The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 22nd, 2004

A family’s grief can teach us nothing about the war

Anyone who has a low opinion of Tony Blair and John Prescott ought to have been absolutely delighted by their embarrassing public denunciation by Rose and Maxine Gentle last week.

Gentle and her daughter are in mourning for Fusilier Gordon Gentle of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, their son and brother, who died when he was only 19 on the day the American coalition handed over sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government. He was blown up by a roadside bomb in Basra after serving only three months in the army.

Mother and daughter went to Downing Street where they were received not by the prime minister, who is busy on his lamentable holiday jaunts, but by our deputy prime minister — he of the white-water rescue that wasn’t — to express their anger at Gordon’s death and their demand that Blair should resign. They made various other angry accusations and in the end walked out on Prescott in contempt.

That seems to me entirely reasonable in itself. The Gentles are and ought to be free to make their feelings known like any other citizen. But when they were interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme on Friday in the prime political slot at 8.10am, demanding that our troops should be pulled out of Iraq, I found that I was angry.

This was a classic example of the contemporary infantilisation of public debate — a deliberate emphasis on personal feelings rather than on rational, dispassionate adult argument, on the assumption that, like infants, we the public are not mature enough to respond beyond personal feeling and can’t be expected to. This is convenient commercially since the infantile corresponds so closely to the sensational, and there are megabucks to be made out of all that sensational emoting.

There is probably little that one can or should do to stop the independent media capitalising on this or splashing such personal, emotional responses, and it would be a bad day for Britain if protests like the Gentles’ were not aired widely.

But for a public service broadcaster and an influential, reputable political programme such as Today to splash such personal emotion across the airwaves as if it amounted to serious debate is another matter. The BBC should not be taking part in this infantilisation of the listener, least of all when exploiting the bereaved at the same time. It should be a bulwark against the trivialisation of public discourse.

The terrible grief of the Gentles and their understandable anger have no bearing on the rights and the wrongs of the invasion of Iraq or the deployment of troops.

Their dreadful personal loss does not give them any special insight into what is going on in Iraq and certainly no insight that they did not have before Gordon died or that families of surviving soldiers in his regiment do not have. They are entitled to their views but you can be absolutely sure that if Gordon had not died, his mother and sister would have been of no public interest whatsoever. As it is, they teach us nothing.

The death of even one soldier is, of course, terrible. Everyone thinks so. But it can make no difference to my view or yours about the current complexities in Iraq or about the invasion.

The BBC should have had nothing to do with the Gentles, especially as it seems that they may have links with anti-war lobbyists, who may perhaps be exploiting them as well.

The Gentles’ Today interview is a glaring example of the infantilisation of debate, but it is only one of many. The massacre at Dunblane produced plenty, for instance. As soon as media sharks had arrived, in their feeding frenzy they began asking the shocked inhabitants — in almost the same breath — both for their feelings and for their views on gun control.

This was our media at their contemporary worst. For obviously enough there is no special reason to suppose that a particular person in the street has any well-considered views at all on gun control, or on anything else, merely because a sensational shooting has just taken place that has probably profoundly disturbed them.

And equally obviously a person who is probably in deep shock is hardly in the best state to give her views at all, well considered or otherwise. It was not only a failure of human kindness to ask them; it was a serious intellectual mistake and one that has been rapidly creeping up on public argument.

In serious argument you cannot generalise from the particular. That used to be an old chestnut of school philosophy lessons: you cannot extrapolate from one instance or from one personal experience, and most particularly not from one unusual experience. That was why in the bad old days women had such a poor reputation for intellectual rigour. It was believed that women argued purely personally, from personal experience.

Whether that was fair to women, the objection was reasonable enough in itself. It is unsound to generalise from your own limited personal experience, for obvious reasons. But these days, I suspect, the reasons may no longer be so obvious, if only because of the dumbing down of general education.

Judging from last week’s reports about A-levels, I wonder whether more than a minority of A-star students would know the meaning of the word “extrapolate”.

With all due respect to my sex, I have long suspected that the dumbing down of the media has also, in part at least, been due to the feminisation of the media, following the increasing power of women generally and of feminists in the media.

Sixties feminists came up with the slogan “the personal is the political”. This was entirely understandable because for so long personal feelings had been too much repressed in western culture, privately, publicly and politically. But with feminism came an extreme overreaction and today the personal is hugely overemphasised.

It has almost reached the point where if you do not have direct personal experience of something, you may be considered unqualified to speak about it, no matter how much expertise you may have. Contrariwise, a person who does have direct personal experience of something, however uninformed, inexpert or unqualified she may be otherwise, will be listened to seriously.

For instance, on the subject of disability I have various views that are far from politically correct and I occasionally speak publicly about them. I might well expect to be silenced or at least hissed. But because I have the standard required personal experience — a close family member has a disability — my views (which have nothing at all to do with her disability) are always tolerated.

Such are the absurd consequences of the touchy-feely approach to argument. But it isn’t funny. It is dangerous because this anti-rational approach has quickly come to dominate public argument.

Curiously enough it is not just a failure of intellectual discipline. By an odd paradox this emphasis on emotion quite often involves a failure of proper emotional discipline, too, as in the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and, in its different way, the Today programme’s exploitation of the grieving Gentles.