Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Laughing at ourselves
(Robert Burns, (1759 - 1796), 'To a Louse')
Hundreds of thousands of people have joined an online ‘petition’ that Donald Trump not be admitted to the UK (tho’, as far as is known, he has no plans at present to come here). This is on account of his publicly-expressed views on Muslim immigration into the US. As a result, he has already been denied various privileges; in Scotland, and perhaps elsewhere.
And thousands have ‘petitioned' that the new UK heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Tyson Fury, should be barred from the BBC’s sports personality of the year competition because of his publicly-expressed views on sex, gender, religion and much else. So far our monochrome, politically correct BBC has not pulled the plug. No doubt Mr Trump will not be arranging a trip to visit the UK in the near future, nor will Mr Fury win this particular contest. Safe predictions.
I have no stake in either of these petitions, nor am I mentioning them simply on account of the way they have the effect, deliberate or not, of narrowing down conversation, if not of making certain topics taboo. But I would like briefly to mention one or two questions not that such as these close down, but that they raise. Not about the petitions, but about the petitioners.
Besides the consequence of influencing public opinion in the short term, and the particular causes that such petitions generally favour, what is of equal or of more interest is the psychoIogy or the morality of the petitioners. No doubt what the they petition about may raise important moral principles, while at the same time making discussion of them more, not less, difficult. They are not a contribution to discussion, but silencers of it.
But what I wonder is this: do the box-tickers (that should be, I suppose, 'button-pushers') ever smile at themselves, even as they protest? Or do they live lives of 24/7 seriousness and solemnity? The American journalist H.L. Mencken once remarked that the definition of puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. Are the petitioners a new generation of Mencken puritans, virtue-signalling for all their worth, but glumly and with tight lips. But if they do smile, do they ever smile at themselves?
Blasphemy was once a crime, then it was bad bad taste, and now, at a time when the current PM can publicly allow himself to take the name of the Saviour in vain, (to curse, as used to be said), not even that. In the course of these changes in public mores, Christian people have had to learn to laugh at themselves (or they should have), to put up with The Life of Brian (remember it?) and with blaspheming media more generally, and to cursing more generally. They have had to learn to smile and to be polite, when all the while their hearts ache. They have learned by experience what we were told some time ago, that to be angry does not work the righteousness of God. Christians have had to learn not to take themselves seriously even as they are mocked by others. Otherwise, in 2015, madness would beckon. Besides encouraging modesty, of not thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to, laughing at oneself has an oddly calming effect, doesn’t it? Haven't tried it? It is recommended.
Besides encouraging modesty, this change - from supporting imprisonment for blasphemy to laughter at it and to smiling at oneself - is a good development, don’t you think, whatever its costs? For always to get one’s way is surely corrupting. That’s why young children are restrained from throwing everything out of the pram and taught to recognize that ’no’ differs from ‘yes’ and from ‘sometimes’. There are occasions when youngsters have to put up with what they don’t like, despite the odd tantrum. It is an important part of growing up. The ability to laugh at oneself is another part.
I suppose on-line petitions might be compared to the tantrums or foot-stamping. For neither the world-view of Muslims nor that of current virtue-signallers appears to encompass the idea that there are folk who take another view than theirs, and who find this and that feature of their ethical outlook, or their political views, amusing. To Muslims, cartoons of the prophet and jokes about beards are not funny. Is anything funny? (Do current efforts to acclimatise the Muslim population include sessions on English humour, I wonder? Not likely.) The others, the politically-correct, are prudish over certain contrary views being expressed loud and clear. Such speech is, they say, outrageous, deeply offensive. For anyone to publicly express views that others disagree with - provide the traffic is going one way - is an invasion of the 'safe space' that they are entitled to protect. What’s funny about anything? Not much.