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Obscene or Morally Outrageous?

March 11, 2021.

Edward Arthur replies to Kevan James’ article on face masks in schools

‘Etymologically [the word ‘obscene’] is said to derive from the Latin ob (to, before, against) plus caenum (filth)’

Professor Joel Fienberg, the Idea of the Obscene

As much as I enjoyed reading Kevan James’ article on the use of face masks in schools (If a picture is worth a thousand Words...), I have to take issue with at least some of his comments.

For context, I am the referring to the word ‘obscene’ in the broader, moral and philosophical sense, not the narrow, legal definition. Kevan did touch on this (legal) context — re. Lady Chatterley etc—but I don’t think this is so relevant because we are not referencing anything remotely prurient.

A tiny quibble if I may? Kevan seemed to suggest that something that is repulsive is, by definition, also obscene – if I have understood him correctly? I can only agree if the adjective is employed in the correct context. For example, a repulsive odour is not obscene in the normal sense of the word; something obscene can (and often is) repulsive but not necessarily vice versa.

Neither do I accept Kevan’s remarks about face coverings in adults or children amount to a convincing argument that mandating their use (in those over five years of age), comes close to being ‘repulsive’, or ‘tending to deprave or corrupt’ – to employ the definition used from the Oxford English Dictionary. As Kevan rightly observes the term obscene has many different meanings, but the bulk of them seem to me to suggest that moral outrage is at the heart of the matter, and here I think we find common ground.

The philosopher Peter Glassen wrote in 1958:

‘The adjectives that regularly consort with the noun "obscenity" fully reveal its extreme and unqualified character: the obscene is pure and unmixed, sheer, crass, bare, unveiled, bald, naked, rank, coarse, raw, shocking, blunt, and stark. It hits one in the face; it is shoved under one's nose; it shocks the eye. The obscene excludes subtlety or indirection, and can never be merely veiled, implied, hinted, or suggested. The idea of a "subtle obscenity" is a contradiction in terms.’

This seems to me rather neatly to comprise the anatomy of the term, or rather the skeleton upon which the anatomy is supported. Most important is his suggestion that the term is not subtle. So I turn to the images Kevan used and ask myself to what degree are they morally outrageous or any of the other epithets Peter Glassen refers to?

Of course it is tragic in one sense, although one can also argue that it is optimistic in another, that is if you agree that education is invaluable – as I do. It is also ironic (the boy looking at the poster on the wall) and it is striking for these and for more reasons that I am sure we could tease out. But, as uncomfortable as it make us both feel, for it to be obscene in the sense of the word as I understand it, it needs to meet a higher threshold of offensiveness. Can you honestly say that the image repulses you? I cannot. It saddens me and it angers me that we have come to this out of necessity, but it neither repulses nor appals me. On the contrary in fact, it gives me some relief that children are returning to education in schools and not online.

Kevan discusses the impact upon children more generally but quite specifically frames his use of the word obscene in the context of what they have effectively ‘lost’ and that we are ‘teaching them to fear.’ I disagree with these ideas on several levels.

First, whilst fear is never something I should wish to feature to any degree in a child’s upbringing unnecessarily, there is no doubt that we are biologically engineered to react to fear at a fundamental level – by which I mean fight or flight, the boost of adrenaline and so on. Fear is thus an inescapable fact of life and can be overcome in some cases or at least tolerated in the case of irrational fear. These do not look like fearful children to me. They look a little anxious and perhaps tense, but both these conditions are facts of life and need to be adjusted to and learned to control. That they are complying with the strictures imposed is entirely appropriate and commendable.

Second, should children ‘fear’ an infectious pathogen in principle? I hope not, but secondary school children should certainly respect its potential for harm not only to their wider and older family members, but to their teachers too. One of the more depressing features of the debate on Twitter is the apparent difficulty some sceptics have in accepting that a microorganism has the means to hospitalise and kill humans to extraordinary excess. Yet the means to mitigate deaths include strictures and other measures temporarily to place limits on accustomed liberties and this is somehow outrageous. I think this is a very unedifying response.

How for example, would the most vocal and outraged tweeters, regarding the removal of some freedoms in 2020/21, have coped when we had conscription in this country and people were compelled to fight for their freedom and face possible death?

The two images used in Kevan James' article 'If a picture is worth a thousand Words...'

Left - the main image, captioned by the author as:

‘This, as a picture of everyday life, is one of the most obscene images I can think of’.

Reuters via the BBC

Right - the second image used

via The Independent

All we are being asked to do is isolate ourselves to some extent and wear masks. I say this as a father who has only seen his children twice in the last twelve months because they live in Germany and travel has been next to impossible, so I am only too aware of the toll that measures take on children and parents. It makes life very difficult indeed.

Doesn’t there come a point when older children need gently to be helped to understand some of the realities of life, which inevitably includes death? I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary isn’t it the hallmark of a good parent if they can help their older children, when the time is right, to begin to consider and understand their responsibilities as well as (of course) the infinite possibilities of their future, which is itself finite, at least in principle? But such parenting is not teaching children to fear any more than teaching them about Covid-19 is teaching them to fear. It is, I suggest, teaching them to think rationally, proportionately and, yes, critically too.

Kevan suggests we have ‘sleepwalked into oppression’ and I have to ask how this conclusion is reached. To me it only sounds reasonable to assert this if evidence can be provided that this is a global conspiracy that has taken in or fooled a significant portion of the scientific community and in a time of almost unfettered means of communication online, in democracies at least.

As I see it, we have been asked to make sacrifices pro-tem and I dare say we will be required to make others such as vaccine permits to travel internationally and some social distancing. But these seem entirely sensible and will reduce over time, provided we don’t see more and more dangerous variations which the vaccines don’t work against. In other words it will taper off in the same way that conscription was phased out in the 1960’s – though I hope things happen rather quicker in this instance.

I don’t believe that Kevan’s use of the word obscene in the context of that image is apt. Also, on the whole I think we should all try to use less hyperbole lest we end up looking at the hinterland and the extremes of discourse and argument. Rational behaviour requires us to consider calmly and logically and about the heart of the matter, which in this case is the minimising of harm.

© Edward Arthur, 2021.

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