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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The ideology trap

I thought twice about posting this because, basically, I am not remotely interested in debating your political or ideological agenda. At all. Sorry.

I’m no more interested in doing that than I am in arguing with a stranger in the comments section of a YouTube video (why the baffling Jesus does anyone feel that’s a worthwhile use of their time on this earth? I mean to say, really, what?). Don’t get me wrong, under the right circs I don’t mind an intelligent political discussion at all – I have in my time both studied and taught political philosophy, I was a journalist and maintain a general interest in current affairs... but these past few years, well, man alive! I mean to say, what?

I am tired. Hang-dog tired and dispirited at being flung other people’s ideology constantly on social media and, if you admit it, I think you are too. I get it – we live in very “interesting times” and everyone is trying to make of it what they will and desperate to stand up for their concerns and position in the face of hostile and baffling forces that have been robustly rearing of late. I too have found myself repulsed, frustrated and confused by the turn of world events. But before we go on I should make one thing clear: I continue to resist throwing my lot in wholesale with any pre-packaged political ideology, and I happen to think when abstract ideology becomes more salient and important than the concrete, personal, pragmatic and every day, then ugliness inevitably follows.

For transparency’s sake, I always used to consider myself vaguely progressive, but not vehemently so, vaguely liberal, but with a small ‘l’ – you know, like before it became a dirty word and synonymous with snowflakery – but with a sprinkling of bleak, cynical and realist opinions on human nature and society thrown in that would probably upset many progressive liberals. But I have no idea what I am anymore... except tired – and right now I’m really not interested in hearing about your particular gawdelpus crusade, reader, so I am not going to talk about my personal political stance much here at all really.

Rather I am going to make a few observations in general on ideology of whatever stripe:

1: It’s a trap.

People say it’s great that everyone is engaged with politics now but y’know, I’m not so sure it unambiguously is, because... well, of the radicalisation of my mates. I don’t think that’s too strong a word – with everything going on the past few years I have seen a fair few previously fully-rounded individuals with their own original and considered thoughts creep ever further apart on either sides of the political spectrum, convinced that there is some kind of ideological war at hand that we must take up arms in – and start flinging regurgitated, rigid-as-rock and shouty-as-shit views straight out of someone else’s manifesto. Like any war-of-two-sides it’s self perpetuating, because it breeds grievance and opposition and frankly I think we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated into it. When caught up deep and wholesale in political agenda or ideology, you are not engaging with the world directly anymore, but through a rigid, simplified model, which colours all of your interactions. Please stop it.

2: I don't trust crusaders, utopians or people who have all the answers.

First of all the world is complex and ever changing and it’s impossible to be certain about pretty much anything (I’m certain about that) – so how can these people be so bloody certain their way is right? Seriously, I like to think I’m an intelligent, informed and reasonably experienced human being and I’ve been trying quite hard to figure everything out all my life now and I’m just not getting this “certainty” business at all. Secondly, I always get the feeling crusaders will act on ideology at the detriment to what they're actually doing to people. Thirdly, their single-minded certainty = no open minded reflection = no genuine critical judgement. Beware.

3: Beware loaded ideological words.

Free speech and democracy are not simple ideas, or simple to implement, no matter what anyone says, and we have never had them in an uncut pure form anyway. Yes, everyone likes the idea of them. No, they do not, always and forever in every circumstance no matter what, have unimpeachably pure and "morally good" outcomes. Yes, people use them when it suits them and are hypocritical about it. No, no one likes elites or entitlement or totalitarianism or mainstream media bias. Every side uses this shit. On a related point, freedom, power and oppression are related on a sliding scale, you know – freedom for the pike is death to the minnows and all that – but if you are in any confusion or doubt over if there is actual oppression happening (as opposed to words being flung around as ammunition in the ideology war) ask – A) is there a power imbalance involved here, and in whose favour? and B) are any actual individuals getting stomped on here and why? Never mind the ideology and ‘isms – that will give you your answer.

4: Resentment makes the world go around.

"My pain is worse than yours, you can never understand me and you need to realise this and make me reparations." Alternatively, "Someone somewhere is having an easier time or getting stuff they don't deserve and I do." It does seem that in the political sphere both of these positions are the starting point for any debate, whichever side you are on. Resentment comes before reason. It is upsetting because I always took calmness, fair-mindedness, balance, reasonableness, intelligence, multi-facetedness to be the winning hand, but apparently it’s not. Shrill, shouty, self-centred, accusatory bullying is, apparently.

5: Ideology does not make you more “awake”.

Not everyone is motivated by ideology or sees the world through that kind of lens. That doesn't mean they're "asleep" either; in fact they may be more awake to the subtleties, uncertainties and ambiguities of the world precisely because of that. We’ve all heard the “Wake up sheeple!” spiel, from people who appear to have allowed themselves to be convinced that an off-the-peg world view constructed by someone else is now the most important thing in the world to the extent they can’t see outside of it. This, I think, is called irony.

6: Ideology is anathema to empathy.

Because it treats people's irreducibly complex lived experience as an ideal political abstract. When political ideology becomes the driving force and focus, outstripping the personal and practical, it pretty much always ends in someone getting stomped on and brutalised as their experience, wants and needs are disregarded for the “greater good” of some overly utopian f***er’s fantasy “good vs evil” bullshit narrative. Militant ideology is like those awful mission statements that businesses and institutions have: at best a simplified dream that describes what you want to reach for (though decidedly not a really accurate representation of the full, complex, organic, dysfunctional reality of things); at worst just a bunch of pretentious hot air that sounds great and inspiring but should really be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

7. Politics is about compromise.

Of course it bloody is. The whole set up is there, because there are multiple groups in the world who want and need different things but have to live together; groups and individuals who have different opinions, lifestyles and beliefs and all want a slice of the available resources. That's why politics exists, that's what it is – an ongoing discussion and action to resolve or at least manage this state of affairs. Politics IS compromise. It is not an ideological war for absolute goals. Get over yourself.

8: A political position in negative.

“No one has ever convinced me they know what is best for everybody else. No one has ever convinced me they want what is best for everybody else.”

Please don’t leave any discussion in the comments. I’m tired.

Monday, 22 May 2017

All the single fellas

At the risk of sounding like a male Beyonce (a curse I must endure in life in general), I want to say something to all the single fellas and it’s this: There is a good possibility there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just that the world of dating sucks.

Why I’ve been moved to speak on this is that in recent months I’ve caught various friends and acquaintances (actually both male and female) bemoaning their singledom – often in that “I’m just bantering” way that doesn’t fool anyone. I hear them over-analysing the situation, as you do when you’ve been alone for years and are exasperated and just want some kind of explanation: Joking about what wrong-headed unknowables women/men are; joking about how you, yourself, must be a pathetic freak. Lol jokes. Kinda. Kinda not.

I am out of that dating bear pit, thank The Lord, and now comfortably well into something strong and stable (a relationship, not a Tory government) but when I hear the just-mentioned bemoaning from my own kind – the slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly “sensitive” kind of chap – the empathy glands start pinging away, the bad memories start surfacing and I can end up getting upset on their behalf. Having spent the vast majority of my life single, these are my people, and I feel their frustration acutely. The dating game is simply not set up for a certain kind of dude who tends towards the introverted, intense and “sensitive” – for the reasons outlined below...

