Thursday 30 May 2013

Judge and jury

The older I get, the more reluctant I am to judge others, and the more astonished I am that so many people feel qualified to do so. I know so little about other people - their lives, their psyches, their personal struggles, their burdens. Who am I to judge them and tell them what they should or shouldn't be doing?

I know how little others understand about me, about the complexities and subtleties of my personality. I know how often they jump to conclusions, or give me idiotic advice, or turn me into someone I'm not. If others are so bad at judging me, can I be any better when I'm doing the judging? So why not keep my thoughts to myself?

It's easy to over-simplify other people's lives, to think their problems are obvious and the solutions equally obvious. But how much do I really know about the tangle of motives and feelings and compulsions and desires that have made them what they are and make them behave the way they do? My glib views and assumptions are probably laughably ignorant and insulting.

But how often do you hear people casually passing judgment on others, as if it's a totally normal thing to do? "You really ought to lose a few pounds." Or "you could get a job if you tried a bit harder." Or "that hairstyle doesn't suit you at all." Or "you're just too self-absorbed." Why do they think they know better than the person they're dissing? As Laura Mvula puts it "Who made you the centre of the universe? Who made you judge and jury over me?"

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about people's opinions. Opinions are always fair game, always open to challenge and argument. I'm talking about people's identity, what they actually are. Unless they're threatening my life, that's none of my business.

So be what you want to be. Pure-hearted or wicked. Fat or thin. Hairy or silky-smooth. Lazy or industrious. I'm saying nothing.

Monday 27 May 2013

Revenge is sweet?

I don't understand revenge. I've never sought revenge on anyone, however badly they've treated me. I've never felt that it would do me any good. If anything, it would just make me feel guilty and mean and belligerent.

But apparently a lot of people find revenge deeply satisfying. They find it cathartic, liberating, perversely enjoyable. They like to rub someone's face in their failings and make them feel as dreadful as possible.

It seems especially common among jilted or dissatisfied lovers. Women who slice up their partner's clothes or write insults on their cars or circulate embarrassing photos on the internet. Men who cut off their wives without a penny or make out they're promiscuous sluts.

Can it really be cathartic? Maybe if the person has treated you particularly shabbily. Maybe if you just want to get the frustration and anger out of your system. Maybe if you want to show them you're not simply a doormat they can wipe their feet on.

But I've never felt the urge. My father treated me badly. One or two employers have treated me badly. Some supposed friends have treated me badly. But mostly I just shrugged my shoulders, rescued my self-esteem and moved on. I never "had it in" for them. I never wanted to "give them a good kicking." That desire in itself would affect my self-esteem. It would feel undignified, cheap, vulgar, primitive. I prefer to hold my head up high and turn my back on them.

Revenge strikes me as a kind of "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" principle, which I've never agreed with. Two wrongs don't make a right, and to my mind revenge is precisely one wrong added to another. If you want catharsis, why not just look for a better lover, a better friend, a better employer? Surely that'll do more for you in the long run than cutting up someone's clothes?

But maybe I'm just lacking a normal, healthy, full-bloodied emotion that needs to be indulged from time to time. Maybe I'm simply too kind-hearted, too phlegmatic, too rational.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Man hunt

Once again, people are saying there's a "crisis in masculinity", that men are paralysed by uncertainty, no longer knowing what it means to be masculine. They just can't function, the poor dears, without some clear-cut definitive gender role to help them on their way.

Well, pardon me, but I think this alleged crisis is pure bullshit. Who cares about masculinity anyway? Why are men so hung up on this irrelevant concept? What the hell does it mean in any case?

It's one of those nebulous terms that changes meaning about every five minutes. Ask a hundred people what it means and they'll all give you a different definition. It's about as clear-cut as San Francisco fog. If it means anything at all, it's mostly negative qualities like toughness, aggression, hardness, lack of emotion, insensitivity and stubbornness.

I've got a much better suggestion for all those men rushing after their elusive masculinity. Why not kiss it goodbye and concentrate on being a human being, a valued friend, a decent person, a caring citizen? Much easier to understand and it does everyone a lot more good. I mean, who would you prefer - someone "masculine" or a trusted friend who helps you through a tough time? Isn't that a no-brainer?

Who cares if  a man is "gender-confident"? I would just want him to be someone I can talk freely to, someone who understands my hang-ups and my complexities, someone who's encouraging and sympathetic, someone who accepts me for what I am. Isn't that what we're really searching for?

All these well-meaning pundits are missing the point. They're chasing after something that simply doesn't matter. It's not a crisis of masculinity, it's a crisis of character, of decency, of compassion. Let's start looking in the right place.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Eating disorder

"Almost no one has a normal relationship with food" - Lionel Shriver*

How very true that is. When I was young, people had breakfast, dinner and supper, and that was it. They might have had the odd biscuit or slice of cake in between whiles. Nowadays we all have different eating habits. Snacks, sandwiches, full meals, binges. Who knows what I'm eating or what you're eating? The old routines have vanished.

Likewise, when I was small, people mostly just ate what was put in front of them. They weren't especially faddy or particular. But now everyone has their personal likes and dislikes, not to mention allergies and medical problems, and providing meals that cater for all tastes is increasingly difficult.

