Saturday, 8 December 2018

They Are Not Amused: Underlying Religious Impulses

Does anyone read blogs anymore?  Hard to know.  Leave a comment?

I was thinking again. And I read this thought-provoking article by Andrew Sullivan today, and had that old familiar feeling. That feeling of having been thinking the same sort of thing myself for some time, and not knowing if anyone but me was on the same page.  I don't have anything quite the same to offer, but here is an account of my own related experiences:

As I've written about before at length, I grew up in the kind of Christian church where it was not ok to say "Merry Christmas."  In fact, though I grew up in a Protestant church whose doctrine wasn't terribly different from any other such place in practice, there were definitely some oddities people raised Mormon or Jehovah's Witness might recognize:

Avoidance of the word "church" and "pastor" and "sermon" and "Christmas" and so on were all How It Was Done. This meant that we certainly went to church every Sunday and listened to sermons by men who were functioning as pastors, but we didn't call any of it that.  Predictably, this meant all of it happened in a cloud of deniability George Orwell would have recognized.  The sentence "I didn't agree with what the pastor said in his Christmas sermon at church this week" simply couldn't exist.  You'd be left with "I didn't agree ____ this week."

Needless to say, not only were "Christmas" and "church" on the list of words that decent, clued-in, accepted insiders did not use (about our own activities anyway, having "holiday" or "winter" events, rather than "Christmas" ones like other less spiritually enlightened groups), but the usual swear words, racial epithets and body-function words were all of course verboten as well, especially if you wanted to keep your status as a public figure.

Our group was status-based, like any other human group, and so there were all of these words and ideas that were viewed as "problematic" and would end up getting one de-platformed and publicly shunned and shamed and generally cut out of the dating pool. (I know of what I speak) I grew up seeing the thing happen, where guys would tour around the country, teaching our non-church church groups their understanding of Christianity, but then a single misstep in terms of word choice or concept, a fair or unfair association with someone or something deemed problematic, and that man disappeared from public view, within that church world, reputation irrevocably destroyed. "Bad teaching."  "Bad doctrine."  "Heresy." It was always a man speaking as it was a patriarchy, but it was the sort of patriarchy in which women had an equal opportunity to be offended by anything, and character assassinate people right along with the men.  And character assassinate they did.  Humourlessly.

It was like a contest in which those who found the most things offensive or problematic were the who'd woken up spiritually, and those who didn't claim to feel that offence were manifestly spiritually asleep, and obviously, troublingly part of toxic, befouled mainstream society, rather than our enlightened subgroup.

Humour was a particularly sticky area.  Humour was never really used much for sermons, which were about reverence and correctness and sacrifice, and were not about our entertainment or catharsis. But in personal life too, one had to be in very carefully chosen company to get away with telling or repeating jokes with a sexual, religious, drunken or body-function based punchline. Being witty or funny did not really gain one any status as a public figure in our group. Sisters, cousins, aunts and friend's brothers might alike suddenly get the serious face and "have a word" about the incorrectness of one's speech and deportment.

Of course, in theory you could always do or say whatever you liked, but you had to be ready for some gimlet-eyed person to bring a truly Victorian attitude into the conversation, and hint broadly (or state plainly) that your speech or your humour was evidence of you being a bad person, and clearly too much a comfortable, unthinking part of the evil, flawed system that was society, rather than carefully separate from it, in our church that we didn't call church. That you were poisoning and corrupting the conversation, if not the room itself with your toxic contributions.

I'm sure you can see where I'm headed with all of this: In my 20s, I "wandered" into the evil system that was late 20th century Western society, with its music and alcohol, its rape and theft and addictions and mental illness and toxic, corrupting content in movies, music and television, all ready to enjoy the freedom I thought would be out here. I thought I'd be able to listen to whatever songs I liked, watch whatever TV shows and movies I wanted, and talk to or hang out with whomever I liked, even publicly talking about religion, sex, body-functions or whatever, without someone going sour-faced and telling me they saw certain evidence that I was a bad person, and clearly part of the evil system that is society. Without anyone deciding I was unfit to have respect, a voice, a job, a relationship.

Well, I'm not sure I need to write the rest of this. I think you know how the world outside my prim, censorious, stiff, culty little church looks to me, now that I'm out here.

I'll just say that noted atheist and wit Stephen Fry's main complaint about the language policing of modern society is that it is sanctimonious, anti-humour and dryly pious. Takes itself terribly seriously and punishes anyone who laughs at it or anything it has decided is sacred.  Well, I'm seeing neo-Victorianism all around, with things like gender and sexual orientation replacing the old issues of sexuality as Things Best Not To Talk About and Certainly Far Too Important To Use Humour To Explore Our Feelings About.

I'm seeing an enforced consensus of a particular brand of social uprightness that neither I, nor anyone I know, got to vote upon.

Sobering fact: I sacrificed acceptance in my birth culture, with its clear nostalgia for/insistence upon Victorian propriety, hymns and sermons (and Elizabethan translations of the bible), in order to get something new, and to get room to breathe.  To taste more freedom. To taste life. The one thing I thought I could count on about life in the world outside my church sect was that it would not be careful, humourless and boring.

Well, it doesn't feel terribly different out here now. Not nearly different enough. And none of this "new wokeness" feels at all new to me. Quite the opposite. Little has changed. They are not amused. Still.