Not yet

But before we get into it, I want to make it clear I’m not offering “advice”. As a single man there was nothing that boiled my piss more than someone condescendingly tossing crumbs of “advice” from the safety of the comfortable relationship that they’d lucked out by clumsily fumbling their way into back when we were young and it was much easier to hook up.

And I need to say, there is nothing wrong with being on your own, other than your own desire not to be. Actually, for me, as I got older I made my peace with the prospect more and more, to the point I was quite happy in my own company and really appreciated the freedom of being a free agent when I was. You become self-sufficient. I'd see younger types freaking out about being single after mere months and just think: "Amateurs! Get a grip."

But it's hard not to internalise society's assertion that you are something of a deficient misfit if you are on your own past 30, which is ludicrous as vast droves of society are. This meant my own recent experience shocked me – my current partner and me were both veteran singletons, but getting a relationship going was actually relatively easy and natural and straightforward. I’m not trying to be smug at you ­– what I mean to say is, contrary to what our hind brains may have been whispering obscenely to us in the long, dark nights, there turned out to be nothing freakishly wrong with us, we were not broken, nor terminally “difficult” to be with, we were just normal people who had had some shitty luck in the past. And, it turns out, most of that “dating advice” other people give you is, I can assure you, either completely irrelevant or utter hokem.

Christopher Walken

I’m sure everyone could tell me why their pain and plight is so much worse than that of my male-privileged ass, as is apparently obligatory in these times. But I can assure you the struggle for my type is real – the introverted, intense, “sensitive” male can do just fine in a relationship, but is at a sore disadvantage when it comes to actually getting into one in the first place, or even just a “hook up”.

I don't mean a bit of boo-hooing over how women are so mean and how it's so hard to find "The One": I mean periods of years and years without a sniff of anything at all other than rebuff and rejection; long swathes of time convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with me or that I was cursed; long stretches convinced I simply had no choice in the matter because it had come to seem unimaginable or impossible that any women would want to stay with me beyond a month or two before they went cold or got bored or freaked out and ran away; that is if I could even get past a second date; that is if I could even get a date.

I remember comparing notes on singledom with a female friend who astonished me by wishing it was as easy to get a good guy to stick around as it was to get sex. “Getting sex is easy”, she said, to my incredulity. OMG, the gulf in our experience, as outgoing female vs navel-gazing male! “No, no it isn’t,” I said. Sex for me at that point was an ultra-rare and poorly understood phenomenon that had occurred in the distant past a handful of times, which I had no idea how to make happen again. She didn’t seem to understand how things could be like that for someone, her experience being that men simply rocked up and asked for it, often as a nuisance, from her teens onwards.

Meanwhile, when my shacked-up friends cringed over the now-dwindling memory of their single years, I felt like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. In that film Walken and Robert De Niro have a shocking time of it as prisoners of war in Vietnam, but De Niro escapes and comes home, somewhat damaged, and slowly pieces his life back together and adjusts to being a civilian once more. Years later he goes back out to Saigon to track down Walken, only to find him still there playing Russian Roulette, like they were forced to do as POWs. All those years later and Walken never escaped that hell.

That’s me, I'd tell my couple-friends, that's what it's like to still be dealing with the dating scene in your 30s. "I'm still there, I've been there all along!"

So without further ado, here is how things got like that, at least up to around my mid 30s, for this slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly "sensitive" male:

1 Opportunity

This is probably the major factor – you simply don’t get to meet a wide variety of eligibles. You live in a small town, most of your friends are male and quite cliquey with it, you were never an outgoing party animal in the first place and now you’re getting older your friends go out less and stick to their own when they do. People will constantly tell you you need to get out more, do more things, but this in itself is a problem – because you don’t really enjoy being the social butterfly, you just want to be having pleasant nights at home or with the people you know and love like many others your age do. Forcing yourself into a constant round of new faces and activities begins to feel exhausting and desperate, but if you don’t do that, you might get to have a conversation socially with maybe one new eligible female about every six months. It’s just not enough. Thank god for internet dating, though that has its own soul crushing problems.

2 “You don’t try your luck”

This one is a revelation for you, but it’s so true – if you are a “sensitive” type you probably sneer at those sleazey, cocky, alpha-male wankers who are always thinking with their dick, pulling "moves" and dropping cringeworthy lines. But then you wonder: “Why does my delightful dry wit always miss out to the meathead who isn’t afraid to put his hand on her knee?” You write it off as women being idiots and falling for the transparent tricks of Neanderthal nobs, until a female friend takes you aside and berates you: “You don’t try your luck!” What she means is, it isn’t about slick moves or swagger, plenty of women see through that – but the meathead is at least giving a green light, and you aren’t. You are hard work. It’s about letting women know you’re actually interested and worth a shot, giving them a clear sign, an easy way in, something exciting to respond to – but no, there you are, too noble and “sensitive” to do anything but act the distant chivalrous friend and wonder why she’s lost interest when you finally ask her out two months later.

3 The laser focus

In line with your intense and idealistic nature you are also simply quite narrow-minded in what you think you want, and hung up on that, even though you think you aren't. And you've spent far, far too much time pursuing and weeping over people who it was just never going to work with. It can’t be helped, because you go a bit mad when those chemicals bite, but SMH, the wasted time! You just couldn't broaden your focus and realise what a wide and wonderful world of other lovely, fun and sexy people was out there while you spent, for example, a fucking year mooning over some dickhead you had convinced yourself was your true love even though you’d never shared much actual intimacy, they didn’t particularly give a shit about you and it's questionable if you would actually even get on as a couple. Amazing what the heart will do.

4 Intense reactions

One of the problems with not being used to a relationship is that, initially, your reactions can be a little over-intense – partly because actually getting to dating is so rare that there's a vast amount at stake and it's nigh-on impossible to take it lightly; and partly because you're so inexperienced at being in a partnership that you take your cues from films, fiction and your own imagination as to how you should be acting – and that is often way too heavy and intense, way too soon. You have a tendency to write looong emotional essays to the unfortunate objects of your affection at the slightest hiccup, and it never, ever, helps anything. You also want to talk “deep and meaningful” pretty much all the time. One ex told you: “Women just want someone fun who is there for them – not a psychotherapist!” Another revelation. The shame of it is, that's not even your everyday self, which is actually pretty laid back and goofy  but your date will be out the door before she knows that.

5 Don't bother

You give up, you stop making an effort and worrying about it. This is part learned helplessness, part self-preservation as otherwise it risks defining you, becoming an obsession and having a bad effect on your mental health. And this is right  you are a world unto yourself, there is no reason why you have to be tied to someone else and there is plenty to enjoy about being single. Ironically, of course, being desperate to not be single makes you less attractive so not being bothered may be good strategy; in practice, though, the idea "It'll happen when you're not looking for it" is sadly not true because when you stop looking, as you do periodically for long periods of time, you basically don't meet anyone (see 1) or "try your luck" (see 2), so your singledom becomes entrenched.

Don't freak out

But perhaps I’m getting perilously close to offering “advice” here and I said I didn’t want to do that.

All I really want to say to all the single fellas (and ladies) who struggle for the above reasons is: Don’t sweat it. Don’t beat yourself up too much, don’t write off all members of the opposite (or same) sex as cruel and shallow shits, and don’t think it’s all your fault.

