Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeremy Clarkson's "Mistake"

So Jeremy Clarkson, apparently, made a “mistake.” I’m kind of interested in the use of the word; even articles and comments that think the BBC made the right decision are using it. And I can see the reasoning; he may have technically committed a crime but he’s not been charged with anything so that word doesn’t quite fit, “sin” just has too many religious overtones, and “misdeed” sounds archaic. 

But am I alone in feeling that “mistake,” just doesn’t quite do it? A “mistake” is an error, a lapse in judgement. Mr. Clarkson’s action was definitely that, but doesn’t verbally abusing and punching one of your co-workers in the face deserve a word that’s a little more, I don’t know, judgy?

Then there’s Monica Lewinski. Who also made a “mistake.” Now, please understand that I was very impressed by her TED talk, I do not think she deserved what happened to her in the least, there are a number of things I did at the age of around twenty-two that I am now ashamed of, and if we are going to apportion blame then frankly the power inequality demands that Clinton takes 99.9% of it. 

However, if we take the definition of a wrong action as being something that hurts someone, then her affair with Clinton probably qualifies. If I was married to someone who “did not have sexual relations” with another party in so spectacular a fashion I’d be extremely upset with them but I also think I'd feel I'd been wronged by the other party. So am I wrong in feeling that ”mistake” just isn’t quite the right word?

Now, I and my Facebook friends are hugely judgmental about a whole range of different kinds of people all the time, including, but not limited to, homophobes, Republicans, racists, and people with a shaky grasp of science. So clearly, in some circumstances, we feel that being judgmental – laying blame – is just fine. But in other circumstances we feel it isn’t. And while the position of the boundary between the two is a very personal thing, what seems to be intolerable is the possibility of a gray area.

I am anticipating that there might be people that take exception to my claim that Lewinski did something wrong. (There may also be people who take exception to my claim that Clarkson did something wrong, but I shan’t lose sleep over them.) It almost seems that what we have here is an idea that once someone has done something wrong, they’re irrevocably stained. It’s apparently ok to be judgmental about, say, racists because they are so close to irredeemable that there’s no real possibility of them being admitted back into the ranks of decent human beings; but it’s not ok to admit the possibility that someone might have once done something a bit wrong but that it merits understanding and forgiveness. So we use the word “mistake” instead of “wrong,” even about ourselves, because otherwise we are condemning the perpetrator (or ourselves) to something that begins to sound like eternal damnation.

Have we lost the idea of forgiveness? Not necessarily the explicitly Christian idea of repentance washing away sin, but the idea that the legal system allows a way of paying one’s debt to society, or that rehabilitation and restoration are possible, or the idea that some behaviors can be wrong but also understandable?

I hope not. As I say, there’s a few things I did at around the age of twenty-two, not to mention other ages, that I’d prefer to think merit forgiveness.

Friday, March 13, 2015

So why do I do this writing stuff anyway?

Let me give you some context. For the last four years I’ve been writing dramatic sketches for the annual All Saints Church parish camp. It’s a regular gig for which I get to write stuff, see it performed by a bunch of bloody brilliant professional/semi-professional actors, and show it off to a small but appreciative audience. From the British perspective Americans are very good at overblown compliments, and actors who are also Americans are even better at them, and I drink it all down like champagne. Actually that’s not a good simile because I don’t actually like champagne. So I drink it all down like, I don’t know, craft IPA. I love actors. They get it.

Now, I grant you, what I write for this event is not always super original. It’s usually pastiche (aka fanfic) of some kind of another: we’ve done Pirates of the Caribbean, Dr. Seuss, Where the Wild Things Are, and Dr. Who. But it’s my annual five minutes of fame. I get applause.

I’ve been writing in one way or another for most of my adult life and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of me stopping any time soon. I’ve sent many manuscripts to many agents and publishers and, apart from a handful of published articles and short stories, all I’ve gotten back is no-thank-yous—if I get anything back at all; and yet I keep writing. My point is, it doesn’t seem to be just the desire for recognition and an audience that prompts me to keep writing; if it was I’d have given up a long time ago. I just write. My writing may not be outstandingly good or original but it sure ain’t going away.

But that annual five minutes of parish camp fame is incredibly important to me. From the initial planning stages to the event itself I’m in a state of suppressed anticipation. The weekend itself is spent in a haze of nervous energy which I have to work to hide from my fellow campers. And then the comedown is kind of brutal. I struggle to settle back to everyday life. I trawl social media for photos. I act like a junkie needing a fix. OK, so my coping mechanisms don’t actually involve hitting the bottle or scoring crack or picking up strangers in bars, but it is definitely a bit rough.

So there is something addictive, and not especially mentally healthy, about getting recognition for something creative I’ve done. I wonder if it’s really a good idea to subject my not-always-super-robust sense of self-worth to this miniature roller-coaster, year after year.

Is that going to stop me? Um, no.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

50 Shades of Concern

(Disclaimer – I’ve never watched or read it. I may be talking out of my backside. Also this piece may contain triggers about things like rape.)

Let’s lump 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight Saga together as part of the same phenomenon on the basis that both portray emotionally controlling relationships in which women are systematically abused. What’s that all about? Why do people want to read or watch this? Who wants to be demeaned and abused? It’s a profound mystery up there with the fact that rape fantasy is a thing that exists.

I think that this is part of a wider phenomenon that is not just something that is about women. Of course, if a man wants to get his kicks by being chained up by a dominatrix in black leather and stiletto heels our emotional responses to that might span a range of feelings, but fear for the man’s self-esteem is not usually one of them. The difference between this and the response we might have to a woman who plays a submissive role in a relationship – whether in a sexual sense or not – is about ongoing power imbalances in society. We fear more for a woman who is submissive because there is perceived to be a higher risk of the role becoming habitual or even permanent, or lasting trauma or damage to her self-worth.

If I understand it correctly (a pretty big assumption, I admit), much of the appeal of things like ritual humiliation, rape fantasy, or BDSM is about handing over control. A person who, during most of their daily life, is expected to wield large amounts of responsibility might experience an immense release in temporarily giving up their autonomy to someone with a whip and a red leather thong. Perhaps it’s not surprising, with the growth of feminism and women being generally more self-determining and holding positions of greater responsibility, that fiction aimed at women that flirts with these kinds of ideas should become more popular. Hence Christian Gray and Edward Cullen, I guess.

Does this make the kind of fiction that is epitomized by Twilight and 50 Shades benign? Should we perhaps even celebrate it, as marker of the success of feminism? The jury’s still out. I’m not yet convinced that male and female roles have equalized sufficiently to make indulging in these fantasies risk free. Moreover, the kind of man who will take the existence of submission or rape fantasies to justify harassment or actual rape (“all women want it really”) still exists and still preys on vulnerable women. These fantasies can be dangerous. I don’t argue that we should suppress them entirely, but if we’re going to indulge in them we need to pay attention to context.

I guess what I’m really saying is: don’t forget the safe word, guys.