Friday, 30 May 2014

Two contentions


It seems to me that the kind of affection one finds in friendship can be considered to be superior to the kind of obligatory affection for family we see as part of everyday life; not in every single way, but in one specific way it could certainly be described as more genuine, perhaps.

What I mean is this. You will sometimes hear people say ‘oh, I have to love him, because he’s my brother, but really he’s a dick a lot of the time,’ or words to that effect. Whereas, with friends, there is a limit to the amount of crap you will put up with, with family that limit does not exist. Because there is nothing my family members can do which will mean they are no longer family, there is therefore nothing they can do which will destroy the resultant familial affection. Or perhaps there is, but it would be particularly horrendous behaviour indeed. On the other hand, there is no way my friend could get away with anything nearly as horrendous, and still be considered a friend of mine.

So, what I am saying is that your friends are your friends because of certain standards of behaviour which you, consciously or not, expect them to uphold. There is certainly forgiveness for wrongs, and tolerance for bad behaviour tends to increase given the length of the friendship, but it is also true that friendships can (and do) end, even after years, because of errors committed by one or both parties.

Now, I am not saying there are not occasions when families stop speaking, stop behaving as friends do, as it were, nor am I saying we do not judge our family members by standards of behaviour; what I am saying is that our family are much more likely to get a free pass, to get away with things our friends wouldn’t. And this is not through merit of behaviour, but rather simply by being born. By contrast, friendship is earned and maintained.

Consider how much more likely people are to encourage you to reconcile a long-standing feud with your brother than with a former friend. Consider the right of a king to rule, versus the right of a president. One is born, the other chosen based on merit (or perceived merit). Certainly there are good kings and bad presidents; certainly we judge kings now by similar standards to those we judge presidents by (something which, in the past, was unthinkable); but do many of us really question a king’s right to be king. The right to things through birth is ingrained in our thinking, and it can work both well and badly.

I make no judgement on whether this attitude to our family is right or wrong. Certainly it can be defended on account of the fact that family will always support you, will back you when others will not, will help you out of tight spots. This upholding of standards goes both ways, but it also goes beyond behaviour and into, again, something you were born into.

The point is that your friends can be the best people you know, but can they ever really earn the same leniency and forgiveness as your relatives. Their position may, in many ways, have more merit, since it is based on nothing more than personality and action, and this is why I think good friends should be prized as highly as good family.


My second contention is mostly unrelated to the first, but since it occurs to me now I feel like putting it down on paper (see: MS Word).

I was raised to believe in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a man laying down his life to cure the world of ills. I recall a particular hymn which had a line: ‘a man can have no greater love than to give his life for his friends’. Now, I want to argue against this line within the framework of the Catholic ideology in which it was uttered, rather than from my usual outside perspective.

There are two main problems I see with this line. I’ll start with the easier of the two, and that is friends. Surely the level of the sacrifice is increased if the man is giving up his life not for friends, but for strangers. You might say, why would someone love strangers more than friends? But this is what Christians are encouraged to do. Therefore, the sacrifice must be extended to cover everyone Jesus had never (and, since this dying thing covered future people too), and would never meet. And it did. Kudos to JC, he died for everyone, not just his mates, so he has that aspect covered.

The second thing is that he didn’t really give his life, did he? I mean, it’s kind of a cheat. He was part-god, and he knew that, despite all the pain, he was going to get a free respawn. If you let your brother play your last life during a game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s more meaningful than if you let him play a life with ten lives still in the bag. So all he really did was suffer a whole bunch, sleep it off, and come back later.

Now, admittedly that must have hurt a whole bunch, but it’s still not the same as doing it, knowing there is no coming back. You could argue that any martyr, with their belief in another life, is really, despite the agonising pain of their demise, just kind of cheating their way through. In fact, if you martyr yourself for the promise of a big reward after you’ve done so, then perhaps you’re not really the big altruist you thought you were.

Following on from this is the idea that, if the priests are right, then there can be a greater love than to give up your life (even for strangers). And that would be to give you’re your soul. If the soul lives forever, and can be sent for eternal torment, then surely the man with the greatest love is the man who sacrifices not only his life, but his soul, for the sake of others. Progressing even further with the logic, the true hero of Christianity is the man who ensures that others are going to heaven, even at the cost of his own self being sent to the Other Place.

Remember, when reading this next part, that I am still working within the framework of the religion in which I was raised, and that the conclusions, while logical in a certain sense, are not something I myself believe. They are more of an extrapolation from data, based on information provided to me by the church, through teachings, sermons, and the like.

