Thursday, December 07, 2006

Humbug (3)

The 'Cancel Christmas' story in the December 6th Sun is a masterpiece of the genre. Like an expert conjurer, it tells no direct lies but uses a well-practiced sequence of moves to misdirect its victims into believing logical impossibilities.

We know that fir trees and tinsel are on display in every office and school in the country; we know that Christmas carols are being blared out over the tannoy in every shopping mall....but when we are told that Christmas Has Been Banned This Year we believe it.

The front page of the tabloid has a photograph of a Christmas decoration overlaid with the headline:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations. We fight back!

Pages 4 & 5 are a montage consisting of three separate items. The focus of the page is a colour picture of an (artificial) Christmas tree, with the headline:

Tree may seem a joyous symbol of Christmas, but to the PC brigade it's a...

'Silent nightmare'. It's a joke, you see: not quite up there with 'Super Cally Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious', but at least they're trying. Various items on the tree are labelled, and the right hand column, headed

What a list of 'shame' tells us: why the P.C brigade want the labelled items to be prohibited.

The left side of the page contains the substantive news story a number of supposed incidents of anti-Christmas legislation, and some quotes by the usual right-wing nutters. At the bottom of the page is a picture of a woman in a veil, alongside a story about Channel 4s Alternative Christmas Message. (The station has a childish tradition of putting something silly up against the Queen: last year, it was Homer Simpson, this year, it will be a Muslim lady.) For balance, the right hand column of the spread is written by the Sun's tame Muslim, Amla Baig, and is headed Tinsel isn't offensive, claims like these are. Finally, the op-ed page is headed Save Christmas and has a bullet point list of things which it thinks Christmas might need to be saved from. And today's editorial cartoon is a picture of -- stop me if you've heard this before -- a woman in a veil. She is saying 'Merry Christmas from Channel 4'. There may be a joke in this, but I can't find it. Anyone scanning the paper will pick up the message 'There is a widespread move to prohibit Christmas decorations because they are not considered politically correct and this is bound up in some way with Muslims, especially Muslims in veils.' Each element of the story contributes something to this impression:

1: The front page

This is a classic example of the self-reflexive headline, something which is quite unique to the Sun. It does not refer to anything which has happened in the real world; it's a headline about a headline. Today's front page news story in the Sun is a story about the story which the Sun has run on it's front page today. The headline is a smutty pun that doesn't work ('baubles' and 'balls' don't really sound the same) but the text is incredibly pompous; the language of the infants' school playground alongside the language of the political press-release. 'The Sun today makes no apology for printing pictures deemed deeply offensive by the PC brigade – of Christmas trees and baubles.' Of course, at no point does anyone remotely suggest that anyone has claimed to find photos of Christmas trees 'deeply offensive'.

2: The Half-Truth

It seems that our old friends the Political Correctness Brigade want to ban Christmas decorations. This is stated about six times in the piece:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations.
Bah humbug to killjoys who try to ruin yuletide.
A survey revealed that three out of four firms have banned festive decorations.
A survey of 2300 employers reveal red yesterday showed an astonishing 74% have banned Christmas decorations for fear of upsetting followers of minority faiths.
Firms are banning Christmas decorations in case they offend other faiths

A survey says that sensitive employers have decided that putting up a Christmas tree and sparkly adornments might cause some take legal action.

The source of this figure is a press release from a firm of employment lawyers called Peninsula. They seem to issue a press release along these lines every December, presumably in the hope of drumming up business from companies who get involved in January litigation. No information is supplied about how the information was collected or what question was asked; I leave it to Ben Goldacre to tell us whether 2300 firms amounts to a statistically significant survey. All that matters at this stage is that 'One law firm says that some companies say they are not putting up decorations' is not synonymous with 'Decorations have been banned.'

