Congratulations, you’ve got junk mail worth reading
Two commonsense, anti-killjoy chain letters are making the rounds on the web. spiked traced their origins and spoke to the authors.
Have you received the ‘Congratulations’ or ‘RIP Common Sense’ emails yet? If not, you must be out of the loop. These chain mails, or junk mails if you prefer, are whizzing around the world – and unlike other kinds of junk mail, people actually seem to be reading them and enjoying them.
The emails take a stab at today’s overprotective and killjoy climate. One congratulates ‘the kids who were born in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s’ for surviving all the things which we are now told pose a grave threat: from being born to mothers who smoked and drank while pregnant, to riding on bikes without helmets and in cars without seatbelts, to not making it into the local sports team, which is an apparently self-esteem-bashing experience these days. The other chain letter is a eulogy to Common Sense, whose ‘health declined when he became infected with the “If-it-only-helps-one-person-it’s-worth-it” virus’. The ‘RIP Common Sense’ email is a pisstake of excessive bureaucratic red tape, petty rules, silly laws and frivolous lawsuits.
The emails are being sent around widely, forwarded between friends, colleagues and strangers, and have been reproduced across the blogosphere. Where did these seemingly sensible pieces of junk mail come from? spiked discovered that the texts are taken from The Politically Correct Scrapbook, a collection of ‘ridiculous examples of political correctness’ first published in 2005. Its co-author, Laura Midgley, who is also co-founder of the Campaign Against Political Correctness (CAPC), is surprised to hear that sections of her book have been reproduced as junk mail – though she isn’t surprised that the emails have proved to be a hit.
‘Emails like this are popular because people are able to think back and realise that we have lost something in this country – common sense and a sensible approach to life’, she tells me. ‘If we had used today’s standards in the past, we would never be the country we are now! The speed with which the emails get passed on, and the numbers of people they seem to be reaching, show how fed up people are with the present climate.’
Being born in the 1970s, I can recall a more relaxed attitude to life and its challenges in the past. As children, we spontaneously made new friends in the local park or playground and never bumped into a paedophile. I was never selected first for football teams during PE lessons in school, but I don’t have any ‘invisible scars’ from the experience. Both my parents smoked, and they didn’t make me wear a seatbelt in the car. One time we crashed, but no great harm was done. The accident was an exception rather than the rule, and it never occurred to us that we should stop using the car or that me and my brother should stop playing games (or having fist fights) in the backseat just because in one split-second moment, once in our lifetime, someone failed to look twice before pulling out in front of us.
As the ‘Congratulations’ email puts it: ‘First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they carried us. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a tin, and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, our baby cots were covered with bright-coloured lead-based paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had no helmets, not to mention the risks we took hitchhiking…. We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on. No one was able to reach us all day. And we were okay.’
Accidents are always a possibility, of course. But there’s a difference between just accepting this as a fact of life and getting on with things, and living life as if accidents are inevitable, something we should organise children’s activities and freedom around. As Midgley puts it: ‘Nobody is in any doubt that getting into a car can be dangerous and many people die each year as a result of accidents. Yet we don’t all stop using our cars. We need to expand this logic to other aspects of our life.’
For Midgley, one of the most bizarre examples of the precautionary culture was the revelation last month that some fire services in Britain have advised their firemen to avoid using stepladders when fitting smoke alarms in people’s homes ‘because of health and safety concerns’ – even though no accidents have occurred in such situations. ‘This is not only ridiculous but dangerous, as smoke alarms are known lifesavers’, says Midgley.
She argues that the vast majority of Brits have had enough of political correctness, ‘which has been forced on us rather than demanded from below’. Informal and formal protections against ever being offended are part of the same cotton-wool approach to the public, and the patronising idea that we always need to be safeguarded from others whose words and behaviour might cause us alarm or distress. Thus PC also poses a threat to free speech, says Midgley. She believes we need ‘tolerance, respect, common decency, good manners, understanding and allowing people the freedom to have an opinion. And all of those things are undermined by political correctness.’
Yet I am surprised by how conservative Midgley is – the Campaign Against Political Correctness talks about preserving British values, our great country, ‘common decency and good manners’. Midgley sounds more like a contemporary version of Mary Whitehouse than a warrior against restrictions on free speech and free interaction. She also seems to believe that PC is some kind of big conspiracy from on high to silence uppity people and make us all live in fear: Orwellianism in a social worker’s mask. In fact, the most striking thing about PC attitudes is how mainstream they have become, and how much people seem to have internalised them and have even taken to self-editing what they think and say. This isn’t only a ‘top-down’ phenomenon; there seems to be a receptivity amongst the general public for the idea that we’re always at risk from accidents or offensiveness and thus should surround ourselves with a forcefield against other people or potential accidents. PC thrives not only on officialdom’s desire to meddle, but also on atomisation, a generalised sense of fear and uncertainty that exists today.
For me, Midgley’s arguments highlight some problems with today’s narrow critique of the PC, anti-risk, mollycoddling culture: instead of interrogating what gave rise to this culture, and what sustains it, Midgley and others merely attack its most extreme expressions; ‘PC gone mad!’ We all recognise that it’s crazy if firemen are stopped from going up stepladders, but there are other, more everyday expressions of PC culture that seem to go unnoticed – for example, what about the fact that firemen who give talks at schools will have to submit, like every other adult who works with children, to stringent checks by the Criminal Records Bureau? These new vetting measures, built precisely on today’s fearful, suspicious culture, are accepted by many as ‘common sense’.
Nonetheless, the popularity of the two chain mails does seem to suggest, albeit in a very virtual way, that there is an instinctive distaste amongst the public for certain elements of today’s overbearing, killjoy approach to life. The ‘Congratulations’ email points out that the generations who grew up from the 1940s to the 1970s ‘produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors’, who had ‘freedom, failure, success and responsibility – and we learned how to deal with it all’. We even ate ‘cakes, white bread, real butter and pop with sugar in it’ and lived to tell the tale….
Perhaps these emails remind people that some of today’s rules and outlooks are silly and stifling, even if they feel there isn’t much they can do about them except to forward a junk-mail critique of PC to their friends with the words ‘This is so true….’
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