Being single is tough and modern dating often a ruthless and soul destroying pursuit. People are just shitty to each other when it comes to being respectful and considerate of the feelings of their potential or discarded matches. And also, as is very clear these days, no one really knows how to do it and there isn’t a right way to do it anyway, because everyone is different – so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

For the long-term single who doesn't want to be, your only “problem” is finding the right circumstances to meet the right someone, and being able to successfully navigate though that early awkward bit of a relationship without one of you freaking out and running away. That and the Herculean task of maintaining your self esteem through the rejections and apathy and patronising comments of your couple-friends.

When people look at you like you’re someone to be pitied and open their cake holes to dispense “what you need to do” platitudes, please laugh a light laugh and tell them, with the air of a wizened Vietnam vet: “You don’t know what it’s like out there, man.”

And if they persist, tell them, politely, to fuck right off.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Maps and tropes

In a matter of weeks I will be 40 and, actually, it feels about time – so much so that I am writing this blog post early.

The shift in world view from late twenties to mid-thirties I documented here but it’s now clear that was only half way through a decade-long process of jettisoning and upgrading youthful ideas and attitudes – and actually, that process is ongoing and will likely continue, until I lose my mind or turn up my toes, whichever comes first.

Trying to explain what feels different over these past four or five years is hard to pin down (there are hints of it here and here) though a lot is in line with the expected 'life begins' trope: I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have; I know myself better than I ever have; I have learned to value and enjoy the little things more; I give fewer shits about appearance, ego and cool; I have less patience with fluff, bluster and bullshit; I am much more inclined to view things pragmatically and with a calm scepticism than idealistically and emotionally; I have less faith in prevailing wisdom and the judgment of powerful people, because I have seen well-qualified authority figures make demonstrably bad decisions a few too many times; and I have discovered jazz, dressing with a colour palette and the joys of interesting architectural design.

But there's more, something more I'm still struggling to pin down...

The slow process of disillusionment

I started this blog in my early 30s and the tag line “Life: Or ‘the slow process of disillusionment’ as I call it” has been floating around on it for most of that time, supposed to be humorously downbeat but also heartfelt ­– it did feel like virtually everything I thought was true, good, exciting, reliable or even attainable in my youth was in the process of turning out to be more complicated, ambiguous, problematic or simply more mundane as adulthood progressed. Your childhood maps and expectations of the world slowly prove to be flawed and insufficient and you have to update them with amendments in untidy, ugly scrawl or chuck them away completely. How sad, I thought, but them's the breaks.

Then I thought that was a sad thing. Now I thinkThank God for that. If there’s one major thing I would like to point out about my 40-turning feeling it’s this – because if I hadn't got rid of those quaint old maps I'd have been stuck with them.

Because I have been noticing more and more and more in the past half decade how it’s not just me – everyone has these maps of what the world is supposed to be, ranging from basic childhood values to the received horse-sense of adult society – and all of it is a little cock-eyed, riddled with misleading myths and assumptions.

And in tandem with this I have been noticing more and more and more: The world is not how you think it is. Everything is more complicated than you are led to believe. Your maps and expectations are all wrong. Not just mine, not just yours – all of them.

Tropes

I still don't feel like I'm making myself clear enough. So: Let's talk about tropes. By which I mean recurring devices and themes in things like art and literature, especially salient today in film and television.

What happens when a car goes off the edge of a cliff in a film? It explodes. What happens when someone is dangling over an abyss but instead of climbing up to safety they try to reach for that golden amulet on the nearby ledge? They plummet to their death, the greedy nobs. What happens when an authoritarian society creates a 'game' for public entertainment, where people are forced to run or fight to the death? The participants band together and spark revolution, of course!

These recurring ideas and motifs can be anything from a common type of scene (the heroes peep over the edge of that rocky outcrop/hidden balcony to conveniently observe an evil ritual below that reveals the full horror of what is going on!); a basic pairing of things that always go together (aliens = ancient Egyptian imagery, right?); to a full-blown complex narrative (Google 'The Hero’s Journey').

These things are outlined in exhaustive and mind-boggling depth at the wonderful TV Tropes website, which says: “A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.”

In life also it can also be impossible to create a tropeless tale about how you think the world works. Because this stuff doesn’t just happen in entertainment, this is how we think in general ­– in our social interactions, our politics, our culture, our everyday expectations and judgements. Our lives are full of stereotyping, narratives we have invented or absorbed from the world around us, and unexamined 'zeitgeist' assumptions. Some are fairly overt and obvious, but others go unrecognised for what they are – nothing more than shortcuts and habits of thinking that may actually not reflect reality all that well. Because actually, in reality, the car most often doesn’t blow up; it just crunches and comes apart and that’s it.

Here be dragons

These tropes, of course, combine into maps of what the world should be like, whether dealing with politics, romance, religious belief, social shiz or even work or business. Of course these maps are useful, usually contain at least some identifiable truth, and we have to have them to get by and get around. But while some are better than others, not a single one of them is complete or sufficient (no matter what all those self help and 'get rich, happy, healthy and successful' guides may try to tell you) – how could they be? Because the world out there is more bizarre, diverse and complex than any guide-map can convey.

Treating these maps like they are complete and sufficient is often the source of endless trouble and grief. The SatNav is never the territory – yet often people seem to prefer gluing their eyes to that rather than looking at the damn road and learning to take it as it comes. I see people everywhere, all the time, sticking to their maps and coming at life full of some certain 'faith' that it is this way or that, that this will happen or that must happen... as the SatNav drives them off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

It’s not just that this attitude sets you up for disappointment, it sets you up for crisis – because when what you thought 'needed' to happen doesn’t, it’s a disaster – the entire world is cast as a dreadful hell because you can not even contemplate an alternative. All you have is what's on the map and “Here be dragons”. So when your map proves to be wrong – OMG, DRAGONS.

But the world is not a dreadful hell, it just is. Disappointment is a bummer, but if you think one scuppered plan ruins everything, you’re not looking properly. So it turns out life is not arranged around you having fun, or being successful and fulfilled all the time as your entitled destiny, after all. Boo hoo. That doesn’t mean you can never have fun or be fulfilled or successful, just that sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, these things never last forever and you probably have to keep working at it. And no one is immune from bad things repeatedly happening that you have to soldier though – that's not the end of a fulfilling life, it's grist to the mill of it.

The biggest misunderstanding of the field of cognitive psychology is the idea that it's all about positive thinking and telling yourself to be awesome and happy. Yes, we should regularly remind ourselves of the good things – but simply running away from reality and telling ourselves 'positive' fairy tales is not a great strategy for sustained and robust mental health. Getting a more flexible and up-gradable map, learning to read it properly and using it more in conjunction with the actual, real, road is a better one.

Raw, strange and crackling

For me, at 40, it seems life is bigger, more complex and crackling with mystery and possibility than I ever imagined in my earlier adulthood. It's huge, raw, strange and unknowable. It may be stable and calm enough to map out in the steady spots, but it strikes me as unimaginably varied and extreme at the edges. The very nastiest, bleakest stuff does happen. So does the most beautiful and sublime. A lot of the time neither makes its presence felt. But time and again, I've found, whatever you think things are like, they are not necessarily like that.