Last week, the Daily Mail got its union jack knickers in a twist about an ACAS press release. ACAS is a government run employment, mediation and arbitration service. The press release was intended to inform employers about their responsibilities under the law during the Christmas party season: For example, they pointed out that if you supply infinite free booze to your employees, it's partly your responsibility to see that they get home safely. This document includes the following passage:

Q: My recently-recruited manager has issued an e-mail to staff telling them that Christmas decorations breach health and safety rules. She also said they are outlawed by the religion and belief regulations. Is she correct?
A: As long as a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are sited, particularly if they could pose potential fire hazards, health and safety rules will not normally be breached. Regulations on religion and belief do not outlaw traditional customs. As most Christmas decorations such as tinsel, lights and trees are secular and not inherently religious, it could be difficult to argue that they cause offence to non-Christians.

So: the official advice by the official agency which deals with official employment laws specifically refers to tinsel and trees and specifically says that there is no objection to them. 'P.C Brigade Want To Ban Tinsel' translates as 'Some employers have decided not to put up any tinsel, even though the official advisory body says that there could be no possible objection to it.'

3: The incremental lie

According to the op-ed column "Mince pies are outlawed as a health risk." But on page 4, this story comes out rather less dramatically: "Villagers planning a festive party were told by council chiefs that it would be cancelled unless the carried out a risk assessment on the mince pies made by the Women's Institute." And if you read right through to the end of the story, we get to the even-less dramatic truth. The mince pie row erupted in Embsay North Yorkshire. Council chiefs say that the WI pies must be accompanied by posters warning that they contain nuts and suet pastry. But we still haven't quite got to the bottom of things. The Sun omits to point out that the W.I were only compelled to follow council health and safety rules if they wanted to hold the event on council property. No-one was threatening to raid their party if it was held on private land. Clearly 'Please put up a sign saying "contains nuts" if you are giving those pies away in a council hall' does not amount to 'outlawing pies', and even if it did, it would have nothing to do with political correctness or offending minority groups.

4: The Factoid

"The Sun Says Save Christmas" column also warns us that 'Christmas has been re-branded as Winterval'. Well, up to a point, Lord Murdoch. It is perfectly true that Birmingham City Council re-named Christmas 'Winterval', insofar as they used that made-up word on leaflets advertising the turning-on of the Christmas lights, the arrival of Father Christmas and other events related to Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali. The problem is that they did this in 1998. The lie that 'Birmingham wants to replace Christmas with 'Winterval' ' is taken down from the loft and hung up every year at this time -- along with the old saw that 'Luton has re-named Christmas 'luminos' '. That council did indeed (and rather cleverly in my opinion,) name their turning-on-the-lights ceremony after one of Harry Potter's spells. In, er, 2001.

For the record, from this year's websites:

Luton council: 'Christmas all wrapped up'
Birmingham council: 'Christmas market'; 'Visit Father Christmas'
Havant council 'Christmas in Havant' 'Carols in Meridian Centre'
Portsmouth Council: 'Christmas sounds', 'Christmas pantomime', 'Civic Carol service'

5: The In Your Face Bare Faced Total and Utter We Made This Up and We Admit We Made This Up Load Of Twaddle Taking Up a Page and a Half.

The centrepiece for the spread is the Politically Correct Christmas tree, which consists of a series of comments at the level of:

Fairy lights – Could be construed as homophobic by some
Fake snow – Clearly this may be unsettling and cause distress to people from warmer climates.

This is, of course, completely made up, and the Sun admits that it is completely made up: it clearly describes it as 'The Sun's tongue-in-cheek guide to the shocking and provocative items found on your Christmas tree.'

What can be said about this kind of stunt?

1: It is not even slightly funny

2: Some of the jokes are fairly offensive. (Have you ever heard a gay man referred to as a 'twinkle'?)

