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Saturday, 10 January 2015

Ripping the p*** ~ or ~ in defence of humour and scepticism in the face of righteous rage

***I wrote this snappily-titled post about a year ago, in fact exactly one year to the day before the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I never posted it as it was a bit 'serious-serious' and I'd only just done a post on bigotry. But given the events of this week, seems timely and relevant - particularly the final sweary line, given who was killed and why. For my feelings on the Paris events, this article by Harry Kunzru had me nodding in recognition, and was what reminded me I had written the following.***

Former British POW Col John Lawrence to Japanese POW, about to be executed, Sgt Gengo Hara: “You are the victim of men who think they are right... Just as one day you and captain Yunoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is of course that nobody is right.”
– Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, 1983

THOSE of us who habitually approach things in an uncertain, cautious or sceptical way often get stick for it – for sitting on the fence, for not throwing ourselves into a cause, for being cynical, downbeat or negative when harassed by go-getting motivational pressure. But, while as a modern human being I accept that I am a mess of flaws, failings and dysfunctions, I do not count this tendency as one of them. It is clearly linked to some of my less appealing qualities – it doesn’t exactly spur me on to grasp opportunities to the full and make my voice heard above all others – but I will defend it.

Steel shutters

When I was a kid in the 1980s, there was often anger and strife in the media and in the world around me, just as there is today. The troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, Thatcherism, strikes, general moral outrage from the likes of Mary Whitehouse. Always a little off in my own quiet world (what’s changed?) I was baffled and distressed by it all – of course I was, I was a child, with no hope of understanding then what it was all about, nor any hope of having any input into whatever shitstorm I was witnessing – but I at least had a vague grasp that there was something heavy, something wrong, that had caused the disagreement.

But there were some cases where anger and strife turned into something else – something terrifying and utterly alien to me. That moment where you realise the person working themselves into a lather is not simply getting emotional or showing assertive resolve – no, they have completely switched into another mode. A mode where communication is only one way, where they are so utterly, utterly convinced that they are right – and righteous – that nothing anyone says will get past the steel shutters they have pulled down around themselves, and they may as well not be in a dialogue at all. Inside those steel shutters is more steel – brutal, rigid, utterly black and white, serious as hell and all-consuming. Outside almost everything is THE ENEMY, contemptible and not worth engaging with, except in open warfare.

I was probably about 12 when I decided that that mindset – no matter what the cause or argument – was nothing less than a vision of evil. When those kind of people start throwing their weight around, ugliness, tragedy and horror is likely to follow.

Of course I was naive – as I grew up and realised the intractable complexity of the world and its politics, I thought perhaps it was me being a little rigid and extreme in that view – I didn’t then understand the very real grievances that make people act like that, and that those “kind of people” surely don’t think and act like that all the time. Maybe that behaviour is all just down to the heat of the moment after all. But I still think I was onto something – perhaps it’s not about a “kind of” person, but rather a state of being that people can get into. Whatever, seeing someone in that state is something I still recoil from in extreme distress, suspicion and horror, still no matter what the cause.

Righteous rage

In my student years it would even turn me off causes I had a natural affinity with to see them hijacked by people working themselves into a shrill, shouty, righteous rage about them – whether in print, in music or at demonstrations. Good grief, I’d think, we’re supposed to be the good guys, we’re supposed to be better than this. Why are we putting our fists in the air in salute and chanting jingoistic slogans like brainless drones? I guess, I thought dejectedly, because subtle, reasoned debate doesn’t get heard. What a shit for humanity.

The most salient and obvious examples of this kind of behaviour are the terrifying proponents of extreme ideologies – in which category I’d put totalitarian dictators, patriotic warmongers, violent terrorists and agitators, race-hate thugs, fire-and-brimstone religious extremists or anyone, really, calling for intolerance and death on a perceived demographic. They are essentially putting an ideal of “their people” and how they want the world to be above actual people and how the world actually is.

But aside from those noisy and threatening examples, you come into contact with smaller scale versions every day, from soap-box Nimbyism to puffed-up in-group jingoism, to them-and-us thinking and po-faced bluster in general. To me it undermines someone’s credibility immediately to see them acting in such a hysterical, inflexible way – I don’t give two shits about their “passion” and their “strength”, it’s not something to be admired.

