all.
December 8, 2008
I attended the Climate Change March on Saturday, mostly to seek absolution for my lack of domestic recycling, but also to support the Cleggmeister in his attempts to sway hippies with powerful rhetoric.
Previous readers of this blog will know I love protesting. There’s always a little bit of theatre that makes me believe it’s all going to somehow work out right, whether it be the hippies with the painted faces pushing a cart labelled ‘Climate Change Bandwagon’ or the entrepreneurs selling whistles to the communists, protests are always reassuring.
And so it was again. Despite the fact that a protest consisting mostly of socialists marched on a route that took in the Rolls Royce & Bentley showrooms, the Ritz, innumerable Starbucks, and the US embassy no-one threw any bricks at all. We arrived in Parliament Square in good spirits and settled down to listen to some hippy band’s deep and meaningful song about how capitalism was bullshit, man.
Then the voices of the young Liberals and middle-aged environmental Liberals around me rose in cheering as the Clegg came on stage to give his speech. And it was very good. He’d clearly worked out that his audience weren’t going to be particularly market friendly, and so his speech was full of exhortations to environmental action.
“No to a third runway at Heathrow!”
“No to Kingsnorth!”
“And no to spending twelve and a half billion quid of our money to give us a short-term VAT cut – which we’ll all have to pay for in the future – when every penny of that money should be spent on public transport, on green energy, on sustainable housing for the future.”
Hippies look confused!
That last part was a typically Lib Dem complicating of the issue, I admit. But it did make me observe the reactions of the rest of the protest during the remainder of the speech. It brought something interesting to light.
During the, “…the scandalous situation that the big energy companies are charging a pensioner – scrimping and saving, living on her own, to perhaps heat one room in her home (or his!) – is charging her or him more than a multimillionaire who’s heating their five-storey mansion from top to toe…” section, the only ones cheering such an ostensibly worthwhile statement were us. Even the socialists didn’t want to know about little old ladies. Everyone just looked grumpy.
Why would that be? Theoretically, the majority of the crowd were the self-defined ‘ethical’ sort, who doubtless do their recycling, owned a wormery, biked everywhere and generally are very nice to the planet. But they don’t appear to care about little old ladies.
I’d like to make a distinction here, based not on science but on public perception. It’s about single issues. They fall into one of two camps: the ‘sexy’ single issues, and the ‘unsexy’ single issues. Climate change, human rights and the developing world fall under the former, the plight of the elderly, the mentally ill and arguably trade unionism fall under the latter. The test is whether you’d find someone more attractive depending on which field they worked in. “I work with the elderly” isn’t as attractive (to me at least, putting subjectivity aside here) as “I work for Friends of the Earth”.
And this is the danger. People who think they’re saving the world don’t want to be reminded about the people who are too poor and too old to join in. As evidence, I give you the crowd’s reaction on Saturday. While single issue campaigning has been spoken about as a reflection of society’s new individualism, with people focusing on the issues they care about, I see it more as intellectual cowardice. If you don’t consider that your new bill that’ll cut carbon emissions by whatever percent by levelling a higher duty on fuel will leave the elderly to freeze to death in the winter because they can no longer afford to heat their homes, then you’re a monster. Reducing the sphere of the ethical to an individual’s relationship with the planet ignores the rest of society. Single issue campaigning will ultimately lead to bad policy – if it hasn’t already.
So the next time you’re confronted by an environmental activist who’s demanding that you recycle more, ask them if they’re sharing their wormery with the little old lady living by herself in the flat upstairs. Picking and choosing when you’re going to be ethical is despicable. Luckily, I chose not to be ethical. I work in politics instead.