Back to the future

A number of different thoughts have seemed to come together recently for me. On the one hand I have been getting more and more anxious about the increase, as I see it, of intolerant articles and attitudes in the press and generally in conversations around me. I have also been getting nostalgic, not unusually for the time of year I suppose, and particularly recently I have been noticing how language has changed over time. Then today I caught Wendy Cope on the radio reading "Two Cures for Love". And it all came together!

Now, I would quote Wendy Cope’s poem, but there are copyright issue involved and I am aware she has strong feelings about her poems being quoted throughout the length and breadth of t’Interweb. And who can blame her? So I hope it will suffice to say that one of her suggested cures for love is to get to know the object of desire better. That should certainly do it (unless it’s true love, of course, in which case we can decide to put up with the foibles.)

The idea that getting to know someone better would make us break a relationship or demonstrate the futility of true love was what made me think that the -isms of the world are based on a lack of love (not a stunning revelation, it is true); it also made me wonder if perhaps we are harsher when we know more about other people. We judge friends more than strangers – this ties into the cult of Celebrity, where we invade the lives of the famous and get to know their every move and every detail of their day-to-day activities, however meaningless and mundane. When we see that others are really just like us, we see their faults as faults, not as exotic behaviours to be studied and catalogued. The example from childhood that I had been contemplating regarding changing terminology was around what we called people of Middle Eastern origin. When I was little we called them Arabians. "Arabian" conjured up romantic images: Rudolph Valentino, Fry’s Turkish Delight, 1001 Arabian Nights, genies and sand dunes and belly dancing, the Foreign Legion and ships of the desert, She who must be obeyed, blue moons and ancient spells.

This meant that as a child, when I met anyone from "Arabia" I was intrigued and fascinated and wanted to learn more. It is true I had strange ideas, from their point of view, but it did mean I thought they were special.

Now it seems we know too much about each other and the magic is gone, just as in a stale relationship: no respect, no mystery, no love. It’s all about who leaves the top off the toothpaste or hair in the sink, and not about our hopes and dreams and human frailty. We feel we need a cure for each other. Our language has evolved and lost the charm. Like the Bible we have moved from King James to Good News; more people understand it but fewer people want to. I am not suggesting we hold Mass in Latin again or anything of that sort, in order to revive Christian fortunes; I am suggesting that sometimes a little mystery is a good thing because the unpredictability and uncertainty keeps us focused and aware of the Other as new and fascinating. Instead of being a rival (taking our jobs, or whatever it is the BNP likes to spout), difference becomes intriguing. A threat comes from something like us, but frighteningly better; difference means that we have not established if a threat exists. It is true we may fear it, and so react badly, but if I am, say, an unemployed (male) plumber, I will worry more about competition from a Polish plumber (or a woman plumber) than a Martian.

Now, I’m not sure I agree with my own conclusions here, because I accept that some people will always be afraid of the unknown, be it Arabians, women or Martians, and that in fear people often react badly. However, I suspect they would react badly whatever the analysis, and I can’t personally provide the support or insight needed to help them over it.  But I do want to put myself back into the position of a child faced with something new. I might ask silly questions, but so long as I make sure they are asked from love not fear, I hope they will not be offensive. Hopefully it could be the start of a beautiful new relationship.

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