May 13, 2004 | Graham

Past presents our future.

Einstein pictured the world with four dimensions – width, height, depth and time – producing the possibilities of going backward and forward in time, just as we go up and down in space. St Augustine reconciled freewill to predestination by envisaging a God who sat outside time and knew what we would do because from his perspective we had already done it at the same time as we had yet to do it. Now the Internet makes us, relatively speaking, all Gods. We may not be able to see into the future, but our past is our present which is both a virtue and its vice.
Two things prompted these musings. According to Asians in Media “A programme complaints report published this week by the BBC shows that in October last year it broadcast an old episode of Only Fools and Horses which used the term ‘Paki’.” They quoted the BBC Programme Complaints Unit as saying “…research shows that [the] perceived offensiveness [of the term ‘Paki’] has increased significantly over the intervening years, and, in the absence of a particular contextual justification, its use in programmes is no longer acceptable.”
In future the BBC “would try and make sure those words are edited out so they don’t cause offence to our audiences”.
So, a programme which was suitable for broadcast 40 years ago is not suitable for broadcast now because if it were produced today it would be deemed offensive. What would that policy mean if it was transferred to books in a Library? According to the BBC, should we be monitoring and winnowing catalogues to ensure that no-one reads offensive material? Or should we do what the Victorians did to Shakespeare (and what the Beeb is doing to Only Fools and Horses) and bowdlerize offending texts? Or is this only a consideration for the broadcast media?
My other prompt occurred in that area where text, images and broadcast converge – the Internet. I have just seen the video of the alleged beheading of American Nick Berg by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is horrendous, particularly the final moment where the severed head is held up, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Cellini’s Perseus with his trophy of Medusa.
Just watching the video I felt a little like a medieval who had taken his wife and family and some lunch for the outing to see a public hanging; or who had to walk into town under the eyes of the heads of malefactors arranged around the gate on pikes. This is a truly barbaric and archaic piece of web video, and not the BBC, nor anyone, could do anything to stop me seeing it. It is the ultimate snuff movie, and I can only justify watching it to myself on the grounds that it is part of the historical record of our times that I am trying to understand.
I imagine likewise that somewhere there is a site where I can also download old episodes of Only Fools and Horses. There are certainly sites where I can download just about anything and I would think that in another century a fair proportion of that material will still be available online, even Berg’s beheading, although sensibilities will have most likely changed again.
There has always been a tension between the possible and the polite. We all self censor, depending on the context we are in. The Internet hands the battle to the possible because it ultimately lacks any context. If it can be uploaded onto a website someone will do it, and it is virtually impossible to stop others seeing it. In this world we live in we are going to have to get better at understanding and dealing with the past and the present, which may mean being more tolerant of our own past selves, as well as others. It will mean a world that is less congenial to some, but more honest. It is not an option to censor, or bowdlerize.

Posted by Graham at 5:57 pm | Comments (1) |
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1 Comment

  1. I’m with you, but don’t you sometimes wonder whether we’re really up to the truth?

    Comment by Graham Young — May 13, 2004 @ 7:23 pm

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