Again, when I was a kid it was rare for people to eat in the street; it was considered vulgar and improper. Maybe a bag of chips or an ice cream. Anything else had to be eaten indoors. But today people eat absolutely anywhere, regardless of the mess, the smell or the sheer amount they're eating.

And now there are also the huge numbers of people who're anorexic, or bulimic, or grossly overweight, and whose eating habits are even more out of line.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the way we eat has become so individual and so unpredictable? Does it encourage unhealthy obsessions and fetishes that are screwing us up? Or does it mean people are free to follow their own bodily needs and not other people's?

Lionel Shriver faced the same dilemma as she watched her brother Greg get heavier and heavier but was powerless to stop him. By the time he died from respiratory failure at 55, he was about 400 pounds. Lionel herself is small and skinny and eats only one meal a day.

So when do we treat someone's eating habits as a personal matter we shouldn't comment on, and when do we say it's a health issue that needs urgent attention? It's a very tricky question.

*Lionel Shriver - American author of "Big Brother", "We Need To Talk About Kevin", "The Post Birthday World" and "So Much for That"

Friday 17 May 2013

A bit of lippy

It's funny how lipstick has fallen in and out of fashion over the centuries. Nowadays it's so normal that most women wear it regularly and around 25% of women wouldn't leave the house without it. But it wasn't always that popular.

Lipstick was common in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but as Christianity took hold in Europe in the 4th century it was seen as irreligious and rapidly banished. The Catholic Church condemned cosmetics, linking red lipstick with Satanic worship.

Then it returned in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I ignored religious scruples and inspired the fashion of a white face and garishly painted lips.

But lipstick fell out of favour again in the 18th century, increasingly seen as gawdy and vulgar and relegated to lower-status women like actresses and prostitutes. The obvious use of cosmetics was frowned upon by respectable women.

It was only in the late 19th century that lipstick made another comeback when it was marketed commercially during the industrial revolution and American actress Sarah Bernhardt started putting on lipstick in public.

By the early 1920s American and British women regarded lipstick as an essential daily requirement. Lipstick became so popular that by the 1960s it was women without lipstick who attracted criticism, often dismissed as lesbians or oddballs.

And of course lipstick has seldom been used by men, unless they're gay or actors - or both. It's seen as a classic indicator of femininity and woe betide any male who gets in on the act. He'll either be scorned or laughed at for such emasculating behaviour.

Well, just imagine if men always wore lipstick and heels. You simply couldn't take them seriously, could you?

Friday 10 May 2013

Health check

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Wednesday 8 May 2013


Just when did it get to be a faux-pas to make people "uncomfortable"? I keep reading about unfortunate people who've been made "uncomfortable" by some seemingly routine occurrence and I wonder why this fleeting squeamishness is taken so seriously.

Why is it suddenly so necessary to feel "comfortable", to be spared any sense of embarrassment, of awkwardness, of bewilderment? Why are such quite natural reactions seen as unthinkable?

Feeling uncomfortable is a normal everyday experience, a way of adjusting to new situations. If you never feel uncomfortable, you're never going to learn anything about yourself or about the world. You'll be stuck forever in an over-protected bubble.

A Michigan mother has complained that passages in Anne Frank's diary made her daughter feel "uncomfortable" because they were "pornographic" and "inappropriate". The passages in question were simply descriptions of a young girl's body.

If her daughter didn't know much about her body, then yes, what Anne Frank wrote probably did make her uncomfortable. But the result was that she learnt things and was better informed.

There's nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable. If on the other hand you're feeling offended, or belittled, or mocked, that's different. That's a genuine attack on your self-esteem and your dignity that needs challenging.

But let's not elevate a bit of functional awkwardness into a major psychic trauma that calls for kid gloves in all directions. In fact we should encourage a daily diet of occasional discomfort just as we encourage the regular consumption of high-fibre foods.

It's good for you, dammit, just stop making such a fuss!

Thursday 2 May 2013

Only human

Isn't it fun when someone who seemed to be so angelic, so saintly, so pure, turns out to have some unsuspected Achilles Heel that makes them more like a human being - and more like you and me?

It's so galling when a person comes on as the perfect mother or Ms Generosity or Mr Infinitely-Patient-And-Understanding, and you're all too aware of your own boundless faults and failings.

You want to be admiring and complimentary, but there's a part of you that's also irritated and niggled by this apparent perfection, this inhuman flawlessness that just seems too good to be true.

You're constantly on the lookout for the cracks in the facade, the chinks in the armour, the carefully hidden reality behind the public persona. And you're constantly frustrated that it always seems to be the real McCoy.

Then one day you just happen to discover that the perfect mother has slapped her child, or Ms Generosity walked straight past a homeless person, or Mr Infinitely Patient showered a sales assistant with abuse, and you're so relieved because they've turned out to be mere mortals after all and not some impossible, unassailable paragon of virtue. They're just like me! They have feet of clay! Woo hoo!

Even better of course if over and above the contradictory behaviour they let slip that they have some truly debilitating weakness that's constantly about to overwhelm them - they're a slave to alcohol or drugs, they can't stop shopping, they like to be whipped, they're neat freaks. And you think, thank God for that, they're as human as the rest of us, they have their inner demons and their embarrassing habits. They've finally fallen off the pedestal. They've come clean.