My very favourite news stories these days are
those poignant tales of parents who have been investigated by the
police or social service agencies because rolls of film they have
submitted for processing turn out to contain nude photos of their
children. These parents are often very badly treated. Their
children may be temporarily taken away. They may have to endure
counselling by social agency busybodies. And, inevitably, there
is much hand-wringing in the press. After all, families in this
country have long cherished a tradition of creating and saving
"innocent" images of little Johnny in the bath or little Mary
naked on the rug-but possessing or producing what gets called
"kiddie porn" is against the law in Canada. So, we agonize, how
to snare the bad without punishing the good or the innocent?
That is a stupid question. But it is a richly stupid
question-the kind any journalist should slaveringly pounce on,
because what delights in those news stories is how marvellously
they underline the fact that there is absolutely no difference
between what normally gets called kiddie porn and the kinds of
pictures stored in family albums. Those One-Hour Photo employees
who generally get condemned as dirty-minded, sanctimonious and
meddling are, knowingly or not, basing their judgement on quite
sophisticated aesthetic principles.
Now: finish this
essay I've just started in those first few paragraphs. Prove that
kiddie porn can be morally neutral. I assure you-it can be done.
I've given you a good, solid lead, and there's a forceful
argument to make here that can draw on a history of aesthetics,
on cross-cultural and historical data, on labour law, on what sex
means and can mean, on a history of the kinds of jobs we have
allowed children to do. It may well be a splendid piece. But
people will hate you for it. Tentative definition of a
shit-disturbing journalist: a perfectly lovely person whom
It is one of our jobs, as journalists,
to be hated. But it is not enough to be merely hated. It is also
important to be hated for the right reasons. Gossips can be hated
and feared, but journalistic gossip, at least in its contemporary
incarnation, exists principally to provide a set of relationships
for people who seem incapable of developing their own. The
purveyors of brute opinion (one thinks of Michael Coren here) are
more likely to be despised than hated, given their reliance on
sniffy innuendo, inadequate research and contextless facts. No,
the only good reason to be hated is because you are actually
asking the questions that are, in fact, staring everyone in the
face-and because you are trying to answer them honestly,
thoroughly and wittily. And because you are a constant reminder
that there is no right not to be offended.
That is a
difficult role to play, particularly in an era when, often for
very good reasons, we go to extraordinary lengths not to offend.
But outrage can be the beginning of wisdom-I recall, as a pious
young Roman Catholic student at St. Michael's College in Toronto,
being deeply offended by a philosophy professor who taught that
it was possible, even necessary, to question the most sacred
tenets of our religion. I was outraged-but somehow I kept going
back to his class for more. By the end of the year, I had left
the church and was beginning to lead a real life, not an
imitation one (pace Thomas ? Kempis-not even
Jesus Christ is worth imitating). I should add that that
professor's contract was not renewed the following year-the
Church no longer needs an auto-da-f? to help manage dissent.
A crisis of religious faith as a spur to independent
thought may seem quaint today, but every generation will have its
own special set of questions to ask, questions that are staring
everyone in the face but that almost everyone has tactfully
decided to ignore. When I began my journalistic career, one
obvious but apparently unaskable question was why there were so
many fags around, and why much of the time they were pretending
not to be fags, and why everyone else was happy to join in and
pretend that they weren't there. Over the last 30 years those
questions have been more or less answered, and fags are now so
cool just about everyone wants one, but I can assure you that
back then, asking those questions did make one hated-even by many
fags. Today, as the profile of Naomi Klein starting on page 10
makes clear, one obvious and up-till-now-mostly-ignorable
question is quite literally written on one's body. What does it
mean to be "branded"? What does it mean for us as individuals,
and what does it mean for the society in which we live? And if it
means things we don't like, what should we do about it?
Some advice, then, on the art of being loathsome:
The questions to ask are usually obvious-so obvious that
no one is asking them.
Wit is an important element of
loathsomeness-without wit, one runs the danger of being merely
Remember that it is good to provoke, but it
is even finer to offend.
The process of becoming
loathsome will be considerably hastened if you never watch TV or
listen to the radio. The electronic media constitute a machine
for the erosion of the single element most critical to those who
wish to attain loathsomeness: a personality. (It is wise,
however, to follow the Gore Vidal rule: "Never miss a chance to
have sex or appear on television.") To be out of touch is
essential to the shit-disturbing journalist. To be out of touch
is also one of the few luxuries the modern world can provide that
a journalist can afford.
Never allow yourself to make
permanent connections with the right people. In journalism, the
ultimate insider is the ultimate zombie-the living dead of
letters. One need only read John Fraser to realize that.
Ask yourself under what circumstances you would break
Ask yourself who was wiser: Socrates, who drank
hemlock rather than recant, or Galileo, who recanted and was
allowed to live.
Once a year, ask yourself if you might
just possibly be wrong. Celebrate when the answer is still no.
Gerald Hannon is a Toronto writer, a one-time
Ryerson instructor, a part-time prostitute and a perfectly lovely
person who has, from time to time, been much loathed.