3: It mixes up truth and lies in a ways calculated to cause maximum confusion. The piece about Rudolf (' In future we may have to substitute faithful Rudolph with a shiny amoeba') is prefaced by a bit of copy about how Robert L May wrote the song in 1939; which appears to be accurate.. On the other hand, we are told that 'Satanists complain that baubles are a mis-use of witch balls from the 1700' – which is, so far as I can tell, complete gibberish. Some time ago, the Snopes website demonstrated how easy it is to invent an urban myth by presenting a publishing a theory, clearly marked as a joke, that 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' was a recruiting song first writing by the pirate Blackbeard. Within two years, this piece of made up folk lore was being quoted as the gospel truth. Bill Bryson points out that nearly all of the extreme cases of politically correct language ('gravitationally challenged' for 'fat') come out of a satirical 'politically correct' handbook, and were never, ever used seriously. It's a safe bet that some Sun readers will read this load of old baubles and run away with the idea that someone really does think that the term 'crackers' is prejudiced against mentally handicapped people – and that this is precisely what the editor wants them to think.

6: Conflation of different stories. The majority of the stories which the Sun cites are about health and safety: trivial instances of officials making the lives of small organisations slightly inconvenient. But the joke Christmas Tree piece is all about 'political correctness' in the more normally understood sense -- people being hyper sensitive to things which could offend minorities. The tactic is quite brilliant. The Sun like the Mail, the Express and to a lesser extent the Telegraph and the Times have committed themselves to believing that the Political Correctness Brigade are trying to stamp out Christmas. The problem is that the Political Correctness Brigade are doing nothing of the kind, for the very good reason that they don't exist. So the Sun's 'Christmas correspondent' (no, really) has convinced himself that 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' are interchangeable, and, furthermore that any attempt to make a Christmas celebration conform to regulations is a direct attack on the festival itself. Once you've believed these three impossible things, it becomes possible to say 'someone has pointed out that the Santa Claus carnival float is unsafe and asked the owner to add a seat obviously, they think that Rudolf toys should be banned because they are prejudiced against homosexuals.'

The Sun is, it must be said, less nakedly racist than the Express. The political correctness tree is directed at homosexuals, people from hot countries and the mentally handicapped as well as at Muslims; the opinion piece by Anila Baig contains some valid points. But both campaigns are rooted in the same paranoia. Either the Sun reflects what its readers think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert thinks that they think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert wants them to think. Either millions of my fellow countrymen are paranoid; or else someone is trying very hard to make them paranoid. Either way paranoid people are scary. They elect scary governments.

You can't really fool children: they go on believing in Father Christmas for as long as they want to believe in Father Christmas. Any conjurer will tell you that you can only fool an audience that, at some level, wants to be fooled.


Helen Louise said...

As to the tree in York, a letter to the local newspaper pointed out how Christmas trees are hardly Christian anyway. I actually get annoyed with people calling Christmas a Pagan festival, since a bit of good honest paganism would, I suspect, prove a welcome antidote to the endless commercialism and tat.

I thought it was that gay men were referred to as "fairies"...

Could all these stories (adopts conspiracy theorist mode) merely be s capitalist plot to get us out to embrace the tat, convinced that by doing so we are showing solidarity with our persecuted brothers and sisters who can't even hang up a bit of tinsel, thanks to Health and Safety and the PC Brigade. Personally I can't wait to get away from Christmas. Even a hokey attempt at multi-culturalism like the tree of many faiths in York seems a lot more genuine than the endless rubbish on the television. I mean, I know it's gotten bad when I'm going misty-eyed over a story about a little girl giving Baby Jesus a rose.

Ahem. End of rant. Good piece as usual. Where do you read all these papers? Do you actually buy them, skim through them as the newsagents (the Express's "Sharia Law in Britain" was amazing, it actually contained the quote "Since there are no bobbies on the beat who can give people a slap on the wrist...") Or perhaps you pick them up in a suitable coffee shop somewhere?

Whatever, I'm glad you do :)

Leo! said...,,1967367,00.html

You'd have thought you would have got a link at least...

Nick Mazonowicz said...

I work for one of Britain's largest banks at of the main offices. This week we were given out christmas decorations to put up. Following this, someone went one round asking us to be careful about putting them on our monitors in case they fall down the back and cause a fire.
We also asked if we were going to get the three hours off shopping that we sometimes get as a concession. We were told shopping.