Because this sort of outlook is at once too narrow – everything is judged and distorted by an obsession with one issue, there is no appreciation of the wider context, or an honest approach to dealing with the complexity of the arguments; but on the other hand it is too general – it pays no attention to the subtleties of the situation or variety of opinion, instead preferring to caricature, vilify and over-simplify, which makes things much easier if you want to appear unambiguously right and call people to arms.

Humour and humanity

And a key indicator is the lack of humour - a healthy irreverence, sense of irony and the absurd is, for me, a sign of intelligence and humanity. It’s all too often mistaken for simple sneering or piss-taking, but there is a difference between cynicism for the sake of it – bitter, bullying and condescending – and the more gentle but persistent pricking of grand pomposity and po-faced pretension, the humanising reality check. The latter acts as a buffer against getting caught up in such ever-so-earnest, unquestioning idealism, and means you never stop seeing people as just people.

A sense of humour about serious issues is not a sign you’re not taking them seriously – it’s a sign you recognise no one is infallible, life is never perfect, and there is always some shoddiness and absurdity inherent in everything and everybody – including yourself. Forget that and we are left in a world where everything is serious and angry and what follows is intolerance and brutality.

But it’s important to criticise the attitude, the behaviour, not simply the people displaying it. I say that not for touchy-feely namby-pamby reasons, but because it’s crucial to my argument – the whole problem as I see it lies in not treating others as rounded human beings. The hallmark of this kind of behaviour is removing yourself from genuine, everyday one-on-one human interaction and instead treating those you disagree with as either a faceless “them” or exaggerated monsters in the case of individuals. And it’s precisely in the gap between the complex reality of everyone’s various lives, troubles, wants and needs and the single-issue “just crusade” that any hope of understanding and empathy is lost.

A wonderful case where the opposite happened is at the York mosque in 2013, where angry EDL demonstrators were served tea and biscuits and invited inside for a game of football by the faithful. It was an instant diffuser, short-circuiting the puffed-up self-righteous urge of the protesters – if they had met them instead with a similarly self-righteous, angry response it would have done nothing but escalate the situation and no one would have gone home happier or wiser. Nothing would have been resolved. Of course, a game of football is not going to make the underlying issues or dispute go away, but at least it opens a channel for calm communication and a foot in the door for reason and understanding.

Rip the piss

We need people of conviction, yes. If all of us were cautious, sceptical, irreverent, fence-sitters nothing would ever get done, no one would ever show leadership, no fight would ever be won. But we need the cautious and irreverent also, to keep those convinced they are right in check, to add intelligence and nuance to the gung-ho drive, to ground them in reality, cool them down and make them see beyond their single-minded obsessions – to humanise them.

People who are convinced they are right – who will not laugh at themselves, will not meet you half way, will not recognise any other opinion or way than their own, on their terms... don’t tolerate them. Respond with the pinch of salt, the open ear and the calm cup of tea. And if they still don’t lighten the f*** up, rip the piss out of those po-faced f***ers mercilessly.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Manners maketh the man

Salty cabbage

“Yeah she’s not for me though,” said my friend, “she’s very sweet, but there are just these little things you notice, like – when you’re in a restaurant she puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

There was a silence from me.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“She puts salt on her food before she’s tasted it.”

“Ok. And?”

More silence.

“It’s extremely rude,” he said.

Another pause from me.

“Is it? WHY?!

“It is. It’s the height of rudeness.”

“To the chef maybe," I spluttered, aghast, "Why the hell are you offended? How’s it hurting you? What do you mean?!

At this point, I have to admit I was rather taken aback at my own outrage. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was feeling it, but it certainly had something to do with flashbacks to being a timid, bewildered small child, ever terrified about making some terrible social faux-pas or another that I'd been told by some pedantic tight-ass was critically important to not being a despised figure of ridicule and shame; that I later came to realise, much to my annoyance, was absolute f***ing bullshit.

“I mean to say," I said, "this is one of the bizarrest deal-breakers I’ve ever heard. Why do you give a shit? Why is having the general rule ‘I like my food salty, I’ll put salt on everything’ any ruder than tasting it first and going ‘urgh, no, not enough salt’?!”

