‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ used to be the address to have or the place to live if you wanted to write to the newspapers in outrage.
Luckily, disgust and outrage are no longer restricted to ratepayers in West Kent. Hardened as I am to bad taste and poor judgement, even my jaw dropped when I saw the online videos of the callous idiots celebrating bonfire night by burning an effigy of the Grenfell tower.
It turned out that they were as careless as they were callous. They shared the video on Whatsapp; being lured into a sense of false security perhaps by its ‘this is a highly encrypted app’ notice. It took one click from a disapproving ‘friend’ to move it to twitter and send it viral.
Actually, I’ve felt a similar wave of disgust before. I used to live near Lewes in East Sussex where they have a famous bonfire night celebration.
Thousands of people march through through Lewes each year down cramped dark streets following a procession of an enormous effigy of a much-hated public figure. The originally despised Guido Fawkes soon got replaced with the pope, but the hate didn’t stop with the pope. Hate never stops with one person.
The Lewes celebrations feel scarily like a Klu Klux Clan event morphed-to-Sussex. They light seventeen flaming crosses, which they carry through the town. And they are imaginative with their hate. Each year they burn someone new.
This year they burnt effigies of Teresa May and Boris Johnson. They have previously burnt Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Osama Bin Laden.
I’m not sure I can see a great deal of difference between the celebration of burning public figures in Lewis and the Grenfell tower model. It’s true that the Lewes effigies are public figures, but just because they have decided to run for public office doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated as people who should be burnt in public.
But there’s the class thing too. The Lewes Bonfire society is a solidly bourgeois organisation. The Grenfell mockers sounded more ‘white-van-man’ on the video.
I couldn’t help wondering if reading the Guardian instead of the Sun gives its devotees something of a free pass for hate. Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle of the Labour Party seem to be quite ‘comfortable’ with its anti-Semitism, but only too glad to excoriate anyone else for Islamophobia? ‘’
Is hating then only off-limits unless its directed towards Jews? This is not an honourable position to take at any point in history, but particularly not when we live as we do in the shadow of Auschwitz.
If the Grenfell effigy burners weren’t sick enough on their own, the involvement of the police made it a great deal worse.
I’m not sure what sign of public contrition would have been acceptable, but I didn’t expect the Grenfell mockers to go down to the local police station and hand themselves in.
The reaction of the police was to arrest them under the Public Order Act of 1986. It’s designed to cover people who are guilty of causing intentional harassment or distress by the use of threatening behaviour or signs.
It should have been obvious to the morally trigger-happy police that since the original video had been kept private, and only leaked by other people,that this was a charge that would never stick.
And that brings us to the most frightening aspect of it all. How have the police come to think that it’s their responsibility to treat people whose behaviour is stupid, disgusting or reprehensible as criminals?
And if the Grenfell effigy idiots are criminals under the Public Order Act, why aren’t the Lewes Bonfire Society?
It’s obviously beyond any vestige of civilised behaviour to celebrate the tragic inferno that consumes a block of flats but it’s morally ok to celebrate hating and burning Pope Paul 6th, Boris Johnson, Teresa May and Donald Trump?
I suspect that this need to use the criminal law to control people whose attitudes we don’t like comes from a misreading of human nature.
There are two views current in our society. The recent and popular one is that people are basically morally good and just need a bit of extra social pressure to shape up.
The older one is that humanity is a complex mixture of good and evil. The problem both views face is how to make people good?
Inviting the Grenfell mockers to meet some of the victims of the fire, still raw in their grief and misery might be more effective than threatening to lock them up. They might find their attitudes were more radically changed through listening to the pain of bereavement and misery than being criminalised for having atrociously bad judgement at a private bonfire party.
Standing alongside people in their suffering and being willing to learn about the depth of their pain and distress, has been a far more effective way of transforming evil into good and hatred into compassion in the history of our culture.
If the Lewes Bonfire Society had given more thought to the symbolism of the crosses they carried through the streets than simply setting fire to them, it might have helped change a culture of hate into one of compassion.