I honestly don’t know how to communicate this, and will have to keep on trying because I don’t think I’ve done it here at all. I look at younger people and despair to think: “My God, you have so much to go through, so much to do, to endure, to have happen before you can see this," which sounds utterly pretentious, I know. Maybe that’s how my parents look at me still.

Whatever, I’m now so much more wary of over-reliance on maps and tropes, especially those that other people have decided everyone else should adopt – I do not trust the judgement of those who are navigating life from an off-the-peg ideology or overly-embellished narrative, set in stone.

For me, at 40, there is no grand plan. My life’s work is now just to navigate through whatever happens, seeking out the enriching things while trying to avoid the awful stuff, dealing with what comes at me and pushing to keep the good things good or make the bad things a little better, step by step. And most importantly trying to understand it better and deeper as I go – because that is the one project that makes sense of it all to me, though a project that will never be complete, until I... stop. At which point, I 'spose, it stops with me. But let's see how far we get.

That's how I'm seeing things right now. I have no idea what is in store any more – and I really, really like that. To fall back on a hackneyed old trope: 'Life begins', indeed.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Thomas does a book review

Is it tragically romantic or are these people just mentally ill? That, for me, is the central question of Wuthering Heights, as my cynical and pragmatic near-40-year-old self wrestled with the yearning teenage goth I once was.

Don’t worry, I don’t plan to make a habit of literary musings on this blog and only thought this worthwhile ‘cos the Emily Bronte novel is such a well-known part of popular culture – and to my own surprise, what started as a whim of idle curiosity ended up with the novel engaging me in a way a book hasn’t for some time. And it’s all down to the psychology.

Fascinating is the word. It starts with a lurking sense of f***ed-up-ness, drawing you in with morbid curiosity in the manner of a HP Lovecraft short ­– with the discovery of an oddball pseudo-family who all hate each other, a ghost, and a gruff hard-man who cries. In fact the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are more like an MR James ghost story than anything, and it goes on to be as much stomach-clenching gothic thriller as romance.

It’s a Godawful family affair

The novel has a rep ­– it’s that one about the breathless, swoonsome, turbulent love-that-cannot-be between the fierce but flakey Cathy and the rugged-as-granite Heathcliff, on the spooky, windswept Yorkshire moors, isn’t it? A kind of dark and dour Romeo and Juliet?

That’s not the half it. Literally, the latter half the story is usually skimmed over by the films of it, and the deeply strange non-romance of Heathcliff and Cathy is only part of the slow-burning horror of Heathcliff’s revenge on everyone around him, which is what it’s really about.

The narration is split between the out-of-town gentleman Mr Lockwood, who stumbles upon the godawful family situation, and the life-long housekeeper Nelly, who fills in the history to him. Both are kind, sympathetic, intelligent and perceptive and both find the Heathcliff and Cathy business exasperating, frightening, sad and downright unhealthy – and it is clear this is to some extent also the author’s take. But it’s also clear Bronte has some empathy with the ferocity of the doomed pair's feelings, as they're so vividly drawn and explored. There is something seductive, alluring, even sweet, about their bond, which leaves you questioning what you actually feel about it – is it the one admirable saving grace of the awful pair? Or is it just bullshit?

My mother, who read The Heights in school, put it this way: You read it when you’re young and it’s so tragic and romantic; you read it when you’re older and you just want to shake everyone for being so daft, ugly and selfish. I think this puzzling contrast is precisely why I enjoyed it so much, because I can see both coming to it now, as a man whose world view has migrated very far from my teen and twenty-something self – I was that intense, sullen loner who listened to Nine Inch Nails and struck the tragic romantic martyr pose. The strength of the book is that it is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encourage such questioning, and I suspect that’s exactly how it was intended – not as an endorsement of any one take, but as an exploration of the baffling excesses of human nature.

Heathcliff and Cathy are never lovers

Of course a novel of this time is not going to have overt sexy sex in it; but beyond that Heathcliff and Cathy are simply not together, in a romantic way, at all as adults, despite the artistic licence of various film adaptations. I actually think this is utterly key to their strange relationship – they are more like siblings than they are lovers – at ease in each other’s company in a way they aren’t with other people, but also encouraged to cruel sniping and childishness – and their bond makes more sense seen with their early “terrible twins” relationship in mind. There is tenderness and kissing and hand-holding and bashful amorous looking in the book – but for the most part that's between other characters, not them, apart perhaps from their very final meeting when it’s all far too late.

No – what Heathcliff and Cathy are is two free-spirited adoptive siblings, set together against the world at an early age (and remember their “world” is only their family and servants). All their happy times together are as children, running away from the unhappy household, made bored and sad when forced apart from their playmate. This is why it makes sense that they hold onto this feeling that there is no one else in the world who could ever understand them like each other. But by the time they are in their mid teens, it’s like Hot Chocolate’s It Started With A Kiss – Cathy has already discovered other people (the Lintons) and that drives a wedge between them.

For the rest of the book their “romance” is a fantasy in each other’s respective heads, fuelled by not being together – in reality when they do fleetingly meet they are often arguing, misunderstanding and hurting each other, yet both grip, like a comfort blanket, to the idea they are somehow linked by the soul and cannot be happy without each other, even while doing this.

It’s more Greek tragedy than Shakespearian

Much can be made of the star-crossed lovers thing, as Heathcliff is socially out-of-bounds for Cathy, being adopted, of uncertain race, and degraded to the role of a semi-literate servant by the time they are coming of age. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. The pair may be sympathetic as children, but as adults they heap suffering on themselves through their own character flaws. In Greek tragedy that was a big thing – the protagonist is always some frightful Gawd-‘elp-us, with extreme pride, obsession, ideology, stubbornness or anger issues that you can see leading to trouble a mile off, and half the appeal is the anticipation of their inevitable gory demise because of it. This is basically the template of The Heights.

Young Cathy is certainly free-spirited enough to ignore the judgement of her family and elope with Heathcliff – she isn’t coerced to marry Edgar Linton instead, she actually wants to because she fancies him and is enamoured with the idea of being the local lady of the manor. She wants to have her cake and eat it, somehow thinking Heathcliff can come with her and will be fine with this. We know this will go tits-up from the moment she says it.

Heathcliff for his part royally screws any chance of being reconciled with Cathy later because, just as things seem to have found an uneasy balance where everyone can see each other and get along, he deliberately exploits and elopes with Edgar’s sister Isabella because he’s so obsessed with getting his revenge on the Lintons – without a thought for how that will also hurt Cathy. So much for romance. From that point on he’s a happiness-sucking black-hole bogey-man who spreads a thick blanket of shit over everything he comes within 10 paces of. He lives in self-imposed exile from any chance of contentment due to his own pointless revenge obsession.

Catherine is silly, insensitive, selfish and full-of-herself; Heathcliff is cruel, obsessive, greedy and empathy-deficient. It’s not a case of whether Heathcliff and Cathy would have been happy if it wasn’t for society’s rules, man – they bring their misery on themselves, by being themselves.

There are unwitting descriptions of clear mental health issues

A shocking total of 11 characters ­– more than two thirds of the “cast” – die from "illness" during the roughly 30 years covered. And no wonder the death toll is like a 1980s slasher flick when their grip on medical matters is so sketchy – “consumption” is mentioned once, "fever" a couple of times but generally people just die of being "ill", which seems to cover everything from having a cold to childbirth, as well as being in low spirits or having been out in the rain.