It’s got to be said I’d be hard pressed to come up with something that mattered less in my choice of mate than whether she tasted her food before she decided to add salt. In fact I had simply not considered the matter would ever arise in a dating scenario. I felt dreadfully naive all of a sudden.

My friend said, indignantly, “Well, maybe I’m just a very well mannered man. It’s not a deal-breaker, it just makes me think ‘oh no, she's one of those people’."

I’m one of those people,” I said.

“Oh.” he said.

I’m not quite one of those people. I often don’t bother with table salt at all and know better than to load something carefully prepared in a fancy restaurant with the stuff. But certainly I have done it automatically, especially when younger, especially at home and especially with certain foods I know I like a bit of salt on (chips, steak, cabbage. Yes, I like salty cabbage).

Camp tantrum

I tried to explain to him that for many people this was just pure habit, from growing up in families where that’s just what you do when tea rocks up at the table – throw a dash of salt, maybe pepper, maybe vinegar on the meal before tucking in.

It may be a little old fashioned, a little pre-“food revolution” (ugh); it may be a little unthinking, unrefined and not exactly the sign of a distinguishing foodie palette; but what it isn’t, is a slur on the competence of the cook. One could imagine a highly-strung Michelin-starred chef throwing a camp tantrum over the unwashed punters ruining his/her meticulously balanced creation by smothering it in unnecessary sodium, but he/she'd be an arse. Let people eat the food they’ve paid for how they want, for crying out loud – or do as some restaurants do and just don’t put salt on the table. I get it, y'know, you can lead a horse to water etc, but you shouldn't take it personally.

Ok, my friend admitted, so it wasn’t the most offensive thing in the world, just a sign of basic uncouthness. But it got me thinking about manners in general and the million little silly bits of etiquette that I – all right, perhaps mistakenly – tend to think just don’t matter.

I will defend myself. I am the first to admit that I am probably regularly thoughtless, selfish, dismissive, abrupt, half-arsed, immature, irritable or just hard work, though I am virtually never deliberately rude. Most of my transgressions come from either being too wrapped up in myself, too tired, stressed, rushed or pressured, or simply socially unsure and awkward on any given occasion. On the other hand I know that when I’m on form I can be much more patient, reasonable, affable, empathetic, helpful and just damn nice than a hell of a lot of people I know. The bolshy, mercenary bastards.

But I do have a deep-seated disdain for po-faced rule-keeping and ritual, for judgemental airs and graces and unquestioning tradition-following of all kinds.

The most compelling wisdom I ever heard about dinner etiquette, from the mouth of veteran butler no less, is that it should not fundamentally be about endless unfathomable customs and rules at all – etiquette is first and foremost about putting your guests at their ease. If your rules are causing your guests to feel uncomfortable, intimidated or alienated, that is rude of you.

The power of correct and proper protocol

I tend to think if something is rude it is because of the effect - if it puts others out, causes discomfort, distress or upset. If breaking some “rule” doesn’t do any of those things, that rule is clearly serving no purpose – and can be disregarded as some bullshit dreamt up by some fussy anal-retentive to wield the power of “correct and proper protocol” over the uninitiated.

Frankly we would all breathe a sigh of relief to see the back of such nonsense. Such customs are the manners version of the split infinitive in language, a so-called grammar “rule” which some sticklers continue to bafflingly adhere to because it is supposedly “correct” (it isn’t) - despite the fact it often makes sentences more confusing and clunky, not less.

Futhermore: It’s got to be said that while, yes, some rude behaviour is clearly just mean, vile, nasty, selfish and even abusive, to some extent it does take two to take offence – by which I mean we are always involved and complicit in the amount to which we let things affect us. In the case of the small stuff particularly, one person’s indignant outrage is another’s shoulder shrug. We don’t have to obsess about these things, and could all be a little more forgiving and cut each other a bit more slack, man.

Anyway, I’ll shut up now, I don’t want to over-salt the broth.

(Ok, that pun needed a little salt.)

(Ok, so did that one. Don’t rub salt in the wound.)