14.08.1994

Eat your nice slices

Eat your nice slices
 
LYNETTE BURROWS
 
FASCISTS, in a strictly political sense, have always been thin on the ground in this country, but the emotional sort — those who want to force others to live according to their beliefs — are everywhere.
 
Consider Mrs Bottomley and the others responsible for the Health of the Nation plan. It is not just the absur­dity of the plan itself which is hard to stomach; it is the sheer wooden-headed effron­tery of the healthier-than-thou officials who don't seem to realise that they are talk­ing to fully human, mostly literate adults.
 
Whom is the advice intended for? Three-and-a-half slices of bread a day, and one-and-a-half pieces of fruit, are recommended; the half, of course, being designed to give the impres­sion that their calculations are so precise that the mer­est deviation would upset the perfect symmetry of the plan.
 
Advice about food is dis­pensed with as much care as would be required if they were talking about poten­tially dangerous, hitherto unknown medicines rather than the meat and two veg of ordinary life. They have been wrong so often that only a devout hypochondriac would take their advice seriously now. The mind boggles at the waste of money and at the ineptitude of a government department that commis­sions such provocation.
 
It is an interesting ques­tion why the officials who prepared the plan don't seem to give a damn about what the public think. Like the great dictators, they do not care if people hate them, as long as they fear them. I sup­pose the truth is that they are paid to do something and, —'"even though they plainly have not got enough to do and should be sacked whole­sale, they have got to find some activity to justify their salaries. We are all, literally and figuratively, the poorer for it.
 
IT IS a sad fact that the ability to be shocked is not really within our con­trol; it is culturally condi­tioned whether we like it or not. We may feel religiously, rationally, feministically or even just decently that the decision to show Last Tango in Paris on television last week was a surrender to the sort of permissive values that have made its star Mar­lon Brando the sorry creature he is; but somehow it is difficult to care.
 
Years of being genuinely outraged by excesses in the media have produced shock fatigue. We are still capable of being shocked, but only by extremes in real life. The most interesting moment, I thought, in the film shown on Wednesday night on Channel 4 about the deranged mass-murderer Charles Manson was when he described, in a short, graphic sentence, the sex orgies that he and his misnamed "family" indulged in.
 
It appeared almost attrac­tive and harmless in his terms. For a moment a pic­ture of ecstatic licence was conjured up in the viewer's mind. But it was followed immediately by a member of the Manson family, in jail for two of the murders, who readily agreed with the description of the orgies. "That is how we became desensitised," he said. He went on to describe how the excitement of sexual activity unrelated to deep feelings had robbed them of the abil­ity to feel, and turned them into people capable of murder.
 
Of course it can be argued that what happened in the case of the Manson gang and our obsession with sex and violence in films are unre­lated, but I am unconvinced. Even if drama involves "the willing suspension of disbe­lief", as is generally accepted, then the emotions it conjures are real. One fos­ters the emotion of cruelty by watching for enjoyment the suffering of others — even if they are only actors.
 
Aristotle believed that vio­lence in plays should be off­stage lest people become brutalised, and today we strictly censor racially inflammatory literature on the grounds that it has a harmful effect. But in other areas we have yet to accept that real emotions can be cre­ated merely by words and pictures. And that, in the end, the murderers in the Bulger case, no less than the Manson gang, were crucially influenced by desensitised experience; one real and the other vicarious. It is possible to anaesthetise the reaction of shock even to real events, and we shall probably discover too late that this is not always a good thing.
 
A NOVEL and discon­certing experience is to be patted on the back for being something one isn't. Some weeks ago I was sent a particularly repulsive book all about lesbians inseminating themselves with the sperm of homosex­uals so they could have chil­dren without involving themselves with men. Even the chapter headings gave me the vapours, and I put it aside for weeks before sit­ting down to read it, deter­mined not to spoil more than a morning by doing so.
 
It was an arduous job, largely because the book is unrelieved by any qualities of character or mind that one would expect to find in women contemplating motherhood. Apart from fer­vently hoping that the Child Support Agency would pursue the donor men, the thought kept occurring to me as I turned the pages that these must have been the sort of women they burned as witches in the past.
 
This feeling was in full flight as I finished the book, and there, nestling between the back pages, was a sweet little note from the Assistant Editor saying that I had been recommended as a person who would write a few words for use in their promotional material, encouraging inter­ested readers.
 
It's nice to know that someone among them has a sense of humour but, who­ever it was, she won't last long if they ever find out.