When I first wrote this lecture a summary of my argument could have been – when art fails, there is cruelty, because cruelty in humans is caused by a lack of imagination. There are not enough enough human beings who are ill in the appropriate kinds of ways to individually create epidemic levels of cruelty. They can do harm. Of course. But to do great harm, cruel societies, cultures of cruelty have to be created – either by accident or design, usually both – so that they can recruit otherwise nornal human beings to be cruel, even though they might not be under other circumstances.
That is to say – when art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives.
Arts practitioners might reply that they are oppressed by the cruel who very reasonably seek to avoid the possible beneficial effects of art escaping into the wider community. This is true.
But it is also true that failure of the arts, of artists, helps the cruel amongst us triumph and begin to oppress us all, even in relatively free societies – including – and perhaps initially, those who are communicators.
My talk today will still deal with this area.
But between my first draft and my last a photograh of a small, dead boy made it to headlines of many newspapers which had, only hours before, been pouring out hatred at refugees as a moral, cultural, biological, and spiritual threat. As David Cameron put it – “a swarm of people”.
When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both of an alien species and a danger.
When words put them in a swarm, they don’t receive the real world’s help.
Here was a picture of a boy, who looked like many other little European boy. Boys like beaches and sand and the sea – only this little boy in Western-style dress was dead and face down. He was at once familiar – a boy’s body at rest – and horribly changed – a lifeless body, face down, caught in a moment of helpless return to the material. We could easily imagine him as human and alive and not swarming. He developed a name – Aylan Kurdi and stopped being part of a swarm. The others who died in his boat – including his brother – were brought a little closer to not swarming. His parents developed names and they stopped swarming. These people came to be regarded as people. They were imagined as human. The imagination of the public understood little kids and beaches, cradling little bodies, their limbs heavy with tiredness, not death. That imagination swung towards no longer regarding the human beings camped at Calais in miserable conditions and occasionally being crushed or drowned or smothered trying to reach the UK as people who might have been kids and played, kids who weren’t necessarily born to be an existential threat.
Our media may or may not have been permitted this change of tone because of public disgust at increasingly repellent coverage, online petitions and the like. Or else because the UK and other Western European goverments – having been unable to wish away the humanitarian crisis they helped create and to hide its human impact behind a screen of more and less racist abuse – had decided to change tack. Perhaps so many coutries with so many arms to sell could persuade us that bringing additional war to Syria would help stop people fleeing the war in Syria, while also happening to make a number of arms manufacturers a great deal of money. Perhaps, in fact, a little dead kid could make us want to blow up other little kids whose names we would never know and who we would never see, lying down and little and dead. If our imaginations were focussed on strident and powerful (if quite vague) solutions and not on children scattered in pieces, or on fire and if we could imagine that other, still alive kids, might one day play on their own beaches in their homelands – or else in happy sand (don’t muslim kids enjoy sand, anyway, haven’t we heard that somehow…?) then money could be made. We could imagine people (perhaps kids) thanking us for blowing up some of the people who were blowing them up in such a way that everything turned out well in the end. You’ll be familiar with imaginings of this kind in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In the UK, echoes of World War Two tend to be aroused. Even though our modern involvement in conflicts have been much less successful and have lacked an ardent desire for an end to cruelty, brought about with the minimum cruelty. In WWII there was an amount of agonised thinking about how we could defeat undemocratic forces and Total War without becomein undemocratic and embracing Total War. There was even an amount of blood shed to preserve artistic and cultural heritage where possible. And leaders could imagine that war should be militarily successful, rather than profitable – that aiming for an undending version of the reverse would be a terrible mistake. These are things we have forgotten to imagine since, but like to think we can conjure up with flags and parades and the repetition of the word HERO.
So, at the time of writing, the swarm is no longer quite the swarm it was. The public imagination is allowed to think of it as a necessary evil that could cause us to unleash another necessary evil or – ideally – caused Russia to become embroiled in evil and leave us out of it with hands as clean as we can manage. The ambient hatred of the Other has changed focus. The media around us (which are increasingly distrtusted and ignored and therefore increasingly strident and toxic) spend time worrying a little about VW exhaust emissions, rather more about David Beckham’s marriage and very much more about the strangely beige and gentle threat of Jeremy Corbyn – a candidate the media didn’t back and whose existance they find perplexing. The massive displacement of human beings from their homes all across Europe and the Middle East is rarely examined in anything like depth. The humanity of refugees, emigrants, or for that matter David Beckham and Jeremy Corbyn, the humanity of our responses is allowed or encouraged to fade
Imagination is, on all sides, apparently failing. And when it fails, it fails us all. What do we artists do now? Because we must be responsive, surely – we must somehow be guardians of imagination, of wider thought, of culture. What have we done wrong? What did we forget? What can we do now?