But the psychological observations are rather more ahead of their time. Every character has a set of well-drawn and unique dispositions, drives and demons, and how characters can be transformed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to them is a common theme. On top of that, Catherine and Heathcliff both exhibit clear mental health issues that are not so fanciful as they might first appear.

Cathy has "fits" that may or may not be for show, but are certainly self-induced, and goes out of her way to punish herself, lock herself away, disappear into reveries, self harm and refuse to eat. In the context of a 19th century romantic novel this might look melodramatic, until you realise that people actually do exhibit such behaviours when in crisis; and one wonders if Bronte had come across such rather than just making it up. In that light the standard response of "oh she's just after attention" or "she's just trying to get her way" looks shockingly inadequate.

Meanwhile Heathcliff shows cripplingly obsessive behaviour all round, not just in his feelings for Cathy. He gives his entire adult life over to the task of plotting to possess and ruin everything that belongs to the only two families he's ever known along with, of course, thinking 24/7 about Cathy – and continues both obsessions even 20 years after she, and later everyone who actually wronged him, is dead. No man was ever more in need of a distracting hobby. I mean sheesh, Heathcliff, whittle some wooden sheep or take up yodeling or something. This may seem like his character is superficially drawn, but it isn't, the book is very much interested in what is going on in the head of that strange fish.

And the guy also has suspiciously sociopathic tendencies, in that he just doesn’t seem to be able to empathise with anyone at all, treating everyone bar Cathy as an object to play with or despise. It never occurs to him that could be the source of his continued tortured misery, not the solution. With that in mind, while his occasional exhibitions of passion can stir the heart, I was just as tempted call "bullshit" on them – for example when he bangs on about Edgar being unable to feel like he does (so wild and deep and overwhelming is his love blah blah). How the shit would he know? What shred of real insight into other people’s emotions has he ever shown?

There is some cross-over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

But the suffering isn't all caused by Heathcliff. The story is a parable about the cycle of abuse passed down through generations. The Earnshaw dad treats his kids pretty shoddily towards the end of his life, especially Hindley; Hindley becomes master of the Heights, then treats his adopted brother Heathcliff, and later his own son Hareton, awfully; Heathcliff becomes master of the Heights and treats everybody who comes under that roof awfully. Nobody is ever happy for long in that accursed house, but Heathcliff shows no awareness his own project of nastiness is less a rebuttal and more an endorsement of the nastiness dished out to him. He's a hypocrite in that sense, and just not that self-aware, for all his Machiavellian manipulations.

There is also some cross over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here – in that you realise all of this is only happening because the Earnshaw family is so cut off, with only each other and the Lintons to obsess over and no outside influence to tell them this isn't normal and there are alternative ways of being. In that sense it stands in a long line of gothic horror that riffs on decadent, incestuous, mutated things-going-wrong due to prolonged rural isolation.

It’s the ghostly elements that validate the "romance" of it

Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that provide the book's sucker punch (as well as making a lot more sense of some Kate Bush lyrics). Sure, Bronte leaves any ghostly goings-on ambiguous, pooh-poohed by the narrators as just dreams, superstitious imaginings, sickly hallucinations – but she wouldn't have included them if you weren't supposed to consider “but what if...”

And just as you've written off the whole sorry "love" affair as the delusional and destructive BS of a couple of dickheads, you realise their souls were in fact united after death; their love was such a juggernaut it survived the flesh; and they both chose to shun heaven to be forever tormented together on the desolate moors – and that Nine Inch Nails-listening goth kid in me resurfaces and swoons "Oh!"

For a few seconds. Then you recall they were both such silly, nasty gits that, well, good riddance to them and maybe they could have just f***ed off together in the first place and saved everyone else the grief. I know love can be thus, but their "romance" is just too tunnel-visioned, strangely joyless and downright odd to really be held up as an example for anyone to want to emulate in the final account, I think.

The real romance is not Catherine and Heathcliff

Now the real romance of the story is that between the younger Cathy (Catherine and Edgar's daughter) and Hareton. Because it happens against the odds by a mutual effort of forgiveness and understanding – and blissfully succeeds in finally dissipating the storm clouds of decades, transforming years of cyclical abuse into something happy and healthy (that is, ignoring the fact that they are close cousins, beggars can’t be choosers y'know)... but I've already gone on too long, so read it yourself.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Music

"Without music, life would be a mistake" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

You’d think by now it would have ceased to surprise me, but if anything it just baffles me more these days: Why does music work? And, since I agree with Friedrich up there, why the hell does messing about with sound even matter, let alone matter so much to me? It’s as if its very presence in modern life is a constant reminder that the human world is not fundamentally based on rationality, but strange half-understood emotional impulses and ritualised behaviour. I mean it makes no sense does it? Why should the manipulation of tonal vibrations and rhythms be so powerful and beloved, to point its everywhere in society and the people who make it can be so prized and idolised?

That said, I know for many it’s really never much more than wallpaper to hum or dance to. I even struggle to explain it to people in my life, who hear me noodling around, once again, with this or that instrument or piece of machinery for no apparent end; or listen uncomprehendingly to maybe a minute from one of the dozens of hours of odd and jarringly disparate constructions I have spent so many days crafting... and say “that’s nice dear” or shrug “s’alright I 'spose”. I’ve accepted I have to say it’s a hobby, as if it simply occupies a place in my life like rollerblading or playing Pokemon Go. Of course, it is a hobby, it is, but...

I am nearly 40, long past the teenage tribalism of music-as-fashion-identity, long past any desire to get up on stage and strut my stuff, long past any dream of turning it into a career ­– all of this is virtually irrelevant now. Many of my contemporaries, even those who were seriously into their music, have to some extent left it partially behind by this stage, putting away the proverbial toys in the proverbial attic, while their listening has not gone much beyond what they loved when they were 25.

And yet, now, at the start of middle age, dicking about with noise and finding stuff to listen to is as utterly vital to me as ever, if not in resurgence. So what is this all about, if not an early midlife crisis?

Therapy

One of the reasons I value music so much now, as opposed to when I was 17, is for its therapeutic quality. That's more important now, with the stresses and strains of "adulting", than it was back then, when I was basically just dreaming of being a rock star. I seriously cannot recommend enough what a wonderful thing it is to be able to play an instrument, what a balm it is in the face of world-closing-in stress and black-fug-of-the-soul gloom.

Of course, on the one hand it is an expressive release to channel your feelings through your fingers and have it feedback into your ears – and songwriting has in the past acted as a very precise way of articulating what I was feeling and why, all wrapped up in a finely honed and quite pretty package, like spewing your thoughts out in a letter and analysing and refining them until you’re satisfied. It is satisfying and very cathartic, and you have a little proud gem of a creation to show for your troubles, to keep (and perhaps later cringe at) for all eternity.

But on another level just playing for just yourself is a kind of mindfulness, to use the parlance of our times. I love the fact that picking up an instrument and playing, for no particular end other than to enjoy it, puts you in a state of concentration that has nothing to do with work or practical worries, the pressures of the world, the current state of your bank balance or relationships, or whatever. For half an hour or so you are only concerned with producing a pleasing or interesting sound, and nothing outside of that matters. It’s the act of being-through-playing – it’s damn Zen, dammit, and I constantly forget just how much it clears my head and makes me feel better, bringing at least some degree of calm and content for a moment, along with the thankful knowledge that there is more to life than my current anxious obsessions – there is this too.

