Listening to Jonathan Sacks’ programme about morality in the 21st century and hearing David Brooks saying how social media affects our identity encouraging the want to be “liked” and “popular”. Also saying interesting things about how perhaps today we need fulfillment not from our jobs but there needs to be something for our ‘soul’ (interesting that he uses that word) as different from our ‘self’. He promotes the act of trying to resolve somehow divisions in our society as an act that might be morally beneficial, helping us feel more happy and moving away from concern about ourselves as individuals. This is something that has become apparent when I listen to people in Bristol. I hear racism from working class men in pubs and homeless women on the streets, then I hear anti Brexi / anti Tory voices amongst the left-leaning middle classes. We are – it seems – becoming more divided and, as Sacks points out, we have become an ‘I’ society but need to become a ‘We’ society again.
Similarly, read an article about Sebastian Faulks in Sunday’s Sunday Times about appropriation. Is it right to ‘appropriate’ the voice of someone with a different background from one’s own? Should a white middle class man try to emulate the voice / experience of say a slave girl in 19th Century America? Faulks’ answer was how he grew up admiring the real genius of writers being able to imagine another person’s experience while making it convincing. He cites D.H. Lawrence describing Constance Chatterley’s orgasm. “It’s much more difficult to be convincing writing about that than writings about Mellors’s. It’s harder for him to do so. But he’s entitled to do it. He’s entitled to try.” Again, it is similar to the argument about using only actors who have had the same experience as the character they’re portraying to fill the role. But why shouldn’t people have the creative freedom to choose who they want and who is best to do the job? It seems we’re in a culture where everyone is so worried about protecting identity of whatever type that we’re all becoming tied up in knots to ensure that everyone feels included. Faulks again talks about remembering how he when he was a younger man in the 1960s people “had the same rights and entitlements regardless of where you come from”. “We are now in the age of identity politics where the only thing that matters is your ‘partial identity markers’. As a woman. As a father. As an immigrant. As a black person. As a white person. The idea that those things didn’t matter because we’re all the same has been lost.” In other words by everyone racing to identify with the group that they feel a part of and taking that group’s ‘position’ we’re becoming divided, fragmented, more ‘I’ than ‘We’ or lots of different ‘We’s. This is surely exacerbated by social media.
Last year I was involved in a 4 month fling with a quiet and mysterious Portuguese girl, I. I think for both of us our time together was about exploring the city and around, and having sex. It was great. She lived on City Road between St Pauls and Stokes Croft with 2 other girls and one night they had a small party. I didn’t know anyone and chatted with those who were there, always liking meeting new people. Although there was one girl who was quite difficult to get through to. She didn’t smile and she didn’t want to engage with me. She would answer a question briefly but not give much else and didn’t seem to be willing to find out about me. She was clearly worthy and wanted to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Later a lot of us ended up in a club and at some point a fight broke out on the dancefloor amongst a group of quite scary looking young men. When I got outside I said to I and this girl “Oh some townies are having a scrap on the dancefloor.” This girl was onto me in a flash:
“That’s quite offensive”.
We started to argue. She claimed it was like saying “Paki.”
Having been drinking solidly for several hours, I took off. “No it’s not. I’m not some bigot, etc..etc..” I don’t ever insult in an argument.
“Yes, but it’s derivative isn’t it?”
“Derivative of what?!”
She didn’t answer that and I think I walked off.
This has stayed with me, this little fracas, because of what it seems to say about a culture of overbearing political correctness and oversensitivity, especially in certain pockets of Bristol (and elsewhere, I’m sure).
Of course what I should have told this girl, Lucy, if I’d had the presence of mind (a bit difficult after a skinful) was that I’d got the word ‘townie’ from when I was doing A levels in Ipswich.
After being asked to leave my appalling alma mater (a story for another time) I had ended up at Suffolk College. Having been at one of the country’s most prestigious and most expensive public schools I arrived and paid for my own 2 years of education (the princely sum of eight pounds). That was 1991. In that year I had been forming a new identity for myself (as you do when you’re a teenager). It was all about music. I wore baggy and brightly coloured clothes and had hair cut really short. I remember one particular look I had: a black and red jumper a la Dennis the Menace, baggy red jeans and chunky Converse trainers (not the baseball boot). Yes, I was a raver. I was also a part time drug dealer, buying relatively small quantities of ecstasy and selling it on at raves for a markup.
Between lessons on Rope Walk I would walk and go to new found friends’ houses, all Ipswich boys that I’d met whilst out raving and often going back to their houses to come down and smoke up and listen to more tunes. ‘Sparky’ Mark’s was a favourite hangout just off Norwich Road. Everyone congregated there. Sparky was slight, a massive stoner and full of opinions but always seemed to have an open door. I was there a lot. A lot of those guys were unemployed and were all into smoking pot so would go and get their giro every 2 weeks and some would buy hash with it to sell and make more money. We would spend hours smoking, drinking tea and playing blackjack with an ongoing high level of banter. These were the guys (how would they ‘identify’ themselves? Stoners? Ravers? I doubt they even thought about) who would refer to the ‘townies’. The townies were different to them because they might have had jobs and weren’t into taking drugs. Their drug was drinking and, often on a Saturday night, fighting. They would be the guys down at Hollywoods or Libertys in silk shirts and gelled hair and jewellery chatting up the ladies and giving it some mouth. My associates didn’t associate with them. Townies. Is it offensive? What about ‘toff’? Or calling an American a ‘yank’? Or Aussies calling us ‘Poms’? Where does it end? If we’re not careful we’ll end up in a world where we’re all tiptoeing around each other, checking every word we say to make sure someone doesn’t feel offended (middle class white men like not included). Comedians would be put out of business. Thinking back on it, it’s interesting to remember how humourless she was..