Saturday, 7 October 2017

On speaking out

Yesterday, I went to the City Arts Centre for the penultimate day of the Edinburgh Alphabet exhibition. Worth doing, if you've not already seen it, though probably a bit late now. Some fascinating objects, though the rationale for selection was sometimes unclear beyond the relatively arbitrary link with a letter of the alphabet. Some good discoveries, though.

However, the objects observed during my gallery trip are not the subject of this post. Rather it was a minor incident which occurred roundabout letters D and E. I had been dogged during my perambulations by an earnest group of Edinburgh worthies, being lectured to about particular exhibits by a rather pompous official with a loud voice. Each time they settled themselves down on their little stools around the 'expert', everybody else in the gallery had to squeeze past, duck, or stand on tiptoe, for the gallery spaces can be a bit cramped, with inconvenient pillars, as it is housed in  a couple of converted town houses. However, such tours make a signficant contribution to the finances and community roles of public galleries, so not really a problem.

At this point, a group of school children came in, aged around eight or nine, accompanied by various minders. It was Friday afternoon which means, if you live in Edinburgh, that children will have finished their schooling at lunchtime. Poor parents have to organise childcare for an extra two or three hours per week. This particular group seemed to be part of an after-school club, or similar. And before you jump to the conclusion that I am about to moan about the behaviour of the children, don't. They were extremely well behaved, supervised effectively and fully engaged in an organised activity.

The children chatted quietly among themselves about individual exhibits, as they had a perfect right to do and as I might have done had I been in the company of a friend. In the meantime Mr Pompous continued expatiating to his attentive audience. He suddenly stopped, turned to the nearest children and told them to be quiet as he was trying to lecture. Those children nearest to him started to slink off. I glared at him and our eyes met. I shook my head at him. I turned and made for the escalator.

Suddenly his voice bellowed behind me. 'Madam, have you something to say?' I kept going. He repeated his question.

It was one of those moments when you have a choice. Should I just ignore the bully or should I stand my ground? Slightly cringing, I chose the latter.

'Yes, I have, actually,' I said. I then proceeded to say that the children were perfectly well behaved and that we should be pleased that they had been brought to the art gallery. I turned back having delivered my homily. The children's supervisors smiled at me and one said thank you. I walked off.

A trivial enough incident, but one which bothered me. It is very unusual these days to come across such stuffy old-fashioned attitudes. Most galleries and museums welcome children. Indeed, in the National Museum of Scotland or the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, one often has to weave through excited gaggles of chattering youngsters as they gallop around the floor space. All such places these days have special children's activity areas, as, indeed, does the City Arts Centre itself, well frequented during my visit.

So, why make a fuss, then? My children, indeed, my grandchildren, would have been mortified if they'd been present.

Firstly, as I agreed with the woman at the information desk on my way out, those children are the future of the arts. What some of them will have learnt is that when you go to an art gallery, you are liable to be told off, so why should they bother coming back? Indeed, when they are grown up, why would they vote to support the arts?

Secondly, what is notable is the speed with which some adults rush to rebuke children when they are just being children. They were making no more noise than the adults in the gallery, but they were fair game for victimisation on the basis of their age.

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, is the issue as to whether one should intervene at all in situations like these. It was minor. I was making a slight incident into a scene. They were 'only' children, after all, and used to being ticked off. The adult was throwing his weight around unnecessarily, but the incident was unlikely to traumatise them. They would forget the details within a week or two.

However, comparable situations occur in other settings. The one I come back to time and time again, and which I have written about before, is whether or not one should respond to prejudiced and ill-informed comments posted online, for example about immigrants, the EU or particular political viewpoints. While many such opinions may well come from trolls and as such are not worth bothering with, others may not be. Rather they come from people who may be poorly educated or have only had access to a limited perspective from the social or other media sources available to them. Such commentators may have little concept of the idea of 'free speech' or, if they do, regard it as licence to be offensive.

An example this week of insulting, indeed in some cases, vile commentary was the string of online attacks on Neil Oliver, the accomplished presenter of popular history programmes on television. Unlike most of his predecessors, Oliver does not come from an aristocratic background, but is an ex-pupil of Dumfries Academy and Glasgow University. Because he backed a 'no' vote in the Scottish referendum of 2014,  hundreds of people went online to argue vociferously and extremely unpleasantly, that he should not be appointed to the post of President of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), an ambassadorial, not executive, position. (See the NTS article What does the Trust's President do?)

There may be many understandable reasons for objecting to Oliver's appointment on professional grounds, but his political opinions, shared by a majority of the Scottish population, should not enter into it. Even if they had represented a minority view, unless they were potentially harmful, they should still have been considered irrelevant, as indeed they were. Would the vitriolic objectors have taken the same stance if he had been a vocal supporter of independence? Professionals and heads of organisations like the NTS should be deemed capable of doing their jobs fairly and effectively, without being swayed by personal views. The same holds for senior posts in local government or the civil service, in both of which roles I have worked at one time or another. Sometimes frustrating but right.

There is no reason to think that Neil Oliver would behave any differently from any public figure working at that level. Most of his online attackers appeared to have had little idea of the criteria which might have been taken into account by those who appointed him. Indeed, one got the impression that very few of them knew anything at all about the National Trust or about the largely ceremonial role of the President. Such people have no right to campaign for Oliver to be denied a post for which he clearly has the appropriate personal and media skills.

I was shocked by many of the comments as, indeed, I have been by similar reactions to the issue of gun control in the States, Brexit and the ongoing vitriol about refugees and asylum seekers. Should we just let such poisonous comments go unchallenged? Should we let the bigots rule?

The perceived wisdom these days is that one should endeavour to minimise one's digital footprint. If one gives too much away, one is in danger of being spied on and manipulated by firms like Cambridge Analytica or similar. In some countries, or even in our own country if the political situation were to change drastically, one could put oneself and one's family in danger.

I worry about that viewpoint, though I understand it. Are we really going to behave as if we live in a totalitarian society when evidently we do not? Are we going to be responsible for erecting our own prison walls, for silencing ourselves, for letting the unacceptable be said without any indication that we regard it as morally wrong?

I cannot, in all honesty, accept that self-censorship is the way forward for our society or our country. I cannot stand by while children are pushed around. Nor can I stand by while the poor, the weak and the vulnerable are sneered at online, nor when talented individuals like Neil Oliver are metaphorically spat on and petitions set up to influence a public charity going about its work in an open manner.

I am no sucker for online martydom, nor do I enjoy public embarassment of the kind I experienced yesterday. However, I do think there are some times when one should speak out. This week, for various reasons, has given rise to a number of those times.

Protect children. Confront bigots and bullies. Speak out.

The City Arts Centre is a wonderful place to visit. My concerns were taken seriously and I have no doubt they will be acted on. We should not judge an organisation on the basis of one person's behaviour.

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