Zero-sum

The past couple of weeks have been a columnist’s wet dream. Stephen Gately’s death and Jan Moir’s subsequent diatribes; Jimmy Carr’s ill-judged stand-up gag; Nick Griffin’s raucous Question Time debut; in the face of this deluge of moral transgressions, even the most untalented and unconscientious artisans of prose could not fail to pass some spirited, provocative comment. But quantity is no assurance of quality, and numbers in and of themselves certainly don’t help to fill in the vacuousness in the news media.

Yesterday, BBC Newsnight had this to offer on Twitter: “Has homophobia gone away or is it just in the closet? We’ll debate tonight at 10.30pm on BBC Two.”

Sure, why not? It’s one of those generic social issues that are blissfully unburdened with sell-by dates. The question itself is highly versatile too – swap homophobia for racism, sexism, ageism, or even football hooliganism and voila, another Newsnight feature/Panorama investigation/tabloid pablum.

I should add at this point that the actual Newsnight feature wasn’t exactly as advertised, although this should hardly be surprising. A hundred and forty character-long microblogging platform is never ideal for the presentation of a comprehensive synopsis of…anything. In any case, the gist of the Twitter advert was swiftly demolished with the feature’s opening gambit (its news peg essentially) – a homophobic gang attack on a trainee policeman in Liverpool on Sunday. Very well, question answered. The rest of the feature only goes on to hammer home the point, presenting interviews with victims of homophobic assault and a publisher of a gay magazine, citations of police figures of rising homophobic crime and the estimate that 75 per cent of victims do not report the crime to police, and rounding it off with a lively exchange between Johann Hari and Anne Atkins on (in)tolerance.

Surely, armed with all this information and, indeed, having put them together in the manner that they actually did for the feature, the Newsnight team could have, very justifiably, come out strongly with their case in demonstrating the persistence of homophobia in British society. But no, Auntie is impartial, Auntie is fair, and Auntie is balanced. So Auntie must make her Newsnight pitch sound just that, by framing it as an rhetorical question that could still pretend to be inconclusively answered.

Appearances do matter, after all.

But even the wimpy, sitting-on-the-fence approach in posing questions on social issues can get a bit stale. The unapologetically conservatie Spectator, never one to pull its punches, characteristically published, earlier this month, an emphatic cover story declaring that “Britain is no longer racist”. Penned by Samir Shah, chair of the Runnymede Trust, the piece argues that the simplistic view of racism as an inhibitor of social mobility is passé, and in its place is a form of “cultural cloning”. The argument itself is interesting, but the nuance-free headline is nowhere close to an representative summary of what is in the fine print (indeed, it’s just as hard to get headline writers to present a fair synopsis of the content as it is to get some tetchy critics to actually read/watch/understand the objects of their ire).

Lazy, irresponsible journalism is one thing, but there is an underlying teleology that is perhaps more problematic. Both examples, although derived from different editorial lines, appear to share this underlying belief in progress, a conviction in its certainty. And the phenomenon isn’t new. Political scientist John Mueller had trumpeted this sort optimistism in his books Retreat from Doomsday (1989) and The Remnants of War (2004), in which he suggested that war, like slavery, would eventually become obsolete and consigned to history as a cultural relic.

Bold claim it is, but certainly not unique in its spirit. Similar teleological outlooks can be discerned in the public discourse on social issues – the racisms, ageisms, sexisms, homophobia and what else have you. Commentators like to put forth these rhetorical posers about whether we are living in a “post-racial” society, if bigotry is history, if social class is a thing of the past etc. The unspoken assumption is of course one of teleological progress; that bigotry can be cleansed, that the wars against drugs, obesity, terrorism, religious fundamentalism can be won, that the very notion of warfare itself can be eradicated like smallpox. Hegel’s dialectics in action as it were.

Maybe they do believe that there is a brave new world waiting to be born, each one of them a Robespierre in spirit if not deeds. Maybe the notion of continuous struggle is their last resort, having gained a “cynical liberal…ironic wisdom”, as Slavoj Žižek described it, that their ideals are impractical pipedreams.

In any case, these didactic representations of society works – we buy into them, lock, stock and barrel. We, through the media and our politics, may demand the restoration of a fabled golden era – no violent criminals or drug-ridden louts on the streets, a proud nation with exalted heritage and strength of character in diplomacy. Or we may believe (or at least pretend to) in a possibilty of creating a bastion of liberty, free of discrimination and bigotry, filled with aspiration and opportunity. We want to cure all ills, right all wrongs, and we are convinced it can be done, if only we try. And then at times we try too hard, and shit happens. Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et al will vouch for that..

Relativism has little room in our society it seems; no quarter is given, even if it means denying the essence of our humanity. Maybe we do need more cynical, ironic liberal wisdom, to contain our at times quite dangerous pursuit of reified virtue. But Žižek disagrees, so what do I know?

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~ by spiegel2071 on October 28, 2009.

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