Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, the kind and non-judgmental hosts of Pointless. Photo: Getty Images
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At once fascinating, horrifying and mildly arousing, ignorance porn is everywhere (and I love it)

Shows like Pointless satisfy a new itch - to gawp at those who don't know obvious things, like what toast is. It's hardcore ignorance porn at its best.

“Stupidity is a talent for misconception,” said Edgar Allan Poe, ages ago.

While shaping the history of gothic literature, marrying his 13-year-old cousin, contracting various antiquated diseases and fixating, verbosely, on decomposing flesh, Edgar Allan “Fun Times” Poe took a moment to recognise stupidity as a talent.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, cross the Atlantic to the UK, and a couple of monumentally-talented quiz show contestants have never heard of the guy.

I watch BBC One’s Pointless religiously. Working from (your parents’) home has its perks. Being able to drop everything, every weekday evening at 5.15, yell, “Pointless!” at my mum and have her “warm up” the TV in preparation for our 45 minutes of pure, tea-fuelled viewing bliss, is probably the perkiest perk.

Pointless, for those who are missing out horribly, is a programme where some people who – well – probably shouldn’t be competing on a quiz show, and a few slightly cleverer people, battle it out to see who has the most obscure knowledge. While the smarty pantses usually win, the entertainment is provided almost entirely by the people who think linoleum is a vegetable, lemons are bats and Ross Kemp is the capital of France. Or, as was the case in a recent show, have never heard of Edgar Allan Poe.

Now, I don’t want to sound all “I have an English literature degree, I eat artichokes and know who the fuck Edgar Allan Poe is”. But, for a poet, this guy is remarkably visible in popular culture. He’s heavily referenced in more than one Simpsons episode. His sad, moustachioed face is practically a logo. If the name isn’t ringing any bells, I challenge you to Google image it and not recognise that face. You’ve probably at least seen it on a T-shirt worn by a gothy teenager who thinks that he knows some unfathomably dark truth because he smokes Djarum Black cigarettes and has Nosferatu on DVD.

But back to Pointless. When a contestant comes up with a particularly silly answer to a question I practically start salivating. Meanwhile, presenters Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman (who seems like the nicest man on earth) are ostensibly non-judgemental. True professionalism, it seems, is keeping a straight face when someone has just come up with Simon Cowell when asked to name someone on the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people (this actually happened).

“Dude, no way does she think that! Jesus fucking Christ, what is wrong with people?” I’ll say, so excited by this horrible situation that I’ve started calling my mum “dude”. There’s no way around it: delving into the great, echoey gaps in other people’s knowledge makes for weirdly compelling TV. This is ignorance porn. It’s the phenomenon of someone saying something so stupid that it kind of makes you want to tug on your balls. This is unfortunate for me, seeing as I have very few testicles. Nevertheless, it’s a combination of fascination, horror and, for some reason, mild arousal.

When I was very little, I cut my finger. Having never seen blood before, I was so panicked that I kept a plaster on it for what seemed like months. When I finally psyched myself up into taking the plaster off, the tip of my finger had turned green and smelled like vinegar. I stared at that finger for a long, long time. It was so horrendous, so unashamedly repulsive that it was almost handsome. Like an inside-out Ryan Gosling, with his guts flailing all over the place. I enjoy other people’s ignorance in the same way that I enjoyed that unholy green finger.  

And I know it’s not just me. Ignorance porn is absolutely everywhere. Last month, for example, Tamara Ecclestone (a socialite of some description) revealed that she doesn’t know what toast is. By some miracle, this woman has thrived for thirty years in this unforgiving world, without that little nugget of knowledge. What ensued was an internet-wide extravaganza of people tugging on their balls. “She doesn’t. Know. What. Toast. Is. Holy shitbiscuits this is nuts,” said the internet, while enjoying itself thoroughly.

Similarly, earlier this year, when some poor 20-year-old from Blackpool tweeted about the UK’s “President Barraco Barner”, she became an unwitting ignorance porn star. The Only Way Is Essex's Joey Essex, on the other hand, is a true veteran of ignorance porn. The entire premise of the TOWIE spinoff, Educating Joey Essex, was “Joey Essex is not a particularly bright guy”.

Ignorance porn even has its very own Redtube in BuzzFeed, which seems to thrive on listing people who have been publicly thick. I can only speculate that our morbid obsession with other people’s stupidity comes from collective low self-esteem. Want to feel intelligent? Peruse a BuzzFeed listicle of cretins. What’s actually happening here is bullying on a humungous scale. It’s like everyone who was teased at school for being bookish is exacting revenge against The Idiotic.

Admittedly, there are almost definitely gaps in my knowledge that could form someone else’s ignorance porn. I have close to no knowledge of physics, and if I was tasked with killing, eviscerating and cooking a cow, I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, judging other people’s ignorance has made me utterly fixated on my own. I recently read the entire Wikipedia entry for microwaves, because I realised I had absolutely no idea how one works. And when it comes to ignorance porn, I’m a sports fan’s wet dream. Honest to God, The only cricketer I can name off the top of my head is the retired Ian Botham – and that’s only because he starred in that recent Twitter dick pic debacle. For all I know, those people who had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe could’ve been experts in cricket, microwaves and animal slaughter.

As ignorance porn has proven, stupidity is this great, palpable, throbbing thing. It almost seems a shame that we can’t harness its power as a source of clean energy. Imagine it: something resembling a wind turbine powered by people asking what the capital of Africa is.

Until that breakthrough, I’m going to try and cut down on my unhealthy ignorance porn habit. And maybe try out a butchery course.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser