Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lessons In Ghetto Ethics From A Shaved Albino Ape

I popped in to see a friend for a cup of tea yesterday, and bumped into someone I’d not seen for a long time. Within a few minutes I’d got sucked into one of the oddest conversations of my life; a car-crash social encounter. Tim used to drive a few bands around back in 2003. He used to work in television but escaped for a less stressful life in France. Tim is a strange guy. Squat, muscular, simian, bald head, blonde-hairy body with a voice that doesn’t match - effeminate, pained, high pitched with an affected sensitivity. Sentences that rise up a few semitones as they approach a perpetual question mark, as though asking for permission to opine. A verbal tic that suggests a lack of conviction. But everything Tim says is strident, defensive and expressed in neutral positive public-sector speak. Every anecdote or conversation point is an opportunity to express a lesson learned, wisdom gained. The uptight hippy raging with neophyte fervour disguised with a veneer of smug placidity and a painful amount of pop-psychological phraseology.

We somehow got onto drug dealers. Tim thinks it’s ridiculous when his friend complains about how his dealer cuts the coke so much. As far as Tim is concerned, if you can do a better job go and do it. Don’t complain about it; if you could deal drugs better go and deal drugs. This was odd because his friend was complaining about the quality of a product. Surely it is legitimate to complain about a product without it necessitating spending a day in the life of the person dealing that product. But no; Tim thinks that there will be a good reason the dealer cuts it; it will be because of pressures peculiar to being a drug dealer. Everything is for a reason. Dee dah.
You don’t know what it is like to be handling that sort of money and dealing with those sorts of people. What this really comes down to is Tim can always find extenuating circumstances. Judge ye not lest you be judged!” shall be the whole of the law. That of course invites the question “what if I’m happy to be judged?” Indeed, I’d prefer to live in a world where people can and do judge each other, and are confident that they will not be found wanting. But I moved it on, because I wanted to keep it simple and see whether there was anything he would uniformly object to. I said that what I find loathsome about hard drug dealer culture in Bristol is the fact that the young men involved in it aspire to a gangster rap norm they have learned from Youtube, with all the homophobic and misogynistic trimmings. I know the mother of one dealer; I used to rent a flat from her. I’ve seen the way he treats her and his (conspicuously high-achieving) sisters. If you want extenuating circumstances to explain this, the recurring background narrative is an absent father, a lack of positive male role models and the alluring example set by older siblings in expensive trainers already slinging drugs. But the ethics of drug dealing aside, those homophobic and misogynistic views must be challenged regardless of their genesis.

Tim didn’t follow me here. He thought it was wrong of me to judge these drug dealers because I’ve not  been in their position (an assumption, but granted) and known the pressures on them. He believes drug dealers deserve respect. I was baffled, or rather I pretended to be baffled to argue my case. What of human agency and responsibility? Is there
nothing, are there no kinds of behaviours that we can simply judge to be abhorrent? No. Tim’s view is ultimately that judgement is only legitimate if you’ve been in the position of the person being judged. Presumably this entails "Don’t judge that rapist until you’ve tried to control the urge to rape, then you’ll understand!"  I started to point out the general lack of fit between this position and the one taken by wider society but i gave up. It’s utter horseshit, but it’s completely typical of the received cultural and ethical relativism through which many people make sense of the world. I was just waiting for the absolute pinnacle of self-defeating positions “It’s wrong to make moral judgements!” but it didn’t come, and it would have been cruel to coax it out. At one point there was a clue to the source of Tim’s  hyper-relativistic defensiveness - he mentioned he has a son who he only sees once a month, and alluded to the wrongness of judging how other people raise their kids. (The rapist point had no effect so I didn’t mention the polish boy who was force fed salt and starved to death recently. There is a problem with introducing extreme examples. While they can be used to create a reductio ad absurdum - if someone argues position X, you place X in an extreme scenario so as to reduce the position to absurdity - this frequently fails to play to the audience, because they fail to see the logical relationship between the extreme and the non-extreme; they fail to see that if one is nonsense so is the other. They just see it as irrelevant exaggeration. So don’t expect this kind of argument to work unless you’re in Ancient Greece.)

But the biggest problem was actually that the whole time Tim spoke, he sat cross-legged on the floor, rocked back and forth, fidgeted and scratched his whole body compulsively, lifting his tight white muscle tee high above his chest as he dug his thick, stubby fingers into his hairy blonde trunk, rolling his sleeves up to his shoulders and scraping his shoulder blades in a bear-hug while dragging his arse across the carpet as though driven half-mad by piles, rolling his trousers up to his calves and scratching at his ankles. Then he took his shoes and socks off and began to pick at his hairy, yellow, hobbit-like feet, peeling off scaly flakes of dead skin, inspecting them closely before chewing and swallowing them, then back to the chest and back scratching, and now the armpits too, an orgy of dermatitic exploration and excavation, a part-shaved albino gorilla with a peculiarly effeminate disembodied voice eternally approaching a question mark. This mixture of defensive, self-defeating hyper-relativism, the strident judgement that all forms of judgement are wrong, which fails to see that it is itself a judgement, the peculiarly effeminate, pained, high-pitched, disembodied voice, the question mark-plagued verbal tic, the totally unselfconscious scratching, picking, chewing, undressing, and autophagic self-grooming that increased in urgency as he got more worked up… was completely fucking vile and it was turning my stomach. I made my excuses. I think they felt I’d lost. I had. I wasn’t convincing anyone. The Sherbet Fountain I had been looking forward to was dumped on the way out the gate.

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