And if anyone is any doubt of how deeply playing an instrument can impact on your mental state, take a look at this shizz; or this.

For these reasons I would encourage anyone thinking of taking up an instrument to do it just for themselves – don’t worry about how good you are or how much you need to practice, just dabble in a meditative way on a regular basis and you will slowly find you can do more and more. Approach it not as work, but as exploring and playing.

Play

Without a doubt one of the central elements to my relationship with music is play – it’s not lost on me that getting a new piece of kit to play about with is about the only thing that gives me the same feeling as an adult as getting Lego when I was kid. Pieces of musical gear are big boys toys, yes, and I’m completely unrepentant about that. Again this works on lots of levels.

At the most basic there is the actual moulding and finessing of raw sound. With something like a synthesiser you can approach it in two ways – as an instrument to play, yes, but also as a straight sound-manipulation machine. I tell you, getting your hands on a proper synthesiser is like being handed a fresh piece of shiny, glittery Play Doh which you can kneed and sculpt to your heart’s content until you’ve got something ace. You can tweak away until a boring off-the-peg noise turns into something huge, or achingly atmospheric, or one type of sound completely changes into another – and then save it out and start all over again. Something similar can be said of messing about with effects pedals or recording techniques. It’s great fun, fascinating and exciting.

Then you can take up the instrument as an instrument and just noodle around in the therapeutic way described above, testing and exploring what accents, chords, rhythms and melodies you can coax from it, and when you hit on something that sounds good, keep doing it – the next thing you know you have pretty passage or wonderful riff that you can develop further... and before you know it you’re on your way to writing something. And all the time, you’re learning, practising, improving.

Finally, you can take these sounds, these passages and put them together like ingredients in a pot and see how they cook, as it were – one of the most satisfying things for me is the moment when, having roughly planned out the structure of a song and tried a few different things together, you actually record a few elements layered over each other and then play it back – and, if it works, suddenly it’s more than the sum of its parts; you’ve created something bigger and with more emotional guts and punch than the simple handful of riffs and noises you started with. It's sheer joy.

At every stage you are exploring and playing, checking what you can do and what works, learning and then doing it all again – it keeps your “inner child” alive and it’s got to be good for the plasticity of the brain.

*A note of caution with this approach, though, is that it probably explains a lot as to why I never attempted a music-related career or became seriously good at any one instrument – I may wish I could play piano properly but I was always much more interested in messing about with studio gear, doing bonkers, non-linear things with instruments and putting together songs, than I ever was with learning to read music and practising scales in any systematic way. I never wanted it to be work.

Mood

The older I get the more fascinated and awed I am with the raw stuff of music. For my money it’s the most direct and immediately affecting of the arts, but also one of the most abstract – even though I now know a lot about the tricks, techniques and building blocks of the stuff, there is still so much to learn.

It still seems like utter alchemy how the simple pairing of two or three or four notes, or the contrast of one chord changing to another, or just a tiny shift up or down the scale against a droning root note, can have such an immediate and visceral effect on the emotions. You can evoke the whole range of responses, from sadness to joy to unease to warmth to rage to surprise to surging triumphalism, by a simple shift of the fingers, by changing tensions on groups of strings or the size of resonant chambers – and the effect it has is mind boggling, sheer magic. The same can be said of the sounds themselves, different textures, timbres and resonant frequencies, along with rhythms and tempos.

Why it is so utterly effective at mood manipulation is mysterious, but certainly has something to do with innate responses – such as the (probably) in-born discomfort and alarm at discordant or sudden sounds, related to danger or the crying of an infant, say... or the soothing effect of the mother’s heart beat in the womb, maybe. Certainly the preference for sonic harmony seems to be a universal trait.

Other responses are learnt, particularly the pairing of certain instrument sounds with the time and place they were most used (note everything with a Fender Rhodes electric piano in it immediately sounds like the 1970s) or the pairing of songs with what was happening in your life at the time (an otherwise cheesy ballad can attain deeply affecting grand pathos forevermore if it was on the radio when you split up with a childhood sweetheart or lost a beloved pet, for example).

What’s more, these relatively straightforward responses can then be played with and built upon in ever more complex ways, so you can find yourself enjoying uncomfortable discord if used in the right context, to evoke pleasingly empathetic anguish, righteous anger, or anarchic spirit; or re-imagining a familiar chord progression, melody, or band sound into something new and different, while still riffing on the emotions the original version provoked.

All of this combines to mean certain genres – instrument combinations, styles of playing, song structures, production techniques and other musical tropes and ticks – can be massively evocative of whole worlds. You can be transported to a baroque-period German cathedral, or an English seaside ballroom in the 1930s, or a San Francisco jazz club in the 1950s or a sticky-floored gig in Manchester in 1979, or downtown New York at the same time, or somewhere on a Polynesian island at an indeterminate time in the past, or even THE FUTURE, but how it looked in the 1980s. The sound tells a story, and an immersive one, and that’s a large part of its appeal.

It’s got to be said there is a degree of escapism about this, as there is with a lot of art – but also, as with a lot of art, it reminds you there is so much more to the human world and human history than your own time and place and everyday obsessions. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your bureaucracy.

Metaphor

It is a wonder that music (or art in general) exists at all and continues to hold such an unquenchable fascination and central place in human society, I suppose. On the surface it would seem there is little rational about it, no obvious practical purpose. But then again, through the abstract manipulation of sound we can represent the world in metaphor and powerfully communicate things we struggle to articulate in words alone.

We like to think our actions are motivated by reason and logic but that, to me, has always seemed like a laughable pretence; no, the world and people’s activity is made up of an impenetrably complex web of innate and learnt reactions and gut drives, constantly pinging off each other and feeding back again and again until it’s hard to see what is what. The rational is but a thin veneer on the top, like glib lyrics sung over a minor masterpiece.

Music is perhaps an abstract metaphor for all of this activity, the complexity of the world in microcosm: Endlessly adaptable, infinitely complex in its history and interplay, expressing and provoking the full spectrum of mood, and modes of being. Spanning all human history and culture, it is a mirror of us – and of life itself. I’m not sure what we would be if we took it away.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Shame. Shame. Shame.

1. Back to the playground

We were about 11 years old and queued up for something at school when one of the confident, popular lads took his digital watch off and smelled the strap.

“Urgh” he went and proceeded to get everyone around him to smell the sweaty rubber. I smelled it. And I said something to the tune of: “Urgh, that smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

There was a moment of silence. It was an odd thing to say. I thought it was funny (I was 11) and also thought it was fairly uncontroversial – come on, now, we all know that smell, right? We’ve all caught an unfortunate whiff when going about our ablutions before washing our hands, yeah? If I was 16 and into edgy gross-out humour I might have said “That smells like arse crack!” and might have got a laugh (we would have been 16).

But I was 11, and I said: “That smells like your fingers do when they’ve been up your bum.”

I said it. And after the beat of uncertain silence, the confident, popular lad roared with laughter and said: “He puts his fingers up his bum and then smells them.”