True art is not an indulgence, but a fundamental defence of humanity. We seem condemned to forget, to learn and to forget this truth. Each time we do, some of us die. Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties: we ignore them to death, torment them to confirm our own prejudices. Dominant regimes around the world may simply execute whole families by remote control. Nonetheless, all those people – the harmed, the running and the dead – they are us. Harming others recoils upon us. Morally, creatively, environmentally, literally, ignoring this fact means that we have entered into a murder-suicide pact with ourselves.
Let us consider the idea of the artist as a kind of eternal, voluntary migrant from the far-off territories of the engaged mind, the superior imagination. What use is that in these dark times? How do we save lives? How do we render lives secure? Is that even what an artist wishes to do?
I would argue that any artist practicing their art at a high level of technical skill and realisation will be defending human beings. The effect of art is inherently beneficial, unless it is actively shaped to a malign agenda – and that agenda will usually damage the effectiveness of the art. Because fully-functional art is about the irreplaceability of the human experience and it communality, it helps save us all. But we probably no longer live in a time when simply practicing our art is enough. All over the world – and even countries which see themselves as harbouring free expression and democracy – artistic expression is on the retreat and inhumanity at every level is apparently increasing. This is, in part, a falsehood produced by a media industry addicted to shock and illusion, but certainly worldwide conflict, pandemic disease, imposed poverty and debt are all producing their predictable results – despair, rage, death, violence, intellectual struggle and bewilderment, nihilism.
Speaking as a writer, I am used – perhaps too used – to our role as someone occupying a moral high ground, supposedly seeing clearly and then speaking wisely on behalf of our societies, our species. Powerful and thoughtful writing are, of course, hugely beneficial. They give rise to new imaginings, better futures, the framing of laws. They sustain us in our solitude. And new technologies are joining together the well-disposed peoples of the world as never before. We can discover each other’s pains faster than ever. We can supersede old and corrupted journalistic models. We can write to the fullest extent of our abilities in order to show ourselves the depth of our beauty, the irreplaceable gift of each life. But this may not be enough any more.
I feel we need to rediscover and restate our full potential as artists, our roles in shaping and creating cultures and the debt we own to those cultures which still harbour us, which allow us our louder-than-average voices. If we know what we truly are – we can fully be what we are.
Mass culture in Europe and around the world is increasingly addicted to wealth and loathing and its incessant prioritisation and promotion. Shoddy, debased and debasing propaganda overwhelms by dint of its sheer, grinding, global repetition. And yet, for generations we have been able to identify the precursors of catastrophic violence in human societies, of violence against groups and individuals. We know that strict control and suppression of humanising art, the control of manifest joys, the rationing of shared pleasures – these all mark the beginning of a process which ends in hell.
The minimisation and silencing of art from individuals and groups classified as “Other” combines with and compliments mass media attacks on those groups. Real life migrants – rather than we voluntary outcasts – are easy targets. In the UK, those who have been evicted from their homelands by the consequences of our economic and military policies are now blamed for their homelessness. To paraphrase Colin Powell – we broke it but we don’t want to fix it. Within many societies, the only response to pain and grief is a condemnation of its victims. In the UK, our summer headlines framed a crisis which saw utterly desperate human beings even trying to swim the English Channel as a torment for delayed British holiday makers. Radio phone-ins played up the threat of illegal immigrants numbering in their hundreds as a horde that would overwhelm our whole culture.
The same culture that has spent decades expelling art from its discourse and from its financial blessing, has embraced loathing. Theresa May, Britain’s controversial Home Secretary, alarmed the Insititute of Directors and surprised the Uk’s Migration Advisory Committee by using her address to this October’s Conservative Party Conference to deny the positive effects of immigration and repeat a number of allegations about job-stealing, healthcare clogging immigrants which simply aren’t true. Hoping to shape our imaginations into a state of fear from which she could then save us.
But history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become a part of the air citizens breathe. When imagination fails, a culture fails, a society fails, a nation fails and then – perhaps – later there will be lawyers, some attempt to establish truth, guilt, reconciliation. Establishing what is termed “intent to destroy” when we try to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity and genocide is often hugely difficult precisely because of the Political pronouncements, media activity and propaganda that shape and then dominate sick cultures. In a hate-filled culture, a nation’s sense of self becomes grounded on those it despises. True citizenship becomes a narrower and narrower concept – and outwith its safety death stalks ever closer.
Clearly, all interested parties inclduing writers and artists must act in the UK and elsewhere. And we are attempting to organise, to rediscover the faith in ourselves as a species and as workers for the survival of that species. But we are pressured by a raft of new negative forces. We know that around the world press freedoms are being smothered. Attacks may be verbal, legal, physical, financial, subtle or overt. The effect is always chilling, silencing. Even in relatively “free” nations slashed rates of pay, collapsed print media, demands for free content and the toxic effects of the so-called War on Terror mean that writers are censored, or self-censor. Some are simply silenced by exhaustion. But I will say again that without artists and perhaps writers in particular, human beings are easier to destroy, first in effigy, then in part, then as a totality. Groups and individuals trust their immortality to their cultural creations – removing access to their dignity and presence in the world makes it easier to destroy them. We “Honorary Others” must respond now as never before – not least because a threat to one group really is eventually a threat to all.
