Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Rise of the Indignitaries

The term 'indignitaries' was one that seems to have been coined by 'The Guardian' newspaper a couple of weeks ago. To mean it seemed so perfectly to sum up a trend in British society which relates to things that I have been touching on periodically, namely that British people love getting angry. An indignitary is someone who enjoys venting their anger, to such an extent that they will often go back and get angry about things that did not irritate them at the time and certainly they made no complaint about.

Clearly this term has arisen over the complaints regarding the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand radio broadcast which involved telephoning the elderly actor Andrew Sachs (born 1930 in Berlin interestingly) and leaving lewd messages about his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie (born 1985). Baillie is a burlesque dancer who performs under the name Voluptua with a troupe called Satanic Sluts, so not the innocent teenager I imagine many complainants envisaged. The Radio 2 programme was recorded on 16th October and broadcast on 18th October. At the time there were only two complaints to the BBC about the programme because of crude language. However, it was only subsequently that complaints came in about the phonecall 'prank'. By 29th October it had risen to 18,000 and the following day 27,000. Now it would be interesting to know how many of those people actually listened to the radio programme. Radio 2 does have 12-13 million listeners over a given week, but given its 'comfy', easy-listening approach I am uncertain how well the Ross-Brand programme sat with the rest of its output anyway.

Baillie herself demanded that both me be sacked and portrayed them as being 'beneath contempt'. Interestingly the focus was on sexual activity with this woman rather than the reference to Sachs killing himself. Partly this is because media coverage of Baillie allows pictures of a burlesque dance in her corset to be included rather than pictures of an elderly male actor. Brand was sacked and Ross was suspended. They apologised for what they said, but Baillie and her father wanted personal apologies and were dissatisfied that they did not receive them. Sachs who has been working in the media for fifty years, made no comment, probably because he has been there and seen it all in his career. Whilst the broadcast was offensive to an old man (I have no sympathy for Baillie who has made herself a lewd spectacle anyway so must expect such responses) the anger was less on what it did to him than allowing an opportunity for people to get angry. This is because, many people in the UK actually like lewd material (notably 'The Sun' newspaper which was very indignant about the broadcast but features lurid pictures of scantily clad women regularly) but also enjoy being indignant. This muddies things and has drowned any debate about how broadcasters should interact with people in the public eye, people who have primarily retired from the public eye and so on. I am sure the bulk of people who complained simply heard 'respected elderly actor', 'granddaughter' and that was enough for them to boil over.

I have been prone to this tendency myself. Reading 'The Devil's Horsemen' by James Chambers (1979) I felt furious that the barbaric behaviour of Mongol invaders of the 13th century went unpunished, in turn I was angered by Mongolia's lionising of Genghis Khan and that easily could have led to racism against Mongolians. This might seem very obscure but it is easy for all of us to fall into that sense of anger often about things over which we have no control. Where it is more dangerous is when our unnecessary anger can have a real impact. Of course someone becoming racist will impact, but there are greater problems when it is more immediate. I think Brand and Ross probably needed to be admonished but I was upset when people then wanted some purge, especially of 'Mock the Week' which has been the only political satire programme showing in the UK (I exclude poor quality US shows) in the past couple of years and political satire is vital for democracy. Some of the humour can be shocking but in a way which actually draws us up short and think about issues which is something very important.

As I have said before, anger is so popular in the UK for two reasons. Most UK people have little future ahead of them and at the moment that future is becoming more bleak with a sharp rise in unemployment and house repossessions. The British also thoroughly enjoy moaning (like complaining but without actually directing it towards anyone who can do anything about it). It is the primary occupation of many people in the UK, especially the elderly and they are probably unique in Europe in loving it so much. Moaning is the outlet which actually lets UK people tolerate how badly they are actually treated by their government, retailers, their employers, etc., in ways that no other nationality would tolerate.

Anger in the UK has stepped up a gear in the past 20 years as the British people have had to face worse and worse service and abuse from service providers such as transport companies, utility companies, etc. These days people know that unless they shout they are going to get nothing. Service providers have choked off this ability by having all this refusal of talking to abusive people and in certain contexts such as airports regularly threatening them with anti-terrorist powers even against mild complaints, such as a pregnant woman needing help with a trolley or complaints about damaged luggage. In the context of the powerlessness that the average person in the UK faces on a daily basis, anger is now the only tool left to get over that sense of futility that so many of us encounter. Of course the outlets for anger themselves are being clamped down. Either they need to leave us some outlet or they will have to start doping us with calming tablets as in 'Brave New World' (1932) which featured the drug 'Soma' with the slogan 'a gram is better than a damn'. One method at the moment to give some feeling of control to the population is all these talent shows for which the public telephone in to select who stays or goes. No wonder there is a plethora of such programmes including 'Big Brother', 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here', 'The X Factor', 'Strictly Come Dancing', etc. Of course as politicians know the public are fickle and the judges on these programmes increasingly brindle against the public's choices which are often based on aspects that are unrelated to the format of the programme.