I am forced to conclude that our heroic man, the man with the greatest love of all (or woman, if you like, let’s not be sexist here), is the one who gets others to heaven while committing himself to hell. How to ensure others get to heaven? Easy. Baptism, and then murder. If you baptise a child (and to qualify for this criteria, all the experience you need is to have been baptised yourself), it is cleansed of all sin. If you kill it immediately afterward, by Catholic teaching, it will go to heaven. And you, for having committed such an act, will be condemned to the fiery pit. Therefore, the true hero of Catholicism is the person who baptises as many babies as possible, and then murders them.

Now, you might say: what the fucking hell? It’s just a poorly-worded line in an old hymn, why would you go that far? My answer would be, the hymn is just the starting place, just one example of the strange logic which pervades the religion of my upbringing (and many others), a religion with beliefs like ‘god loves you unconditionally, but if you don’t obey these conditions, you suffer for all eternity’. I have taken some of the key teachings, and followed them to a conclusion which is unavoidable based on the internal logic of the system of belief under consideration. And yet this is a system which many people claim to believe in. You do the math.

Monday, 12 May 2014

The N word

So Jeremy Clarkson becomes the latest in a long line of white guys in the public eye, to utter the unutterable. Or should I say, to mumble it. To the sin of racism is added the sin of a lack of conviction. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.

People have since come out in defence of Clarkson, saying he might be prone to using shock value, or that he might simply be a bit of an idiot, but he’s not a racist. And he probably isn’t, at least no more than the average person. Certainly saying a word is not on the same level as a so-called hate crime, or even, say, discrimination when hiring a job applicant. One question in all of this is: how bad is it really to make racial slurs? I understand that Clarkson, being in the public eye, has a certain standard of behaviour to uphold, and that the BBC had a responsibility to promote fairness and denounce racism where it can. Therefore it’s understandable that they took some sort of action over this, and we can expect Clarkson to tread carefully with his ‘final warning’ status. Should he have been sacked? If he was the presenter of a less-popular show, would he have been sacked? Perhaps clearer policy needs to be written.

From my point of view, I am still not sure which approach is best when it comes to the N word, and I have given it some thought. As a private individual, I can certainly be more free and easy in my approach to the dreaded word.

Now, one approach to the word is that it cannot be used at all. This is an understandable line to take for those in the public eye and representing companies like the BBC, but let’s be honest, a blanket ban on any word is never going to be effective in the private sphere. With language, as with anything, simple prohibition is ineffective. In fact, it often has the opposite effect than intended.

What about the ‘rule’ which says that if you are not black, you can’t say the word. This I find curious, as it seems to me to be inherently racist to decree that one set of people can say a word based on the colour of their skin, and another group cannot. Nonetheless, I can see why white people would choose to follow this rule, given the nature of the word and the sensitivity surrounding it. But who owns words? In this case, perhaps the rule is often followed more out of respect or professional good sense than the position of the speaker in question.

Part of the ‘problem’, if you can call it that, is the lack of an equivalent word for whites, and the relatively recent mature of the events which the word calls to mind. Slavery and racism have existed throughout history, and I’d wager that every ‘race’ has been on both the giving and receiving end of these actions as some point or other. However, there has been no recent white slave trade, no word which carries anything like the emotional intensity which the N word calls to mind. If there were, it would also be a no-no for BBC presenters, of this I am certain.

Another approach is to allow the word free reign, to rob it of its power by repeating it so often that it becomes meaningless, or until the meaning transmutes into something else entirely. There is precedent for the meaning of a word to change, and in fact this might be desirable. Not that this would remove any of the history or obscure the suffering which occurred, but rather it might help us to move forward without the distractions of controversy, so that where issues of racism occur, they are dealt with rationally and quickly.

The ‘reclaiming’ of the word has been occurring for some years now, primarily by black musicians and comedians. But, despite the ubiquity of the word in various forms of entertainment, the edge remains. As a white man, the fact is that I cannot truly appreciate the word, cannot understand the feelings it evokes. But then, you might say that of anyone, no matter what colour, who lives in modern Britain and has never been enslaved. I think that the power of the word is that it underlines more than the history is suggests; it speaks to attitudes and divisions still present in many countries today. As a white man, it might be hard for me to understand and appreciate these attitudes. And I may have to accept that the word is just one I cannot justifiably utter. But it would be sad to see the emotion around the word prevent any true debate about the underlying issues, as it is only by exposing the issues that the people of Britain, regardless of colour, can hope to address and overcome them.