On 25 August 2023, three Black people were shot in Jacksonville, Florida by a white man with a gun. This happens quite often in America. I sometimes wonder if they ought to rethink the whole idea of letting white people own guns.
There seems to be very little question that the shooter was a racist and that the attacks were racially motivated. This is what the local chief of police thought, at any rate.
A film clip went around the site formally known as Twitter in which Mehdi Hassan, an American newscaster of whom I was not previously aware, talked a lot of fairly non-controversial good sense. Racially motivated shootings are enabled by right-wing pundits who use white supremacist rhetoric. Shock-jocks and populist politicians ought to take note of who they might be emboldening. Not all white people are racists. Pundits don’t intend to provoke massacres. But after the World Trade Centre attacks, Muslims were told to take a long hard look at themselves and actively renounce the hate-preachers in their own ranks.
“Tonight, this brown Muslim is asking the white conservative community to do the same: get your house in order, crack down on the hate preachers...condemn the rise of white supremacist ideology.”
Jordan Peterson leapt into the fray. He said that Hassan “was not really brown, more like light tan, just like ‘white’ people” and added that he, Hassan, was a Caucasian “by definition”.
And I thought. There you have it. The great intellectual divide of our age. The distinction between left and right, woke and un-woke, sensible and stupid. People who believe that words have single, non-negotiable, unchangeable meanings. And people who believe in context, nuance, and interpretation.
In a word: exegesis.
“What do you mean by that?” is not a question they are able to ask. “What does this irreducibly mean?” is the only way they are capable of thinking.
You can win arguments by looking up definitions on Wikipedia. Printing “Woman, n: Adult, human, female” on your t-shirt proves some kind of point.
I went to college during the last but one intellectual epoch.
I believe I was at the actual seminar at which Post Modernism replaced Post Structuralism, at least at Sussex. I understand that Post Colonialism subsequently eclipsed both of them. By now, it’s probably Post Something Else Entirely. Critical Race Theory exists mainly in the minds of people who are very cross about it.
I never studied Critical Theory quite as closely as I was supposed to, and only got around to reading a work by Foucault during lockdown, mainly in order to annoy Liz Truss. I didn’t understand very much of it, but I think I got the gist.
Everything is text, and there is nothing but texts.
I can’t say what the Gospel According to Saint Mark or Cerebus the Aardvark irreducibly mean: but I can write down some words of my own about what Cerebus and Saint Mark mean to me. About some of the things they might possibly mean. I don’t imagine I have arrived at the truth: all I have done is created some more text. Some people may possibly think that my text is interesting in its own right. They might even think that reading my text and the sacred texts alongside each other is more interesting and fun and fruitful than reading the holy book alone. I’d be incredibly flattered if they did. I don’t suppose that I have revealed the True And Singular Meaning Of Saint Marks Gospel or Jaka’s Story.
Because there ain’t no such animal.
I am perfectly well aware that the idea that Everything Is Text would naturally appeal to people who like books. I imagine there are people for whom There Is Nothing But Jazz or Everything Is Snooker.
We are told that an art teacher in Florida has been sanctioned for showing his art class a post-card of Michelangelo’s David on the grounds that the picture is pornographic.
We have, I acknowledge, also been told that some American classrooms provide litter-trays for children who identify as cats and that gender studies has replaced mathematics in all state schools. It may very well be that “the tale of the teacher who wasn’t allowed to show his class a classical statue” is equally apocryphal. But the apocryphal story will serve to illustrate the argument which we are entirely failing to develop.
At first glance, the censor is making a good point. If it is wrong for a man to expose himself to a child in a dark alley, then it is equally wrong to display a picture of a man exposing himself to a child in a school classroom. It’s the nakedness, the exposure, or (to put it bluntly) the dick which is the problem. A flasher doesn’t get to say “I was showing my cock to kids for artistic reasons”. So a teacher doesn’t get to say “It wasn’t a dirty picture I showed your kid: it was art.”
For all I know, the American Religion may now teach that one must abstain from looking at unclothed male bodies under all circumstances whatsoever. If that is the case then broadminded people should probably be able to think up a work-around. When I was a kid, Jehovah’s Witnesses were excused morning assembly and theatre outings; so perhaps devotees of the new puritanism ought to be allowed to sit out life-drawing classes and be excused showers after gym. I am not entirely convinced that “taking all the books off the library shelf and going through them page by page to check that there are no naughty bits” is the way forward. At different periods of history, greater and lessor use has been made of fig-leaves and pixellation, and we may be entering one of the prudish periods. Young people used to say “ha-ha Granny put modesty screens around piano legs;” perhaps in a few years young people will say ha-ha Grandpa thought it was okay to look at renaissance paintings of bare-chested ladies.
Science fiction writers very often compared 1950s fashions with Victorian fashions and extrapolated that by the twenty first century we would all be nudists. It didn’t quite turn out like that.
Channel 4 is currently putting out one of those sex education programmes in which teenagers are allowed to look at adult human beings with no clothes on. I don’t know to what extent this kind of thing really strikes a blow for positive body image. It may be true that as it becomes easier and easier to obtain unrealistic pictures of naked human beings we have become correspondingly shier and shier about disrobing in front of other people: so it might be quite a good idea to show youths realistic pictures of what ordinary people who haven’t had the benefit of breast enhancement or penile prosthesis look like. It might also be that prime-time TV isn’t the best place to carry out this experiment. Channel 4 also puts out dating shows (for adults) in which (I understand) the contestants don’t wear any clothes, and (I understand) openly comment upon the parts of the body which people don’t generally comment upon openly. Which seems rather silly but essentially harmless.
I wish we were a bit less silly about bodies. If there were more nudity on TV we’d find nudity on TV less titillating; but because we find it titillating we’re not allow to see very much of it on TV.
But there is a school of thought which says that showing teenagers pictures of naked people in the context of a sex education show is exactly the same as showing teenagers pictures of naked people for sexual gratification; and that it follows that everyone involved in making the programme, and indeed, anyone who watched it, anyone who defended it, and anyone who reads this article is a nonce, and, moreover, that all nonces should be, at the very least, publicly beheaded.
Nonce is prison slang for a child molester; it entered the public domain around the time of the infamous Brass Eyes spoof.
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