Friday 9 December 2011
Inside the Petri Dish
"You must be warned, sweetie," she said to me, flashing a look of care, "You might get some abuse if you write it, calling you 'gay' and so on."
So, I better point out from the start that I am both male and heterosexual. I like girls, cider and automotive technology. I know the difference between a mole grip and a half blood knot. I have enough chest hair to render an ECG impossible without the aid of a safety razor. I am straight man, hear me roar.
What subject might elicit such a stream of abuse? Well, Deborah was showing me an article about the language used by so called 'Lad's mags' and how it relates to that used by sex criminals. Two universities in the UK have worked together to find out what normal people (thus ruling me out as a test candidate) think about portions of text taken from the like of FHM et al, and some taken from the mouths of rapists. The results were surprising.
It seems that people expected the more extreme examples of sexually violent and degrading language to come from sex criminals. It'd be a comforting thought, really, if the mouths uttering such sentiments were locked up behind nice thick walls with little chance of parole. But no - this language is for sale on shelves across the nation for anyone, no matter their age.
Scary, isn't it? Take a look at these I've copied from the Jezebel article Can You Tell the Difference Between a Men's Magazine and a Rapist? (FYI I was wrong three times out of sixteen)
"Filthy talk can be such a turn on for a girl . . . no one wants to be shagged by a mouse . . . A few compliments won't do any harm either . . . ‘I bet you want it from behind you dirty whore' . . ."
"Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I've given up on girlfriends. They don't know how to satisfy me, but escorts do."
"Girls love being tied up . . . it gives them the chance to be the helpless victim."
Can you guess which of these was the voice of a rapist? None of them. They were all what I am in no doubt would be described as 'light hearted banter'.
I vaguely remember as a kid the launch of numerous Lad's Mags. They were billed as something a bit racy, a bit naughty, something to allow men to be men. It's the same, people would say, as the Sun and Page Three Girls.
I must admit here and now that, although I am a red blooded male, I'm not keen on Page Three. I have no objection to nudity, but there's something massively depressing about some young girl with no clothes on printed on poor quality news sheet. I vividly remember walking to school with another boy on a cold and rainy winter morning. Page Three of the sun was plastered onto the dirty tarmac of the road, portions of Suzi/Traci/Melinda's face washed away, her body become a palimpsest of the sodden layers of print. Like I say - depressing.
So the magazines were never going to be targeted at me. But, then, neither is Golfer Weekly or The Complete Basket Weaver. I respect both skills, but have no interest in subscribing, if you get what I mean. If, however, they wrote about the correct way to murder a vagrant with a nine iron, or how to weave the intestines of a recently gutted child into a handsome log basket, then I would have objections. And so I remain qualified to write about this subject.
I mentioned 'light hearted banter' before. I believe that these magazines have grown up in a petri dish shared with the likes of Top Gear and too many comics to mention. It's a dish both fed and protected by a sickly coloured gel formed from the notion that 'just having a laugh' forgives anything up to and including genocide. Any bacteria grown in this dish are safe from harm. No one can attack them with a suitable detergent, because anyone who tries 'just doesn't have a sense of humour'. And what's more, the disparate groups of mould within the dish gain mutual support by sharing with each other how put upon they are. In the case of the kind of stuff mentioned above, it's often painted as an attack against masculinity. We're just being men, right? If things carry on like this, we won't be able to fart during the queen's speech and headbutt random pensioners in the street.
Of course, this is an entirely faux fear created to sell whatever they're peddling. If you're a put upon group in the playground of life, you need your mates around you to keep you safe. This wouldn't be such a huge problem if the reality-challenged publication had a small output. Conspiracy theory stuff isn't much of a threat to society's sanity when it's just a couple of fan produced publications. But when something bills itself as the magazine for all young men and has the production values to pull that off? Well, that's suddenly a massive threat. And it's not just the magazines, of course. All the other groups - the Clarksonites and lovers of 'Northern Funny Men' all live their lives with the same 'you just don't have a sense of humour' shield against any kind of moral question.
I know very few jokes. I've taken one and honed it into a thirty-seven minute masterpiece of doom. Before that I knew a few...and one day told my wonderful Mad Cow Disease joke in a medical chat room.
Two cows in a field. First cow says to the second cow 'Aren't you worried about BSE?'. Second cow says 'Why would I be? I'm a helicopter.'
I'll just give you a second.
Recovered? Well, after I delivered that joke in the chat room there was deathly silence. Then someone wrote to inform me that they'd recently had a close relative die from CJD. If only the world could have swallowed me whole...
And there it is! There is that normal human reaction! I'd not said something terrible - certainly nothing on a par with the quotes above. But I'd hurt someone with a meaningless joke and that upset me. At no point did I feel I should say 'some people just don't have a sense of humour' and bimble on with my life, occasionally scratching some bodily crevice or other. I felt remorse and empathy for someone who, at the time, I didn't know at all. But that's the great thing about being a member of the human race - you don't have to buy a magazine at over £5 a time to be a member.
It's funny, really, that I find hope for British men in a programme whose key presenter hails from the Clarksonian stable - namely James May's Man Lab. Although not perfect, this programme focuses upon teaching practicality, appreciation and, I think, just a little enthusiasm and wonder. In this last run, they encouraged teenaged rock bands to reform as adults, created an Eden of their office toilet block, and sent the ashes of two beloved family pets into the heavens via a pair of balloons. Silly it may be, but there was no troublesome language. People were treated with respect. To be a man was not to limit ones' interaction with the world to the images sold by heartless caricatures of humanity. To be a man, says James May, is to interact with music, literature and history, to value the ideas and skills of others (even if they are female) and to be creative.
Deborah shared with me this wonderful blog post which makes a very good point. If we are to like something which is problematic to other people, we have to acknowledge that problem and be willing to discuss and learn from it. If we do not, then we are twits.
Talking of which - a good example of this can be seen in the recent Ricky Gervais debacle. If a human being had said 'mong', only to be met with upset folk asking him not to, the human reaction would have been to acknowledge the upset and open a dialogue as an opportunity for mutual growth and understanding. Instead, Gervais informed those people that the meaning of the word had changed. They'd just not kept up with the real world. Society had changed and they hadn't. In other words, not only had they not got a sense of humour, they were lost to reality.
I'd argue that it is the other way around. A reality has been created in the minds of all these people. This reality is covered by the 'sense of humour shield'. They can and will say anything they like, thriving on their mutual appreciation. In reality, of course, they are confined and alone in their petri dish and have no knowledge of normal human life and its joys. It is our responsibility to live our lives well and to monitor the size of the dish. It's gotten scarily large of late and I think it's time we did more to define what it is to be male and, more importantly, what it is to be a member of the human race.