OUR Dark Hearts

               Image taken from The Wicth. A project by artist Stuart Alexander 

When writing about the atrocities committed under the British Empire that seem to have slipped out of our cultural memory, the writer and activist George Monbiot said that “[w]e British have a peculiar ability to blot out our colonial history” that “…at least they [Holocaust deniers] know what they are denying. In order to sustain the lies they tell, they must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain’s colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied” (Dark Hearts, The Guardian, April 2012). I began to wonder whether it is because this nation cannot imagine itself as being anything but a force of good – after all it did used to refer to God as ‘being an Englishman. If the British psyche cannot see itself as being anything but good, how can it store memory of acts of evil done under the Union flag?

The subject of this blog is much removed from these atrocities, but the ability to forget isn’t, because if a human being has a desperate desire to be a good person, it’s likely memories of the darkest things they did will simply fall from their mind, just like a society’s collective memory. Yet, these memories can be awoken. Today a friend posted my way his new art project ‘The Wicth‘ which is a photo-documentation that looks at dilapidated but still occupied houses, arguing that “this dilapidation is not necessarily the product of poverty, or an inability to maintain these homes because of a disability, but is also a sign that perhaps the inhabitants have something more interesting on their minds than keeping up appearance. But fundamentally this makes them a target for “…likely victimisation…at the hands of their community. They are, like back in the days of witch burning, feared and further ostracised due to their (perceived, or actual) inability to conform…This “failure” to conform is often seen as a threat to those conforming as it has the potential to make them notice and question the walls of their protective bubble”. (The project is called ‘Wicth due to Stuart Alexander “as a child growing up in Surrey..” seeing “…one of these houses, and a child (or particularly inept adult) had written (a misspelling of Witch) in chalk below the living room window on the brick work”.

This brought back memories of something I too don’t deny, but just struggle to keep in my memory bank, although it certainly has made a hidden impact, which has likely contributed to my constant urge to apologise to people (it has left an indelible ‘guilty’ mark on my unconscious). When I was 10 years old (1994), growing up in an ex-mining village overspill (that’s only now begining to look this way retroactively as I grow older)  I got involved in some rather bad things in the village; I’d just been allowed to go off a bit further by myself, on my bicycle. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I think I was a bit damaged in 1994; my sister had been hospitalised with anorexia, and with my parents visiting her most evenings, I was left at friends’ houses where I played violent computer games such as Mortal Kombat (although its level of violence seems comical compared to modern computer games) and I was getting in fights (what seemed like) everyday at school.

For a brief spell I’m pretty sure I was close to becoming a person who lacked empathy. One of these things was myself and another lad, almost killing a dog by purposefully throwing its stick into a wasps nest on the recreation ground; I, a poor thrower, told my friend to throw it, it was my idea… The other was when I got involved in a gang who found a lady who was living in a dilapidated house in the village and one of the gang members started making rumors that she was a witch. He was a bit of a goofy-looking boy and wanted respect from the more popular boys in the village, and he began by making stories up about unoccupied houses (which there seemed to a lot of back then) being haunted. He was obviously making these stories up, but boredom, coupled with many other things (as in hindsight most of the other boys were probably more psychologically damaged than I was, in one way or another) meant that we could make ourselves believe in them. It was an easy target to pick on a household that didn’t conform in anyway to the norm, being an utterly dilapidated house, which seemed to receive no visitors.

I was part of the external crowd, not so much chanting “witch” like the others, but stood at the back, half intoxicated on the mob mentality, half scared of getting into trouble. “Not being totally involved” is the story I told myself in order to feel exempt from the actions of those shouting and throwing things, but in a sense isn’t it the one’s who make the crowd, make the numbers surrounding a nasty deed that allow it happen and make it even more scary for the victim?

Since I have grown older my fear is of becoming one on the other side of a witch-hunt. Becoming the victim; a prisoner in their own home; as the community projects their fears, often through the actions of children who pick up on their community’s fears. In hindsight I think it’s very probable that this individual had severe depression. Having now suffered from depression myself; a know that fear of feeling like a freak once you can’t hide your illness to the world around you. I have often feared children, maybe a similar age to us at the time (9,10,11 years old) locating MY (potential) dilapidating dwelling and slowly beginning to gather there one by one on an evening. I fear this probably because I’ve seen what it can do; how horrible kids can be. Maybe it would be justice (or maybe read the second part of this blog… which deals with the idea of justice).

To my knowledge the harassment ended when her brother caught up with us on the recreation ground one day, and asked for the names of those of us present on that particular gang ‘outing’, when my parents drove past and noticed me, and my punishment was directed through them, as he escorted me to the car I had been called to. I suppose in a way, I was the only one out of about 15 (in total) who got into trouble with their parents for it. Perhaps I was one of the only ones to receive any sort of (small) retribution for it.

