The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Photo: Columbia
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Our mob mentality is like a bad orchestra: we saw away at the same tunes and ignore the racket

At the Heart of Darkness is an unthinking trust in institutions. How else do you explain the Portsmouth Sinfonia?

In his story “An Outpost of Progress” – a prototype for the novella Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad writes of his colonialist protagonists that they were “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organisation of civilised crowds”. This perspective on the crowd is alien to us; we are perfectly prepared to believe that the crowd “dehumanises”; that when we find ourselves in a stampeding herd of crazed people, we ourselves may lose our reason and thereby our very individuality. What we find it harder to accept is that we may be who we are at all solely by virtue of the crowd. Conrad continues: “Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.”

So safe are those surroundings – for the average New Statesman reader, at least – that we forget all about the way our being is shaped socially, and start bellyaching about our fellows; as if it is they who constitute “the crowd”, with its weird panics, fads and delusions, while we mysteriously arrogate to ourselves the most exalted freedom of the will. I am always on the lookout for evidence of swarming behaviour in Homo sapiens, and I find it most tellingly in the epiphenomena which result from collective behaviours it is quite impossible for us to change.

Take the BlueMotion Volkswagen Golf. I drive one of these from time to time because the car club I belong to uses them. They’re perfectly sound examples of German engineering, but for some daft reason every time you come to a halt – at a traffic light, say – and disengage the clutch, the engine cuts out. Then when amber glows and you re-engage, the engine snorts back to life. Madness! Yes, yes, I know the thinking that informs such technologies (we’re going to use them to avert global warming); but even a few seconds pondering the matter leads to the conclusion: this can’t possibly work. Humanity burgeoned precisely because of its interaction with technology, but progress – inasmuch as it’s occurred at all – has never been a function of central planning, but rather a piecemeal series of fixes.

Illustration by Jackson Rees.

And that’s what BlueMotion is: a way of making vaguely “environmental” types with large chunks of disposable cash feel better about themselves – because any reduction in CO2 emissions the technology affords will be cancelled out many times over if they take a single plane flight. The melioristic view about global warming, advanced in the Stern report and now given a new lease of life by Naomi Klein (World’s Most Earnest Person), is that we can fix it by being better, kinder, more co-operative and cleverer people. Easy-peasy, eh? Yet if we listen to Conrad, who we are is solely a function of who everyone else is: “The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd . . .”

Note well: “every great and every insignificant thought”. So, even if we all have the thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we all worked together to lessen inequality, curtail consumption, and so at least palliate the fervid atmosphere,” as night follows day this is obviated by the insignificant thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to fly to Faliraki”, or, “I bet a 56-inch ultra-high-definition TV would look great in that corner.” We like to envision society as an orchestra; individual players may fluff the occasional note or phrase but the overall coherence of the band mitigates this, and so the piece being played still sounds harmonious. However, Conrad was perfectly clear about the nature of our crowd mentality: “[It] believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of the police and of  its opinion.”

This isn’t a subtle, supple, self-aware and self-correcting orchestra at all – rather, it reminds me of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an experimental musical group set up by the composer Gavin Bryars in the 1970s. The only requirement for joining the Sinfonia was that you couldn’t play your instrument. The results were great chuntering and yawping versions of popular classics; nevertheless, from the squalls of sound the alert listener would still piece together the traduced melody of Thus Spake Zarathustra, or “The Blue Danube”. The Sinfonia were so successful that their single “Classical Muddly” reached the Top 40 in 1981. How can we account for this lunacy if not by evoking the blind faith in institutions of which Conrad wrote?

We believe so blindly that when a group of people in evening dress sit down in a concert hall and begin to play they will produce music, that we are prepared to ignore the racket; and, by the same token, we believe so blindly in our own ineffable individuality that we neglect to notice how beautifully articulated our stereotypies are: we saw away at the same old tunes – reason, progress, the good, the beautiful and the true – quite convinced that it’s our arm willing the bowing. Yet if we allowed ourselves even an infinitesimal fermata, we would be assailed by the cacophonous crowd of automata surrounding us. This is the “high organisation” that renders our very existence possible – not the music of the spheres, but a caterwauling classical muddly.

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.