Friday, 6 June 2008

Me and Mary Whitehouse

The other night I watched a BBC drama about Mary Whitehouse. As a kid I instinctively disliked her. Everything she said seemed nonsensical to me – even at the age of eight or whatever I was. Conversely, there was something about seeing the Sex Pistols on TV that seemed completely right. I had no idea what a ‘sex pistol’ was, and I didn’t understand much of what they were singing about, but I loved the cartoon-esque quality of their clothes, hair and posturing. And singing naughty songs about the Queen seemed like fun too. I definitely wanted to be a punk, not a Mary Whitehouse.

But as the years have passed, while still kind of wanting to be a punk, I have started to get more of a handle on where Mrs Whitehouse was coming from. And I find this a little unsettling. Perhaps I am getting old.

After watching the drama I got to thinking about culture, and how things change. A key argument against a Mary Whitehouse approach to mass media is that times change, and television simply reflects what’s going on in society. If television doesn’t move with the times, it will simply become irrelevant. But is that really true? Is it inevitable that society and culture must change? And if so, what causes that change?

So-called ‘primitive’ societies seem to remain in cultural stasis for hundreds of years. The cultural norms and beliefs are simply considered to be how things are, and that is that. There is no thought of smashing down the established ways, one simply fits in with whatever is the norm for one’s particular life stage – child; of marriageable age; parent; elder. This is the way of things. How do the members of such societies know what’s what? It says so in their folk tales, in their music and in their religion. These messages are communicated orally, at communal gatherings, and perhaps through painting, dancing, music, and so on. They are the media offerings of the society.

Cultural change therefore, appears to be something of a choice. And just as stasis is maintained through the media of the ‘primitive’ society, so the change is communicated through the media of our contemporary society. This choice of change is not made by any one person, or even any one group, but it is by no means inevitable.

It seems to me that, since we have broken down our traditional values and entered a period of postmodern relativism, the religion of popular science, and the worship of material things, we have lost our way. Culture moves on so quickly because we are frantically trying to find the path again. And mass media has played an important part in this.

Especially that media which is funded by advertising. Advertisers impact significantly on programming, and in magazines on the kinds of articles that get written - you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. This has been well documented so I won’t go on too much about it here (at least not today!).

Advertising is about stimulating demand for products – products that are, in the large majority of cases, unnecessary. The previous one has not yet worn out, but we need you to buy a new one, so we will have to come up with some way of moving culture on, or of giving the impression that culture has moved on, in order to make your current belongings appear old hat.

The advertising agenda is just one of the factors of course. Consider also the individual programme-maker’s need to make their mark. The best way to achieve this is to come up with something different, ground-breaking, and preferably controversial.

Then there is the competition between different channels for viewers. How do you achieve that? See above.

And so the margins of society are continually pillaged by daring media types for new fodder with which to shock and titillate. This is not for the sake of refining culture, or progressing culture, or even accurately reflecting changes in culture. It is to stimulate demand and attract an audience. In this way, mass media changes culture. And this change is not usually for the better.

And let’s not forget technology. Technological change (which again is not brought about by our need for it, but by business’ need to sell us more stuff so they can keep making money) is ripping through our society and changing it faster than ever before. Before the computer, the television; before the television, the cinema; before the cinema, the radio; before the radio, the printing press; and before that I have absolutely no idea.

Now I am as much to blame for all this as anyone. I value the individual above all, and the individual is the enemy of the group – the enemy of a homogenous society. And when you don’t have a homogenous society, all hell breaks loose. Things get untidy. An underlying insecurity creeps in – “Who am I? What’s it all about?” This insecurity and confusion creates opportunities for advertisers and entrepreneurs – “Buy this product and you will feel better. You will have the answer”.

And yet, still I say, “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what the concept of ‘country’ can do for you. It is a figment of the imagination, and if it serves no purpose, cast it out”. Be yourself. Explore those very questions – “Who am I? What’s it all about?” They are the most important questions a person can ask. And instead of demanding media ‘content’, demand real art and real documentary. Let the heart be opened and filled up, not simply distracted by a flickering in front of the eyes.

But this belief in the individual as the most important unit in society (as opposed to couple, family, neighbourhood or country for example) has its consequences. With freedom comes responsibility. And it seems to me that, as a culture, we are not taking that responsibility seriously enough.

If we do not believe in censorship from without, we must censor ourselves. We must choose wisely. Don’t just trot along with whatever the flock is doing – the shepherd does not have our interests at heart! As a consumer in a capitalist system we do in fact have significant power, if we can keep our heads. And remember consumers are also workers – we work in TV, we work in advertising, marketing, sales, production. If you need the job, take it – we all have to eat. But if you don’t need the job, take a better one! Or better still, set up your own thing. Something that you have a passion for and that benefits the world. You will feel a whole lot better about your life – both while you are living it, and when you arrive at its end.

I can imagine a reality TV programme in the not-too-distant future, where hidden cameras are placed inside the house of a paedophile, and the audience watches as children are groomed. Viewers can phone in to say when the police should enter, and which child they should rescue first. It would be cutting edge, it would be controversial, it would most certainly raise the profile of the channel that did it.

Is this shocking? Well did you know that a reality TV programme already exists where contestants, who are all in need of a kidney replacement, compete for the kidneys of a terminally ill woman? (The Big Donor Show – Holland, 2007). Someone came up with this idea, and the other people in the meeting said ‘Yeah, ok’.

One can always use the argument that these things are going on anyway and that TV simply raises awareness of the issue – to justify anything. People need kidneys. Let’s film it, and we’ll sort out the family of the donor with a pile of money. What is there to lose? Everyone’s a winner. No. Everyone is a loser. Trust me.

I don’t have any illusions about some previous golden age that we need to get back to. Homogenous culture is certainly not my trip. It is coercive, and it ends up tolerating such things as domestic violence, it calls having a child out of wedlock, or being homosexual, a sign of insanity, it does all manner of terrible things to individuals with different beliefs or behaviours from the herd. Sorry Mary Whitehouse, here we part company.

No, I’m talking about a potential future. If culture is to move on, maybe we can get it to move in a decent direction? I have a vision of a future where all people are educated, free-thinking individuals, who negotiate and co-operate with each other on that basis, for the benefit of all. A truly multicultural society, where we respect ourselves and respect each other. We can live this way whenever we want. As Ghandi said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world”. As John Lennon said, "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." As one of my friends says, “These are the golden years”.