Just because we can’t stand it doesn’t mean we have to make it illegal
Opinion: The female midriff remained an indecent zone until someone invented the bikini
Andre Rieu: we might wish to ban his glutinous waltz-terrorism, along with stonewashed denim and mummy porn, but really we can’t.
Let’s ban everything “we” find aesthetically unpleasing. You know it makes sense. With such a policy in place, “we” would see the end of stonewashed denim, mummy porn and the glutinous waltz-terrorism of André Rieu. No longer would “we” have to endure whole seconds of Jersey Shore while flicking through the channels towards documentaries on Mark Rothko or the elements of topology.
Of course, this doesn’t actually make sense at all. Aside from infringing on civil liberties, this exercise in benign totalitarianism would struggle to establish any sort of consensus. One fellow’s The Da Vinci Code is another woman’s Our Mutual Friend.
That’s what you’d think. The case of Stephen Gough does, however, remind us that, in at least one area, this class of thinking still applies in much of the western world. An English court has just jailed Gough – known to newspapers as “the naked rambler” – for daring to potter about the countryside with tackle uncovered. The old laws of “indecent exposure” have been much altered over the years. Nobody is likely to get arrested for skinny-dipping in either Britain or Ireland.
In Ireland a statute allows the prosecution of “any person who commits, in public, any act in such a way as to offend modesty or cause scandal or injure the morals of the community”. That’s right. Your poor wee modesty is protected by the State.
This is no joke for Gough. The court in Winchester has sent him to jail for 16 long months. You don’t have to associate yourself with his ideological arguments in favour of nudity to feel that something is seriously amiss here. Where is the danger to society? What moral codes are being breached?
Now, it shouldn’t need to be said that the exposure of genitalia in a sexually threatening manner should remain a serious offence. Something more precious than “modesty” is being offended in such circumstances. But Gough’s casual strolling – wearing just rucksack and hat – can hardly be seen in those terms.
Returning to our opening argument, in this case the court is making an aesthetic judgment as regards the defendant’s choice of clothing (or lack of same). Something like a consensus has been reached here. Few of us like the idea of dangly bits being dangled on Grafton Street. So, nobody much bothers about the questionable prohibition on their dangling. Raised within the bosom (eugh, bosom!) of a northern Irish Protestant family, I can’t pretend to be entirely comfortable with the notion myself. I’m not comfortable with André Rieu either. But you don’t see me campaigning to have him locked up.
Corruption by ankle
Some will, quoting Helen Lovejoy in The Simpsons, think to ask: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Remembering the voluminous Victorian bathing suit, we could respond that children – and their parents – were once felt at danger from ankles, knees and calves. The female midriff remained an indecent zone until somebody invented the bikini. Every generation makes largely arbitrary decisions about which parts of the body should not be seen.
Certain religions still feel that decency requires a woman to cover up hair, face or entire body. And the French ban on face-covering immediately kicked up all sorts of anomalies. Does such a ban take in the wearing of balaclava helmets? Quite possibly.
Two years ago, supporters of Pussy Riot were arrested in Marseilles for wearing that very garment. Any follower of the Occupy Movement who dared to wear a Guy Fawkes mask could also face prosecution. Now who’s being oppressive?
Not many people think themselves overly inhibited by the continuing clampdown on public nudity. Apart from anything else, it’s too bloody cold in this country for it to be much of an issue. But brief consideration of the situation does remind us of what silly, silly animals we humans still are.
Just because you don’t like a thing doesn’t mean that thing should be against the law.
*This article was amended on January 11th, 2014 to correct a factual error. A quote by Simpsons’ character Helen Lovejoy was mistakenly attributed to Maude Flanders.