Some years ago when visiting one of my Sons, their teenage babysitter was talking about her recent shoe buying spree, I made a remark about Emelda Marcos who was a well known passionate hoarder of shoes. My Daughter in Law looked at me smiled and said “She has no idea who you are talking about.” Of course she was right and as you get older, things you think of still as fairly recent, often turn out to have happened 20 or 30 years ago.
This came to mind with the recent hullabaloo concerning “MP Anne Marie Morris suspended for racist remark” a clear case of total nonsense bought about by spite and a hungry media.
The Need to Update
The point that I set out to make in my opening story about Emelda Marcos is that ALL of us as we grow older need to revise and update our cultural references in order to remain relevant and this is even more so if we hold any public facing job as an MP obviously does. The “offence” of Anne Morris was to use the phrase “…the nigger in the wood pile” in reference to the UK ending up with no deal with the EU prior to actual Brexit. Obviously someone didn’t like her and set out to harm her with a ‘leak’ but this too is sadly very much part of modern public life, ask Prince Harry he has suffered loads of this shit over the years.
In terms of saying that something is hidden or being deliberately ignored, “the elephant in the room” would have been a more appropriate phrase to use. Whilst those of us who were very much emotionally involved in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement in the US would understand the historical context of “niggers in woodpiles”, I doubt subsequent generations would. The consequence is that people seized upon the one word “Nigger” and that is of itself disturbing but sadly, not unusual. I would hate to imagine what would result from an MP using the phrase “…to queer your/the pitch”, probably the shredding of a thousand tissues and LGBT protest marches on Downing Street.
The key point is that people in public life do need to constantly think about then refresh their vocabulary and stock phrases in order to keep their communications to others effective and as relevant as possible. However they should also bear in mind that rightly or wrongly, social sub groups and sub cultures particularly among the young have often laid claim to or hijacked words and phrases which they have made exclusively their own and their use is designed deliberately to exclude ‘outsiders’ however those are defined.
So basic rule of thumb emerges, don’t try to ingratiate by using language that is not genuinely your own but if it is, check it for current relevance. Two MPs who seem highly successful with doing this are both a bit eccentric in some respects but pretty genuine in their use of language, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg.
As I have often said, in post war Britain and quite possibly with variations, elsewhere too the 1960s were a watershed both socially and culturally and my actual generation was there in the front line of tremendous change. Of course, rather like when you were a little kid and loved by your parents, you didn’t appreciate it until much later when the cold winds of reality hit you in adult life, so too with being a small part of social history, it is only later that you come to realise and appreciate it. I could write at length about those times but for the purposes of this post there is just one aspect that I want to focus on, an understanding between generations.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I do not intend to paint a picture of generational harmony for that is rarely true throughout history but perhaps because for ordinary people, life and economic reality moved at a glacial pace there was one aspect that is missing today. I may have had strong disagreements over this or that with my Parents, Grandparents, Uncles or Aunts from time to time and strongly defended my views but despite their opposition, I knew where they were “coming from”. I understood the world that had shaped them and why they were this way or that on different issues.
I suppose it also helped that in the post war 1950s, working class families like ours still lived as “extended families” living physically close together, down the road and around the corner from each other so that the generations within the broader family were constantly in touch on a daily basis something very rare today I would guess. But what this also did by hearing the family stories as a child, you too were part of that continuum and had an understanding of it even though you had to find your own path and break new ground for yourself.
However from the late 1950’s into the 60’s everything changed and as the UK economy grew and opportunities improved families became dispersed so that my children never experienced the “extended family” instead it became the “nuclear family” wholly centred on parents and their children. A consequence was that the children that my generation spawned had little to no idea of what influences their parents let alone grandparents had experienced that shaped their beliefs and opinions so society became just that bit more self centred a process that is now totally embedded into it. Modern society is one of the “white van driver” where rear view mirrors are considered relevant because what is behind and past has no importance today.
Attention Span Deficit
What seems to have evolved as a consequence is a rather adolescent view of the world where “history” is only a 10 year span for many people which in turn has been translated into a maximum 10 years at the top lifespan for politicians. As someone pointed out recently, the reason Corbyn and his nutcase view of the world seems attractive is because people never experienced the disaster that Labour governments prior to the Blair era were, so bad that even the working classes turned against them. The only successful Labour period in power was under Blair which was very much a “centrist” left wing government which today is specifically repudiated by Corbyn and his gang.
This attention deficit also includes the majority of current MPs of all parties for whom the Heath/Wilson years that the current situation mirrors to some extent, is not something that they are aware of or if so, realise how relevant the lessons from those times are for them in the here and now.
What This Means
If someone wants to live their lives in the spotlight and are not from the world of entertainment and the arts where they might be cultural trend setters, they need to constantly and consciously, hone both their language and cultural references.
For someone of my generation a reference to the fall of Singapore during WWII where “the guns were facing in the wrong direction” as summing up someone or some organisation being sunk by something they didn’t expect, is a cultural shorthand. However and unless someone was a military or history buff, it is meaningless to the current generations but it is more than this because the ground is in constant motion.
An example that you might imagine as being more relevant, the rather rapid decline of Nokia because they didn’t see the smartphone coming, is also just as irrelevant because the iPhone is 10 years old which means for most young people, they can’t imagine a world where smartphones didn’t exist so such a reference to a brand important and remembered only by a previous generation needs to be far more recent than that even.
Coming back to Anne Morris and her “nigger in the woodpile”, it is obvious that she didn’t intend to cause offence to black people or even condone any kind of slavery so the faux outrage is rather misplaced however she is guilty of being politically inept and needs to update her vocabulary. Although at one level it is a pity that politics can never attract sufficient “real and original” people because of a combination of poor pay/conditions and a media, desperate to survive even though they won’t in their current form, who will jump on the slightest slip of the tongue or assumed cultural error, those who enter this bear pit need to be sharper than Anne Morris was in this instance.