Real-world migrants are now among a growing number of stridently defined “Others”. At a global level we’re seeing a decline or removal of rights for women, workers, the disabled, those with a mental illness, the poor and the imprisoned. Information from expensive sources like investigative journalism has collapsed. Gossip and controversy corrupts the public discourse while internet communities form coral reefs of solipsistic myth and confirmation. Sharpening redefinitions of loyalty and identity are bringing about a conflict between sovereign states and corporate states. Old-style nationalisms of loathing and exclusion are condemned by corporate media who borrow and promote their agendas. Meanwhile, nationalism as an expression of non-corporate identity, cultural choice and personal diversity may offer a reclamation of citizens rights and a resurgence of cultural expression.
What’s happening culturally and politically in Scotland at the moment arises from a cultural uplift in the 1980’s and 90’s and it offers a positive example of alternative and challenging expression bringing about non-violent change. The idea of multiculturalism is close to the heart of that project in interesting ways that refresh some like myself, used to the old sectarian fault lines, based on centuries-old religious and political differences. There has been an attempt to expand an idea of national identity to truly include simple, voluntary residence and that hasn’t harmed Scotland’s sense of self, quite the reverse. London is a remarkably successful blending of multiple cultures and this has given it remarkabel resilience. Ther are many examples of united cultures full of difference that succeed. In a globa; cultural landscape within which the inaccuracies of “Zero Dark Thirty” can justify torture, or we can watch online executions in jump suits of competing colours, or see the Merkelstreichelt offer hopeless sympathy needs all the positive examples it can get.
To reference the UK, while – for example – working class communities in Glasgow fight to keep adopted immigrant families from arbitrary deportation, our media rant about “hard-workers” and “spongers”, about endless alien threats. A government beset by hideous sex scandals and doggedly pursuing a social and economic agenda best suited to an invading power has sought to distract us from the pains they cause us, by blaming them on Others. Our new Independent Press Standards Organisation can currently induce apologies (in small print) when errors of fact have occurred. Most attacks are framed in fact-free outbursts of rage. Over the last two decades in the UK mainstream media articles have repeatedly linked migrants to disease and all manner of crime. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN Commissioner for Human Rights recently characterised Europe as having “a nasty underbelly of racism” which skews our response to genuine human need. He made particular reference to the UK and our self-styled commentator, Katie Hopkins. Like a number of similar figures, Hopkins seeks to generate outrage in order to get attention, website “clicks”. She has a background in PR and the military and rose to fame on a TV reality show. This is an almost perfect path to prominence in many unwary and fading democracies. Research, facts, quality writing – they require funding, effort, ability. Confirming of readers’ prejudices is easier. UK surveys repeatedly show that responders massively over-estimate numbers of fraudulent benefit claims and immigrant “Others” – this error is substantially a mass media creation. It is a nightmare of alien rapacisouness, created by the media’s massimagination. Mr. Al Hussein highlighted Hopkins’ description of migrants “spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship”. She called them “cockroaches” – echoing Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines and its exhortations to genocide.
Commercialised hate on a global scale means it’s no surprise that trafficking people for gain, using them as slaves, as product, is – like warfare – a growing business. It grosses around $150 billion. (Slaves, like oil, are valued in dollars) The industry affects more than 20 million people. Not cockroaches. People.
And, beyond punishing migrants, the UK government removes support from those with special needs and mental health difficulties, the homeless, poor, old, young, sick… Each of us is sullied by some aspect of this cruelty. An institutionally racist police force, an under-funded legal system and a prison industry geared to increase re-offending and profits hide some of the consequences while increasing others. As in so many fading democracies, manifestations of mercy rely on groups and individuals having internalised values other than those in the ascendant.
But in a world of Avaaz, aid volunteers, and charity crowdfunding, a world where 15 million marched against a war in Iraq on behalf of strangers who couldn’t, there are alterative models for humanity. As writers and artists we have experienced the fact that art is stronger that propaganda, that love is stronger and more sustainable than hate, that self-expression can mean more than self-indulgence. We have values. This dark time can teach us about light. We have the capacity to offer a vast variety and depth of human information. We can make dreams to lead mankind forward and expressions of individuality that can make many free. Without those dreams, we face only nightmares. We must do better.
What you do next, make next, write next, create next is up you – it has to be up to you. But without you, we are all past saving. Let us, together, imagine the future – if we don’t, it will happen without us and may kill us along the way.
You can also listen to audio podcast with A.L. Kennedy’s lecture here.