Bad jokes and authenticity

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When is a Thursday not a Thursday?

When it's a Wednesday.

This week's RSA Thursday was a day early so we could hear from Jeffrey Weeks speaking about his book: The World We Have Won. The book explores the consequences of the remarkable liberalisation of sexual mores in Britain over the last half century.

Jeffrey's talk was chaired by Peter Tatchell.

Having taken on the Church of England and Robert Mugabe, Peter, most recently took his life in his hands in Moscow where he faced homophobic thugs seeking to stop a Gay Pride march.

Introducing Peter as a figure widely praised for his principled stance and courage, I found myself thinking about someone who always stood at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum - Bernard Manning.

How is it, I wondered, that these two people have gone from being seen as dangerous extremists to (using Jeffrey's description of Peter) 'national treasures'?

The reasons for Peter's progress are clear. He won the argument.

Values of equality before the law and respect for sexual difference, which were branded 'loony left' a generation ago, are now found in the speeches of Conservative politicians and the editorials of right wing newspapers. And we have come to admire Peter for his courage in the face of bigotry and oppression. His taking on of Mugabe even at the expense of being badly beaten up was a pivotal moment.

In Manning's case it is more complicated.

The praise of his comedic skills by some progressive comedians and commentators altered perceptions. As did a closer understanding of him as a person.

From a social perspective, the easy explanation for his part-rehabilitation is the reverse of Tatchell - he lost the argument. His brand of little Englander racism is almost like a form of nostalgia.

Like Les Dawson's jokes about his wife and mother-in-law, the real subject of Manning's humour was, arguably, not those he seemed to abuse, but himself. The gap between the myth of male, working class, white potency and the reality of being trapped and left behind as the world moves on.

But perhaps the most important reason we have come closer to these very different people is that they never changed.

In a world where politicians, celebrities and corporations bend constantly and bewilderingly to the wind of fashion and public opinion, we grow to admire those who stick to their guns whether they are on the zeitgeist's In or Out list.

Tatchell still lives in a council flat and in fifty years time he will be bashing bigots with his zimmer frame.

Manning plied his trade to half empty rooms and never took up the open offer to recant and join the mainstream.

That we have learnt not to fear Manning or Tatchell and that even those who abhor their opinions grudgingly admit their consistency reminds us, first how society has changed rapidly and mainly for the better, and second how much in such a world of change we yearn for authenticity.

Thanks for the comments on my last post:

Durham group - thanks for the offer I'll pass it on. Hope to see you at our big launch if not before.

Richard - what a nice e-mail. Your 'worthiness' for Fellowship is amply displayed by the generosity of your words.

Simon - I agree. It sometimes feels the media the politicians and the public are trapped in an embrace of democratic death. We need to move from a government centric to a citizen centric model of change so politics is about 'us and us' not 'us and them'.

Peter - I agree. We talk about 'the social aspiration gap' between the world we say we want to live in the world we will create through our current thinking and behaviour. Closing the gap should be a core purpose for the RSA.

Chris - good point. One way to close the gap (see above) is to find new ways of engaging citizens in decision making. We have tried a few ideas but have not found a breakthrough yet. Devolving power is part of it, and Web 2.0 offers new tools to create the right opportunities. But we need action on many fronts to form a more participative democracy.

Ray - nice point. A small case in point - I read a Standard ad yesterday that said 'Dando killer to go free'. But if he goes free doesn't that mean we don't know whether he is the killer?

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  • Have to disagree with you about Bernard Manning and Tatchell. Bernard Manning had a friendly dig at everybody. Most never took offence. Tatchell on the other hand comes across as a bitter and twisted individual who is sickened by anybody right of Ming Campbell.

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