All I can say now is that I hate bullying, it makes me sick to see. In the years that have followed I’ve witnessed much bullying in my home town; a place full of estates left economically and socially neglected by the end of the industry they relied on, which sadly seems to lend itself to intolerance. I suppose in general, saying all this is quite timely as I’m feeling the need to be honest at the moment (although I’m never dishonest) there is certain parts of our life we conveniently forget about, parts that are best spoken about. Many things aren’t spoken about. (see Stuart Alexander’s work here http://www.stuartalexander.net/wp/projects/the-wicth/)

Many subjects aren’t spoken out because they are so taboo….
…So to remain briefly on the subject of witch-hunting (although I’m aware this blog’s getting to an attention-losing length now) I’d like to offer my praise to the subject dealt with in Series 2 episode 2 of the near future satirical drama Black Mirror written by Charlie Brooker, which was recently aired on Channel 4. To begin with Black Mirror has slightly restored my belief that television isn’t dead just yet, but there again the very subject of episode 2 deals in an eerily close-to-actuality depiction of television’s death robe: reality TV. A young woman wakes up in a house with no memory of anything. She goes out into a grim social housing estate only to find people who do not communicate, just document her the phone-cameras. Suddenly she finds herself being chased by apparent psychopaths chase her and another woman with weapons, wishing to cut them up, whilst the other people merely act as spectators recording the spectacle (which turns out to be the truth). A concoction of traumas is rained upon her.

After some time, people, who she believes are either companions and enemies, all turn out to be actors, who clamp her to a swivel chair that turns to face an audience. It turns out her memory has been erased as part of a show. She is the ‘freak’ in a ‘freakshow’. An actor who had previously pretended that he was about to kill her with an electric drill, turns out to be the host of this ‘freakshow’, who swivels this young woman around to have her now-erased life re-told to her. It turns out the woman was complicit in her one-time partner’s kidnap and brutal murder of a child. Because her ex-partner killed himself, it has been decided that justice must be inflicted on her in the most ‘satisfactory’ means possible.

She is then paraded as ‘the monster’ this society deems her to be past aggressive organized-mobs of spectators, where objects are pelted at her, only to be placed back in the house where she woke up, and have her memory erased again. It becomes clear this freakshow is an organised ‘justice’ theme park, where people come to partake in the never-ending ‘nightmare’ made for this ‘monster’. Like the previous episode, what makes Black Mirror so (rightfully) traumatising; a drama the “wipes the human face in its own vomit and then forces is to look in the mirror” (a quote by J G Ballard, sampled by the Manic Street Preachers), is that it is science fiction specific to our times. Old science fiction, of the 20th century, is now almost playful with its giant modern pyramids and flying cars. Charlie Brooker (who, with Black Mirror, has proven he has the intelligence many always thought he had) has written stories that understand where our postmodern society, one that stopped believing in a future and is now socially regressing, is heading. A near future world where everything looks the same, yet is just slightly more severe (slightly more fucked up). Because the driver of change, technology, is no longer visible to us, it is everywhere (in our hands, ears, fingertips) but nowhere because we can’t really see it, and in fact visually we start to look more to the past as the speed of technology further muffles our experience of the present; we descend.

The step forwards into the future (and the step backwards into terms of civilisation) in the second episode of the second series deals with something that society is usually too scared to confront: Black Mirror has subtly commented here on an issue sex criminals/child murderers (the most horrific crimes in a society). That, regardless of the acts, the societal hatred of them is a modern day witch-hunt, something that people wish back the death penalty for.

I’ve always thought that these horrifying acts are buried deep into our the dark heart of our society, which emerge in certain people who have perhaps been more damaged by society’s institutions along the way to adulthood. The witch-hunt is much more a fear of what one dare not confront in themselves rather than of the offender in question; the evils of society that are buried surface deep, but every time they emerge, we just hack off the heads rather than trying to pull up the roots to stop it growing back. These evils are-short-circuited, corrupted within certain individuals into horrifying acts, but destroying that individual won’t stop the act recurring; less tolerance actually stokes the fires of repression that feed social evils.

After the show was aired I saw a Facebook comment about it saying “she got what she deserved; child-mudering bitch” and it just seemed obvious that their comment was a symptom of what was being warned against: the horrors of witch-hunts, no matter what the crime and in what historical period they happen to occur. Although the crime on the episode wasn’t one specifically of pedophilia; it was a crime that synchronises with pedophilia as crimes that society is less and less willing to understand the causations of, and increasingly more likely to make causes for witch-hunts that are far more likely as tolerance retreats as civilization descends. If you haven’t seen it all ready, it is still available on 4OD. It is traumatic viewing, but most certainly essential viewing.

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