Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
In the novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, there’s a character called Major Major Major Major. His father, Mr Major, had a bizarre sense of humour, and named him Major Major Major on his birth certificate. When he joined up during the Second World War he received an automatic promotion, because the system couldn’t cope with his real name, and thus he became Major Major Major Major. It didn’t have a good effect on his life.
I often think of Major Major Major Major, but not because of the humour in his name or in the book Catch-22, which is so good that I would put it very high on my list of ‘Books you absolutely must read while you still can’. I often find an angle on things that’s different, and I’ve never apologised for that. Some people use vertical thinking. Others go with the lateral type. Me, my thinking is elliptical on a good day and tangential on a very good one.
An invitation to make their lives a living hell
Back to MMMM, as I’m going to call him from now on, because all those Majors are becoming tiresome. Here’s my thought. We take it for granted that someone with those names will have a hard time. We assume that he – or she – will be ragged and teased and bullied at school, that they’ll have various difficulties, especially when meeting others or introducing him- or herself. In the book this is exactly what happened to him. He started apologising, and became the very model of mediocrity and uninterestingness.
I’m imagining a world where we don’t measure and then treat people according to the difference between them and us, and we don’t consider this to be an invitation to make their lives a living hell. Actually, that’s the world I live in. I don’t expect people to be so stupid and ignorant that they persecute others simply because of one or two features or traits that they were born with or that have happened to them during their life. To me this behaviour is insane and unfair and inacceptable.
His belief that the earth is flat
Is this not obvious? Do we throw our food at the wall if it’s the wrong colour? Do we attack someone who’s hopping down the street instead of walking? Are tall people to be mocked and treated as objects of ridicule? We don’t do that. I certainly don’t. I remember my father earnestly putting forward his belief that the earth is flat. I watched and listened to him doing this several times.
I used to wonder if he really believed that the earth is flat, or if he was having an elaborate joke. He was either that good or that misguided. People would inevitably argue with him with a puzzled look on their faces, but there was never any unpleasantness or violence. They agreed to disagree, after hearing out each other’s opinions. According to the beliefs and standards agreed by most of us, that’s the way we should behave.
We are all full of these discriminations
And yet. And yet. I knew most of those people who had that conversation with my father. Some of them were outright racists, some were bigots of various colours, and practically all of them practised some kind of discriminatory behaviour on a daily basis. Sometimes this was based on ignorance, sometimes they wouldn’t even be aware of it, and sometimes they knew exactly what they believed. A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest. Thank you Paul Simon again.
We are all full of these discriminations. Our job is to know them and to get rid of them. We must stop telling ourselves that it’s human nature. It isn’t. We must stop saying we can’t help it. We can. We must stop saying it must be right because we read it in a newspaper. It’s wrong, and we should stop reading those kind of newspapers. We must install some kind of filter in our minds, somewhere after we formulate some stupid sentence, but before we actually open our mouths and say it. We must notice if we have said something that offended someone, and apologise to them for saying it.
No apology or retraction or explanation
Yes, this is written after hearing about the remarks made by our ex-MP and his resignation. I’m glad we live in a society where someone who says that has to resign, but I simultaneously despair that we elect someone like that in the first place. And saying we didn’t know he was like that is not an excuse, because it was there all the time. Just take a look at the voting record. And you can’t say he didn’t mean it, because there has been no apology or retraction or explanation. We should be better than this.
I knew people who were gay before it became legal. They lived a strange half-life, constantly fearing the consequences of their secret coming out. There were two women who shared a house up my road. They were very careful not to let on what their relationship was. There were Jewish people who never mentioned it, and there were incidents sometimes if it came out. I don’t blame them, and I don’t know how I would have behaved if I had been like them. It’s no good denying it, that’s how it was. These people were frightened, and their lives were affected.
How can that be good or just or fair?
I had a good friend who was a transvestite. Nobody knew this, because he covered up well. He was too fearful of the consequences, and had two failed marriages without even being able to reveal this secret to his wives. I was honoured that he finally spoke about it to me, and I was the first person he spent any time with in his preferred mode of dress. I’m talking about decades of shame and fear and denial and secrecy. How can that be good or just or fair? I’m glad to say that his life has turned around, and many things have changed. But if I talked to him/her today I think he/she would have a long list of things that are still not possible.
We’ve come a long way, but that doesn’t mean we can stop, because there’s still a long way to go before people can just be themselves and live the lives they have an inalienable right to lead. I was bullied at school, and that affected me. Even when I was a teacher, I encountered many other teachers who refused to take any notice of bullying, even when it took place under their noses. Perhaps they had never been bullied themselves.
I’m not suggesting that we all become vigilantes
I never understood why bullying was not a complete zero-tolerance behaviour in school. Or in fact anywhere, ever. But it still goes on, and on, and on. We know it happens, and we know it blights people’s lives, and we don’t intervene or report it most of the time. I’m not suggesting that we all become vigilantes or grass up our neighbours or colleagues, but I do think we need to get our individual acts together, at least.
There are things we can do without particular difficulty as individuals. We can be careful not so much in what we say, but in the way we say it. We can express views that aren’t mainstream without giving offence, and thereby losing the argument, by stating that these are our views, and not intended to cause offence. For instance, you could say you personally feel uncomfortable with the gay issue, and you might even find some others who might agree with you. I can live with that, although I personally would ask respectfully on what basis such a view was based. What we can’t do is say that gay people are dangerous, without also explaining why we think that is so. Especially if we’re MPs.
Exactly the sort of thing that incites violence and fear
Personally, if I think about a gay person and then think about someone who thinks gays are dangerous, I would tend to say that the person with the opinion is far more dangerous than the gay one. In the case above, there was no explanation for the reasoning behind the statement. Such language isn’t civilised and is exactly the sort of thing that incites violence and fear. If you can’t work that out, please reply separately and I’ll try to explain it in simpler words. If you’re an MP saying that, please think about Russia, or Chechnya, or East Africa, where government ministers say there are no homosexuals in their country, whilst gay people live in fear of their lives there because of persecution.
My point in all this is to try to call attention to the multiple ways that we help to blight the lives of our friends and colleagues and neighbours, and well as everyone else we don’t know, by belittling them and offending them, and by suggesting that their difficulties are just made up. Anyone who expresses a view strongly on social media knows that they’ll receive hateful responses. If you’re a communist or an atheist or a Muslim or a Corbyn supporter or if you’re against fracking or a Jehovah’s witness or just believe something that’s seen as different or if you just look different, you’ll be familiar with that fear.
Civil liberties and human rights aren’t just phrases
Some people react by slipping into the shadows. Others go the opposite way, and shout their differences to the rooftops. They attract extra criticism for making too much fuss. I think they would be happy just to be criticised, and I expect they fear much worse. Am I over-reacting myself? Perhaps some of you think so, or you may have stopped reading this some paragraphs back. I think we all need to keep thinking about this and trying to change ourselves, until the day comes when nobody has to be afraid of being who they want to be.
Civil liberties and human rights aren’t just phrases. They’re universal rights, and they’re fierce torches, burning in the breasts of the persecuted and those discriminated against. If you don’t have a fierce torch burning in your breast, then presumably you either feel free and appreciate it, or you’ve given up. It’s disrespectful to deny that freedom to others, or to talk them down rather than helping or supporting them. That’s what I think.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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