My very favourite news stories these days are those poignant tales of parents who have been investigated by the police or social service agencies because rolls of film they have submitted for processing turn out to contain nude photos of their children. These parents are often very badly treated. Their children may be temporarily taken away. They may have to endure counselling by social agency busybodies. And, inevitably, there is much hand-wringing in the press. After all, families in this country have long cherished a tradition of creating and saving “innocent” images of little Johnny in the bath or little Mary naked on the rug-but possessing or producing what gets called “kiddie porn” is against the law in Canada. So, we agonize, how to snare the bad without punishing the good or the innocent?
That is a stupid question. But it is a richly stupid question-the kind any journalist should slaveringly pounce on, because what delights in those news stories is how marvellously they underline the fact that there is absolutely no difference between what normally gets called kiddie porn and the kinds of pictures stored in family albums. Those One-Hour Photo employees who generally get condemned as dirty-minded, sanctimonious and meddling are, knowingly or not, basing their judgement on quite sophisticated aesthetic principles.
Now: finish this essay I’ve just started in those first few paragraphs. Prove that kiddie porn can be morally neutral. I assure you-it can be done. I’ve given you a good, solid lead, and there’s a forceful argument to make here that can draw on a history of aesthetics, on cross-cultural and historical data, on labour law, on what sex means and can mean, on a history of the kinds of jobs we have allowed children to do. It may well be a splendid piece. But people will hate you for it. Tentative definition of a shit-disturbing journalist: a perfectly lovely person whom everyone hates.
It is one of our jobs, as journalists, to be hated. But it is not enough to be merely hated. It is also important to be hated for the right reasons. Gossips can be hated and feared, but journalistic gossip, at least in its contemporary incarnation, exists principally to provide a set of relationships for people who seem incapable of developing their own. The purveyors of brute opinion (one thinks of Michael Coren here) are more likely to be despised than hated, given their reliance on sniffy innuendo, inadequate research and contextless facts. No, the only good reason to be hated is because you are actually asking the questions that are, in fact, staring everyone in the face-and because you are trying to answer them honestly, thoroughly and wittily. And because you are a constant reminder that there is no right not to be offended.
That is a difficult role to play, particularly in an era when, often for very good reasons, we go to extraordinary lengths not to offend. But outrage can be the beginning of wisdom-I recall, as a pious young Roman Catholic student at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, being deeply offended by a philosophy professor who taught that it was possible, even necessary, to question the most sacred tenets of our religion. I was outraged-but somehow I kept going back to his class for more. By the end of the year, I had left the church and was beginning to lead a real life, not an imitation one (pace Thomas ? Kempis-not even Jesus Christ is worth imitating). I should add that that professor’s contract was not renewed the following year-the Church no longer needs an auto-da-f? to help manage dissent.
A crisis of religious faith as a spur to independent thought may seem quaint today, but every generation will have its own special set of questions to ask, questions that are staring everyone in the face but that almost everyone has tactfully decided to ignore. When I began my journalistic career, one obvious but apparently unaskable question was why there were so many fags around, and why much of the time they were pretending not to be fags, and why everyone else was happy to join in and pretend that they weren’t there. Over the last 30 years those questions have been more or less answered, and fags are now so cool just about everyone wants one, but I can assure you that back then, asking those questions did make one hated-even by many fags. Today, as the profile of Naomi Klein starting on page 10 makes clear, one obvious and up-till-now-mostly-ignorable question is quite literally written on one’s body. What does it mean to be “branded”? What does it mean for us as individuals, and what does it mean for the society in which we live? And if it means things we don’t like, what should we do about it?
Some advice, then, on the art of being loathsome:
The questions to ask are usually obvious-so obvious that no one is asking them.
Wit is an important element of loathsomeness-without wit, one runs the danger of being merely wholesome.
Remember that it is good to provoke, but it is even finer to offend.
The process of becoming loathsome will be considerably hastened if you never watch TV or listen to the radio. The electronic media constitute a machine for the erosion of the single element most critical to those who wish to attain loathsomeness: a personality. (It is wise, however, to follow the Gore Vidal rule: “Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”) To be out of touch is essential to the shit-disturbing journalist. To be out of touch is also one of the few luxuries the modern world can provide that a journalist can afford.
Never allow yourself to make permanent connections with the right people. In journalism, the ultimate insider is the ultimate zombie-the living dead of letters. One need only read John Fraser to realize that.
Ask yourself under what circumstances you would break the law.
Ask yourself who was wiser: Socrates, who drank hemlock rather than recant, or Galileo, who recanted and was allowed to live.
Once a year, ask yourself if you might just possibly be wrong. Celebrate when the answer is still no.
Gerald Hannon is a Toronto writer, a one-time Ryerson instructor, a part-time prostitute and a perfectly lovely person who has, from time to time, been much loathed.