Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
And it was right, and the world would be a better place if we all got together and repeated it every day. We have no right not to be offended. Here is a short random selection of some of the things that I find offensive:
Sneezing without a handkerchief
Mindless and unimaginative swearing
The options available to me to deal with these ghastly things are to walk away/turn off the television or, if the circumstances allow it, to engage the offender in rational debate about why what is loathsome to me is just fine with him or her. Call me British (I am), or call me the product of the Enlightenment (please), but I do not have the right to resort to weapons. And (politicians take note) I do not want more and more laws rushed into place to make life more and more restricted, regulated and unbearable. Take Nigel Farage, for example (in fact, do take him, please, as far away from me as possible). I think his views are repulsive: I think he is a rabble-rousing demagogue who cynically rides upon fear and unease to peddle straight-forward racism. I think that everything he and his pathetic party stand for is vile. But I am extremely glad that we have a (just-about) free press and the notion of free speech, because I would far rather hear from him and his like than wonder if they are lurking in the shadows. With freedom comes responsibility. No, I do not mean that we should pussy-foot about and be very careful about what we say. Quite the opposite. I mean we who have the enormous privilege of free speech have the duty to keep it alive and kicking. Keeping quiet is often the easy option and sometimes the safer one. We owe it to the dead of Charlie Hebdo to waive our right to cowardice and to stand and speak together. And remember Martin Niemöller’s warning, that if we stand back and do nothing when others are persecuted, there will be no-one to speak up for us when they come, as they will, for us.
So this week I am in need of books that affirm the greatness of the human spirit, the largeness of the human heart, and the profundity of human courage. And above all, perhaps, this is the week to celebrate the power of satire.
John Bunyan wrote at least part of The Pilgrim’s Progress when he was in prison. His crime was to be a non-conformist preacher in one of the depressingly many times when we have gone out of our way to make windows into men’s souls, usually using a blunt instrument, and dictate what someone else should believe. There are, you do not need me to point out to you, insuperable difficulties with trying to police beliefs and ideas, and now might be a very good moment to raise a glass to Mrs Patrick Campbell if indeed she really did say, ‘I don’t mind what they do as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.’ Believe what you like, in other words, but let your actions be kindly and socially acceptable. If it cheers you to believe in fairies, or the Jedi, or even (poor deluded you) Scientology, well, fine. I will resort to Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies and make sure that I am Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By and not the loathsome Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did: for which of us could bear very much of being treated as we deserve?
What balm is there today for our sickened hearts? Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ gets it exactly right, including, I’m afraid, the phrase, ‘a low dishonest decade’, which should certainly make us pause and reflect: and the poem’s great commandment, ‘We must love one another or die’ must be our watchword. This week’s title, ‘All I Have is a Voice’ is from the same poem. Do please read it and ponder it in your heart.
And now for a celebration. Let’s hear it for the satirists. Belwethers of their society, satirists let us know something is rotten by their very existence. When times are good and the people are, more or less, content, satire is a thin and lame thing with trivial targets in its sights. The great satires are tragic landmarks pointing to terrible things. Voltaire’s Candide, for example: and now is definitely the time for you to make your acquaintance with that work of savage genius if you have not already done so. And no, Voltaire (Franҫois-Marie Arouet if you are feeling pedantic) didn’t say, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’: that was his early-twentieth-century biographer, Evelyn Hall. But he did say, ‘Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them’, which is at least as apposite and should encourage us all into making 2015 the year we discover philosophy. Greater even than Voltaire was Jonathan Swift. You know Gulliver’s Travels, of course, although it is possible that you had it as a gutted and filleted book for children: go back now and savour its fabulous savaging of the way states are run. Better still, read A Modest Proposal and face the fact that, in a world where one in nine does not have enough to eat, we still need to find our Swiftian outrage and to take action. Positive, life-affirming action. Now that would be a fitting tribute to brave satirists everywhere. Nous sommes Charlie.