Everybody gasped in horrified glee and slowly it worked its way down the line – Urgh! He LIKES putting his fingers up his bum! And he LIKES smelling them! He’s gross! He’s smelly! He’s a pervert!

I tried to explain myself but it only made matters worse. They weren’t interested in my mitigation. And how could I take it back? I’d said it, it was a matter of public record. So for the next few weeks I was the “bum fingers” kid, and just had to suck it up. What had happened was that the quiet, weedy, arty guy had said something weird and it was gift – everyone was just ripe and itching to jump on it, to have someone to taunt and feel better than. I’d walked right into that role.

On the scale of bullying that is a pretty silly and inconsequential example, of course – I could have used much more extreme and traumatic examples that I saw, received or even took part in dishing out from those awkward, anxiety-filled early years, but let’s keep it light eh? – the point is that kind of situation was utterly everyday and banal in the playground.

As you grow up you think things are different and you won’t ever go back to that. While talking about introversion (here), I said: “Having spent much of my childhood feeling vaguely threatened and misunderstood by pretty much everyone except my immediate family and closest friends, I slowly discovered that communication was a kind of super-power – to be able to explain yourself, articulate your case and express what the hell was going on in that inner world of yours was a transformative skill to develop,” – and I still feel that. But recently I’ve begun having doubts about the universal effectiveness of that super-power, because I’m starting to see plenty of cases where, both online and in the media, it doesn’t count for shit.

I am of course talking about public shaming – where someone says something a little offensive or ill-advised and are met with a tsunami of outrage and anger, from howls of cackling derision, to calls for them to be stripped of their job and title, to full-on threats of extreme violence and death (often sexual, if female).

The victim's original comment may have been a bit unpleasant, a bit inappropriate, and not something I’d condone or sympathise with, so it took me a while to pin down why the outraged response troubled me so – and it’s that, up there. The playground fear. The realisation that you’re just one unwise quip away from public humiliation and ruin.

It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t what you meant. It doesn’t matter if what you said doesn’t really represent what you think, feel or who you are. It doesn’t matter what the intended tone or context originally was. Explanation or logical argument can’t repair it – if what you said could possibly be taken as the kind of thing we might imagine a truly awful person could say, then you are that monster in the eyes of the world now, with no chance of redemption.

Because those doing the shaming are no more interested in the reality, subtlety and humanity behind an utterance than kids in the playground – what they want is a scapegoat to make an example of, to suffer and then disappear, so everyone else can go home feeling righteous and superior. If the mob wants to tear you down, it will tear you down, blind to all reason, nuance and the facts of the matter.

2. The new moral majority

I remain deeply, deeply suspicious of the motivations of righteous rage – most of the time I simply don’t buy it as this pure and noble thing we’re supposed to accept it as. It’s not humble or fair-minded, it’s cruel and disingenuous. There’s always a whiff of “casting the first stone” lack of self-awareness about it. As Nietzsche put it: “No one lies as much as the indignant do.”

I was going to write something on this topic anyway, but then I read Jon Ronson’s excellent “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” and it kind of covers it – but at the same time has made the matter crystal clear in my head. This kind of mass group-shaming is just vile, and not a little bit scary.

One thing I kept thinking while reading that book is how people just love pointing the finger. They get off on having their little inner tyrant unleashed to lord it over others, while at the same time feeling that’s fine because they are justified and holy, right is on their side and everyone approves. We look to others for what is acceptable, and so when everyone starts attacking it suspends the usual social norms of being polite and forgiving – or actually considering the victim as a human being – while rewarding us with praise for joining in, egging us on. Add online anonymity and the short attention span of internet interaction to that and you can be as vile and violent as you like, with no need to consider that you don’t know the context and subtleties behind what was originally said.

And the fall-out for the victim of a shaming is not all over and forgotten quickly as it is for the perpetrators. Towards the end of Ronson’s book, he interviews Michael Fertik who runs reputation.com, a company which works to bury online shamings and damaging Google results for clients. Fertik responds to criticism that he’s “manipulating truth and chilling free speech” by saying:

“But there is a chilling of behaviour that goes along with a virtual lynching. There is a life modification... People change their phone numbers. They don’t leave the house. They go into therapy. They have signs of PTSD. It’s like the Stasi. We’re creating a culture where people feel constantly surveilled, where people are afraid to be themselves... This is more frightening than the NSA. The NSA is looking for terrorists. They’re not getting psychosexual pleasure out of their schadenfreude about you.”

Ronson himself says the early days of social media, where people thought they could be themselves and say anything to anyone, had proven to be naive: the sensible tactic these days it seems is to be as bland as possible online.

“The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. We are now turning it into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless,” he said.

Certainly I don’t want a society where one off-the-cuff remark can override everything else you ever did or said and cost you your career, reputation, friends and mental well-being if the mob decides to turn on you.

The irony is that much of this is being done in the name of liberalism, as those shamed are often perceived as transgressing against modern progressive values in some way – caricatured as the worst kind of backwards-thinking, overprivileged, oppressive dinosaur whether they actually are or not. Broadly speaking I’m also a progressive liberal, dammit, and to me this just seems a complete betrayal of that – the shouty moral majority used to be the ultra-conservative right wing. Us liberals thought we’d largely vanquished that kind of knee-jerk Mary Whitehouse censorship nonsense, for a more open-mined, diverse society. But no: now the shouty moral majority is us.

3. Paradoxical behaviour

Western culture in the new millennium is deeply confused about this stuff, with weird and wild extremes going on. On the one hand we have never been more accepting of the shocking, “edgy” and extreme, and love to wax worthy about the importance of freedom of speech and the right to offend and be offended. At the same time we love to destroy the lives of anyone who says anything that even resembles something we deem “not cool”, even if the comment itself was the kind of thing you hear average people say everyday, and actually fairly inconsequential.

It’s completely unremarkable to guffaw on a week night at, say, South Park, Family Guy, Bo Selecta (back in the day) or a Frankie Boyle gig, pushing the boundaries of taste and acceptability... and yet a single slightly off-colour tweet, even if clearly intended as absurd or ironic, can end someone’s career.

Ronson covers in-depth the example of a woman who was reduced to a jobless, scared, numb, shell-like recluse for the sake of a picture at a war memorial where she pretended to shout and flip the bird next to a “silence and respect” sign (not actually shouting or intending disrespect, note, but just as a visual pun). She was so demonised and hounded online that it flooded any Google search for her name for years to come, while death threats and outrage continued unabated... and meanwhile the Sex Pistols, who wouldn't have thought twice about such a stunt and would have meant it, are currently being lauded as a beloved cultural institution in exhibitions across London for the 40th anniversary of punk.

This is paradoxical behaviour, it just doesn’t stack up. Now I know there is an argument to be made about the licence of entertainers and artists to say things us everyday working drones who have to toe the line cannot, but the hugeness of the disparity is mind boggling.

4. Telling the difference

People are often silly and ignorant, yes, and often need it pointing out that what they joke about can be hurtful and perpetuate ingrained inequalities – but they don’t deserve destroying for that. We have to be able to tell the difference between someone who proudly publishes Mein Kampf and someone who is making a quip without considering how it might sting; between Roosh V and some immature college geek thinking he’s being ironic. Or, as Ronson points out, a battle for civil rights and a “nasty imitation” witch-hunt. The response has to be proportionate, or we're lost.

