A rather macabre Christmas message

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.

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