So, being an indignitary is about getting back some of that self-respect, some of that control that we so lack in contemporary Britain. Self-righteousness always makes you feel good and being indignant allows you to demonstrate just how right you are and more than that, that you are a person who is willing to stand out and make a point. Ironically, actually the opposite is the case. Being indignant is about joining the bandwagon, proving that you are equally as good at getting angry, as equally as righteous as your family, neighbours, colleagues, etc. Perhaps this tells us about the decline of religion in Britain. These feelings of being part of a special, right group once came from being in a religious denomination. Now, with church attendance at only 7% of UK people who say they are Christian going to church regularly, compared to 20% in Canada and 43% in the USA (though these figures have been questioned it is clear that attendance in English-speaking North America exceeds UK attendance by many times) where do people turn to get those naturally desired feelings? They unite together to complain to the BBC and demonstrate their righteousness and how they are part of the moral element of British society.

Ultimately I can understand why UK people behave in this way, it comes down to the fact that I dislike what they get indignant about. I have spoken before about my incomprehension of the hatred for speed limits on roads and in particular of safety cameras. I can understand why people dislike immigrants but I loathe the hatred they express of them and would point to how much harm such racist attitudes do to the UK. I can understand why people hate paedophiles, but I see danger too in vigilante attacks especially when aimed at paediatricians. Why do people engage in violence in order to get fox hunting back - it is cruel and unnecessary. There are many things which people should get angry about but they do not. They do not get angry about how we are bullied by landlords, ripped off by utility companies, have our families killed by speeding cars, how education is becoming so segregated, how so many children are in poverty in the UK and have no opportunity to escape, how many old people die each year of cold, how many homeless people there are, how people are bullied at work and have no security in their work, how working parents find it almost impossible to access childcare, how little politicians listen to us, how we need more schools and hospitals, how we need cheap public transport and affordable housing, how our civil liberties are being eroded, how racist political groups are getting more powerful and will wreck our cities, how patchy recycling is, how much litter people dump and how much fly-tipping they do, the use of knives and guns to kill young people, binge drinking, those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. I am sure you could find many more.

So next time there is some moron of a comedian saying something foolish turn off your radio or your television and go and email the prime minister or your local councillor and get angry about something that is worth getting angry about. For too long we have been encouraged to think we can change nothing, but that is because so many of us have stopped trying. We have a real strength in our fury, but do not fritter it away, direct it into something which can make the UK and the world better. Be proud to be an indignitary, be one with dignity, start combating speeding in your street, not simply whine about Russell Brand.

P.P. - 04/02/2008: I remembered another type of indignitary from may days in the civil service. Back in the early 2000s I wrote a piece about the wartime code-breaking at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where the British decoded the German Enigma cyphers. I made a special effort to mention the Polish contribution to this achievement. The Polish intelligence agencies were trying to break the cyphers before the war broke out and Pole smuggled out the vital encyphering wheels after Poland had been invaded in 1939 at immense personal risk. Poles also served at Bletchley Park. Less than a day after completing my piece I had an email complaining that no-one writing about breaking Enigma ever mentioned the Polish contribution and that I was no different. I felt terribly offended especially as I had taken effort to feature the full extent of the Polish input. I pointed this out to the complainant and it became clear they had not actually read what I had written but had simply assumed I would leave out the Poles from the story. I can understand that after reading numerous pieces in which that was a case, it was a fair assumption, but it blunts your compaint when you do not pay attention to what is said in a particular piece and in this case complaining at someone who sympathised with your case. So, knee-jerk responses are never healthy.

Another indignatry behaviour I was irritated by is the Israelis being unwilling to accept historical maps that do not show Israel on them even if they show a time when that state did not exist. I do not complain because I do not see the UK on a map of the British Isles period or the USA missing from maps of 18th century North America or Poland missing from a map of Europe of 1890. The world changes and maps should reflect what is happening at the time not what people wish is/was/had been the case. It weakens your case when you respond in this blanket way. Anyway which Israel should be shown? The one of Biblical times (before or during or after Roman occupation?) or the one of 1948? 1967? 1973? 2009? They all look different.

Caveat: I have nothing against Americans, Jews, Israelis or Poles, just individuals who happen to come from those nations and behave in an indignitary manner.

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