So when you see the headline story in the Express saying "NAME OF BANK TELLS STAFF TO TAKE DOWN DECORATIONS AND BANS STAFF FROM CHRISTMAS SHOPPING" remember you read it here first.

Phil Masters said...

Any conjurer will tell you that you can only fool an audience that, at some level, wants to be fooled.

"At some level".

I don't really disagree with Andrew's point here, but I think he may be assuming a little too much coherent rationality in people in general and Sun readers in particular. While all this Sun/Express paranoid crap may indeed be dangerous in the long term - it shifts the mid-point of any argument far off in the wrong direction - I think the immediate point of the exercise, for those papers, is that people just like to be outraged. It's probably a universal bad human habit, or it may just be one of those screwed-up UK national sports.

Do people really believe that lefty PC-brigade councils are going round trying to ban Christmas? Actually, I think that people believe anything, everything, and nothing. They just know, at heart, that they have no control over the world at large, and even exerting control over their own lives is too much like hard work, so instead, they talk about all these rotten Others doing stupid, comical, annoying, bad things. Paranoia as a comfort blanket. The Sun and such then encourage and exploit this by talking about PC-brigade-councils, the way that a competent Communist Minister of Propaganda would talk about capitalist infiltrators and subversive anti-proletarian elements.

No, newspapers shouldn't encourage it, and yes, some politicians are doubtless trying to use it for pretty foul ends. But my guess is that the proximate factors are essentially trivial and not very coherent.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have a long essay in the offing about "what effect do tabloids actually have". I've had to rather re-think my theory since the Cross Woman versus Veil Lady thing which crossed the line from "disturbingly nutty" into "not even particularly subtle racism".

Paul Daniels' audience do not believe that he has really sawed a living woman in half: the "ethics" of the conjurer amounts to basically three rules: don't lie to the audience; don't pretend that you are have real paranormal powers; and don't tell anyone how your tricks are done. But think of performers such as Doris Stokes, Uri Geller and in a slightly different category, Derren Brown. I take it that very few of the people who watch spirit-mediums and psychics perform really believe that they are hearing messages from the dead or that alien life forms selected a Chosen One and gave him the power to bend spoons. At one level, they know that they are being fooled by a practiced conjurer, and are saying "That's could he possibly have bent that spoon without us could she possibly have known that in an audience of 5,000 people, there would be someone who knew someone called "John (or possibly Trevor)" who died of a heart attack, or perhaps a stroke." At another level, they think that there is probably something in it, and that there are more things in Heaven than Horatio dreamt of philosophically.

Note, incidentally, that the tabloids pay astonishingly large sums of money to the charlatans who write their "astrology" columns. Do the readers really believe in astrology? No. Do they think that astrology is a load of rubbish and a waste of time? No.
I think that Sun readers know perfectly well that their kids primary school is having a nativity play this year and that their office has a Christmas tree. But I think that they simultaneously believe in a political correctness brigade that has got its arms and legs everywhere.

Incidentally, respectable and possibly even sane people such as the A.N Wilson, Keith Waterhouse, and the Archbishop of York either believe in the political correctness brigade, or else have be co-opted to help circulate the lie.

Phil Masters said...

There's a frankly rather embarrassing feature piece in the Indie today about these "attempts to ban Christmas" things that simultaneously debunks stuff like the Luton and Birmingham councils stories while scrabbling around for actual examples of much the same thing. And, of course, it finds a few; if outrage is a popular hobby, there are plenty of people on the intellectual left as well as the lumpenprole right who engage in it.

I really don't know what the hell that journo thought was the point of the exercise; probably just that examples of other people being a bit stupid are always entertaining, wherever they might be found.

'Sall just a larf, innit?

(By the way, I seem to be generating posts here as from "fromgoogle" as well as under my real name. I'll try and stop this, but anyway, they're both me.)

Phil Masters