Friday, September 03, 2004

Mary Whitehouse Was Right II

Following in the footsteps of Yasmin Alibhai Brown, John Humphrys wonders where it's all gone wrong in his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Festival.

Humprhys acknowledged that his comments could be characterised as "coming from the collected works of Mary Whitehouse", the veteran clean-up campaigner. "She said television was on a downward moral spiral. Foul language and fornication would become routine if nothing were done to stop it. They said she was wrong. Was she?"

Of course she was right, John. Let me tell you why. When you, and I, and lots of young people, and some not so young, cheered on the defendants in the Lady Chatterley and Oz trials, mocked Mrs Whitehouse and the Festival Of Light (I remember counter-demonstrating as the 'Festival Of Life'), we'd all been brought up in what was still a Judaeo-Christian culture. We were under the illusion that you could open the floodgates just as much as we wanted and no more. Mrs Whitehouse, with an explicit Christian analysis, correctly reasoned that without a Christian culture (or a strong culture replacing it) there were potentially no limits to what was permissible.

Christianity and the other major world religions have been around a long time. They understood, accepted and respected the power of sexuality, which was precisely why it was bound in with all manner of prescription, proscription, culture and custom. Procreation, the link between sexuality and the family, then and now still the chief transmitter of culture between the generations, was similarly attended.

Then two things happened - the decline in religious belief coincided with the invention of cheap and reliable contraception, an invention which appeared at the time to sever the link between sex and procreation. Sex could become, according to your nature, a means of deepening a fulfilling relationship, good fun, better than sleeping alone, or something different to all of these. The choice was yours.

If you have no religious perspective and sex is a pleasant leisure activity, why should you not explore its dimensions, watching, participating, selling, buying ? After all, these dimensions have been around for a very long time. Mrs Whitehouse would have been well aware of these issues. As time passes the Humphrys view (1960s version) looks more and more out of touch with reality, and the Whitehouse version more and more realistic and worldly.

What's happening now is different. This is a battle between people who are concerned about society and those whose interest is simply to make programmes that make money. Those who fought for the word f*** in Lady Chatterley didn't do it to make money. Now the cash registers go ker-ching every time there's a fumble beneath the bed sheets.

How naive can you get ?

There has always been a clash between freedom, especially freedom of expression, and the conservative wish to preserve values. In the 60s, Mary Whitehouse was taken apart by the liberal elite, who defended Lady Chatterley and the Oz publishers, arguing - in my view rightly - that it was not just censorious but stupid to pretend that sex happened only in the marital bed. This was a genuine debate between different views of what was good for society.

I'm beginnning to see a picture here - that it was alright when my mates were opening the gates, but now the peasants have all rushed in. Let's have a look at two parts of that argument.

" ... it was not just censorious but stupid to pretend that sex happened only in the marital bed." I don't think anyone, even Judge Griffith-Jones, ever pretended that sex only happened in the marital bed. The point of the Chatterley trial was more the (for the time) graphic descriptions of the sex than the fact that it was adulterous. And hang on a mo. What did you write a paragraph earlier ?

"You can't use people with real lives and real problems and real children as "just entertainment". Well, you can, but it's corrupting. The first time I watched Big Brother live there were two men lying on beds and talking about women. Or rather "f*****g women". And talking about their responses to them. Or, rather, "my f*****g stiffy". My, how we've pushed back the boundaries of television. How proud we should be."

I hate to say it John, but it is not just censorious, but stupid to pretend that some men don't talk like that. Why is that speech, apart from a certain inarticulacy, so much worse than Lawrence's description of a tumescent Mellors ?

"This was a genuine debate between different views of what was good for society."

Your point being ? In a post-Christian culture, it seems generally agreed that giving people what they want is good, and there can be no doubt that people like watching sex and fighting (not usually simultaneously).

The old culture was quite comfortable with the idea that what people wanted wasn't necessarily what was good for them - or as Humphrys puts it "in the bad old days we had paternalists trying to capture the masses for what they believed in their patrician way to be good". Wrong again, John. By the 1960s the ruling elite didn't give a toss, and it was the despised lower-middle and respectable working class who provided the bulk of Mrs Whitehouse's support.

But without a Christian or other religious culture I really can't see how you can object to Stu and Shell on grounds of anything but taste. This is probably only a beginning. Humphrys has called for assisted suicide to be made legal. I'm sure there are people who'd pay good money to watch the death in real time - with perhaps a lottery involved, the lucky winner to remotely operate the barbiturate driver from their PC or mobile. Poor countries which still retain the death penalty have a sure-fire media earner. And how long before sex is classified as a sport ?

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