Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 24 Sep 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Do the right thing

Many years ago, when I was a baby freelancer and the world was young and fresh, I was sent to interview someone who is quite famous. This person who was quite famous had previously invited a young and, presumably, attractive journalist of the opposite sex into their homes and after some glasses of wine had been consumed, told them that they had an open marriage. The journalist, who surely couldn’t believe their luck, duly went home and built a salacious narrative that caused this person all manner of heartache. I was sent to get them to do it all over again.

The occasion was that they had launched a project that they passionately believed in and wanted to talk about. My brief was to ask some cursory questions about this project, look interested and then get to the rude bits about sex and open relationships. I declared my hand fairly early in the interview, as I hate any kind of subterfuge, and said that they shouldn’t answer the questions which I felt were rude and intrusive and should instead talk about their project. They agreed. And then proceeded to talk about their marriage anyway.

This means that I found myself in a bit of a bind. My editor would be chuffed into tiny pieces that I had some juicy gossip, but I would have felt that I was taking someone who I believed to be a good and kind person and adding to their woes. Or worse yet, digging up some woes that they thought they had buried, putting them on the end of a pointy stick and asking people to look at them all over again. I wrote two versions of the story and ended up submitting the version that wasn’t in any way salacious but was a purposeful account of meeting the famous person and discussing their project. Lo, I never worked for that organisation ever again.

It told me, quite succinctly, that morals have their price and that, if you’re a baby freelancer, you need to forget that you have them if you want to make money. This lesson was straightforward and, with it ringing in my ears, I duly went off to work for magazines that were published on behalf of corporate clients where I wouldn’t be asked to write anything that would be hurtful or upsetting, but which wouldn’t exactly be in any danger of winning a Pulitzer Prize, either. The nadir of this was the work I did for the Army, when almost everything that I saw or heard had to be filtered before it ever reached the page with the result that it put the Establishment point of view and ignored the immense suffering that the Army had inflicted on people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Behaving ethically is not, then, clear-cut. There is almost never a signpost that stays ‘virtue’ one way and ‘complete bastardry’ the other. I had avoided turning over someone I liked but, a few years down the line, ended up being the de facto spokesman for something considerably more hideous by dint of not wanting to upset anyone. One decision that I’m fairly sure was ethical had led, albeit indirectly, to another that I’m equally sure wasn’t. What I had failed to realise was that being a moral actor within your own life is not one decision, made once, but a series of decisions made over the course of a lifetime often in the teeth of disapproval or, worse yet, approval.

My parents always thought the Army work was morally fine and still say that if I hadn’t done it, then someone else would have. This was undoubtedly true. But if we want to reduce this argument to its essence, it could be used to say that it mattered little that you had shot that Jewish resident of the Lublin ghetto in the head because they were probably going to die anyway. Each tiny piece of infamy lies on another, and then another, until infamy is all that you see stretching away to the horizon forever. If the soldiers, and my great-granddad was one of them, who participated in the Christmas truce of 1914 had decided that the war was no longer worth it, the whole edifice would have collapsed and the world would have been spared the tearing, breaking hideousness that was the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

Our problem is that we’re all terrible, vain little things. We want praise when we do the hard thing and approbation. It seldom comes. There’s no dramatic incidental music when a tough decision is taken or music which swells to a crescendo when we decide that the way we have been acting is wrong. The clock ticks, traffic rolls by and people around you ask where you’re going for lunch. We don’t live in the paradigm that Hollywood defines for us, because we live in real life. Perhaps if I’d heard the applause of a fictive audience when I’d refused to turn someone over, I’d have been happy, and if I’d heard the audience shout ‘No!’ when I took on the Army work, I’d have stayed my hand. Unfortunately, these things are impossible.

Doing the right thing is hard. Doing the wrong thing is frequently rewarded. And we need to see that clearly and make our choices accordingly.

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