People say stupid things in jest all the time. It doesn’t mean that’s what they really think in their sober moments. Neither does it mean that’s an indication of how they would personally treat actual people ­– in fact the shock of that mismatch is often the very joke itself. And yet we pretend we don’t know this. Why? Because we want someone to pounce on, point and shout at, to feel righteous over and superior to.

Ages ago I did a silly post about telepathy where I argued that if we knew the contents of everyone’s thoughts we would not be able to maintain our social judgements based on appearance and public presentation any more: “We would all have to become inconceivably more understanding and forgiving of others if we were going to be party to everyone’s inner-most secrets and feelings all the time,” I said.

To some extent social media has created a world where the kind of off-the-cuff, unfiltered contents of our heads, that previously only our friends and family might hear, can now be instantly displayed to everyone all over the world, as immortal pronouncements carved in code. We still haven’t got to grips with that, neither as writers nor readers – both those of us spewing out thoughts and those of us judging them may have to modify our behaviour. Sure, we should be more mindful about what we say, but equally we cannot judge a tweet or facebook status like a carefully-planned and edited publication.

On shaming I am now off the fence. Unless there is a genuine injustice to be urgently addressed with an actual victim, as Ronson puts it, I’m not up for this shaming lark at all – it’s not redemptive, there is no positive outcome for anyone, just vileness upon vileness until everyone is angry, damaged and numb. And if I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest we all stop and think if it’s really fair, necessary and worth doing before we lay into anyone online, or at least think about how we should go about it and why we are doing it.

Do you actually know what this person is about? Can you be sure you are being fair to them and the spirit and context this was said in? Do you really know what the effect on their lives could be and do you actually want that? Have you never said anything a bit risque and ill-advised that could be taken as a bit dicey - could the mob not one day just as easily turn on you? I mean to say, for Chrissakes, that guy that the Christians like said it 2,000 years ago: "Let him who is without sin..."

Thursday, 23 June 2016

"A man who salsa dances"

Those who know me even vaguely know that dancing and I are not two things you associate. Me and tirades on dark German metaphysics, yes; me and fancy footwork, no. Me and comedy awkwardness, sure; me and serious sashaying, doubt it. Me and fluid, coherent, sexy prose, perhaps; me and fluid, coherent, sexy moves, uh-uh. So the fact that I ended up in salsa class – once and once only – was as much a shock to me as anyone.

In my attention-seeking uni days my strategy was to hit the floor with limbs flailing and feet jumping in the most outlandish display I could muster, that would inevitably descend into either fits of laughter or minor physical injury, more Dadaist protest than co-ordinated rhythm; since then I am the one nodding at the back at gigs, only putting my hands half-way up in the air, like I just do care, and pulling the terrified gurn and frozen muscles when someone suggests I need to get up at a wedding do.

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to be someone with the effortless coiled-spring poise, light touch and physical ease of a dancer, but then I’d also like to be capable of levitation ­– and the fact that neither of these things is the case doesn’t trouble me that much day-to-day.

No

The idea was first mooted on a weekend walk with some friends, when one of the group said she was thinking of going and wanted someone to go with, turning to us with the challenge “The problem is they don’t have enough men.”

“Let’s stop this right here – I am NOT going salsa dancing,” was my unequivocal response, and that was that.

I am not ready to be “a man who salsa dances”, I said. To me that means one of two things: either you are a lean, athletic, swarthy, confident, ostentatious type, who just has to let the rhythm out – which I am patently not (the rhythm is fine kept in with me, thanks) – or you are a bored, middle-class white person of a certain age who has watched Strictly and is desperate to show the ladies that you do, in fact, have some heretofore unsuspected Latin passion bubbling away under your pudgy, middle-class-white-person-of-a-certain-age exterior. I could be that man. And I really didn’t want to be.

So there

A few weeks later a second female friend, who had been on the walk, messaged me to say “Salsa tomorrow. Are you coming then?”

Hadn’t she heard me? Ah, but there "could be ladies there", she said, which was a rotten power-move. You see now, if I said “no”, I wasn’t just saying “sorry it’s not for me”, I was saying “I am a miserable hermit spinster who just isn’t interested in making any effort to get out of the house and meet anyone, so I better not whinge about being on my own ever again because it’s my own fault.” Do you see what she did there?

I said no.

A (one) sexy lady

She went along, and told me there was "a" sexy lady there – imagine it! – and also said it was really good fun and very relaxed, and I caved. What could it hurt? If nothing else I could enjoy being amusingly awkward and uptight and making dryly humorous comments throughout, I thought. It could be fun to be that man, I'm used to being him.

It was only when I told people I was going to do it that it became clear there really is something in this men are from Mars, women are from Venus bullshit. The polarity of the responses was marked. Virtually every woman I told gave me a variation of “Oooooh, you must go!” and virtually every man said “WTF? Why? Who even are you?”

When I arrived I was already sweating from the walk there and half expecting an hour or two of excruciating embarrassment, fumbling and bumbling about with various partners who would be throwing daggers at me as I awkwardly broke all my personal space rules as stiffly and sexlessly I could while failing to put anything where it should be at the right time.

Yes

But I was pleasantly surprised ­– there were a lot of people of all ages and types milling about, many complete novices, some serious enthusiasts, mostly completely normal looking. To start with it was all just footwork, first in big group as a warm up, then in sub-groups by ability. My friend was there, who reassuringly was still no dancer either – she more regularly dances like a 10-year-old at a birthday party and once got into some heat at a disco when her boyfriend had to explain to the woman next to her that she wasn’t taking the piss, she always busted moves like that.

So it was comfortable and fun and it was eminently do-able. A bit of practice and the scales fell from my eyes that this is what it’s all about, all just timing and posture, and with repetition and the right music I could feel the basics falling into place already. It was muscle memory, really, no different to playing guitar, which I can do. There was the odd moment when I had to try to explain that I wasn’t tensing my shoulders unnaturally, that’s just what they are like all the time, but my “witty” self-deprecating comments largely met with no response at all – this was serious business, and I guess they got nervous wise-guys trying to quip their way out of embarrassment all the time.

There was only one terrifying bit. In the big-group “free dance” at the end, the main guy would shout “change partners” every few minutes and I would be left in the middle of the floor flailing for someone, anyone, to grab me, feeling like I was back in PE class being the last to be picked... at which point I would have to plead with my new partner that “I can’t lead, I know nothing!” – a scenario which only needed me to notice I had no trousers on to be identical to a recurring anxiety dream – but I got through it.

What I really began to see was just how much this could help me improve things like balance, posture and physical confidence, as well as being a pleasant and relaxed social pursuit... this could be a good, healthy thing, I thought, never mind any pretensions of “Latin passion” or learning great floor-moves.

Then again, maybe not

The next week none of us friends could make it, but we agreed to go the week after. However, in that time I met and started dating someone by a route that had nothing to do with my dancing ability, to which, of course, one of my male friends’ responses was: “Well you know what’s good about this – you don’t have to go salsa dancing any more!”

It’s true, I haven’t been back. But that’s as much a matter of not having the time as anything – I didn’t feel the relief he thought I might have. It’s kind of a shame.

Sure, I also don’t have a raging urge to repeat my tiny taste of this other reality where I am “a man who salsa dances” either, but who knows – one day I might be persuaded again. Cha cha cha.