Have you ever made a mistake? Done something crass or embarrassing that makes you want to curl up in a ball now? Said or done something hurtful? Supported or donated to some cause that you now realize was not what it seemed to be?
Most of us have. And surely this is the way we all learn – by making mistakes. Watch a baby learn to walk and it makes mistakes over and over again until it gets it right. A plane is constantly correcting itself as it ploughs its way through the clouds. We need to continually review and correct ourselves as we plough our way through life, surely, don’t we?
But in today’s judgmental world none of us are allowed to make mistakes, so how can we possibly learn? None of us are allowed to have said anything crass or potentially offensive to a soul all the days of our life or we shall be cancelled or pilloried, and even lose our livelihood at the behest of some anonymous Twitter mob. In fact, the fickle finger of social media will point in our direction until we are fully shamed and humiliated and prostrating ourselves on the floor in penance, even if we were only a kid and knew no better.
My generation would surely never be able to serve in parliament, get published, or support the arts if people understood those awful rhymes we used to chant in the playground, not knowing any better. We would be sent to the equivalent of the Russian gulag for writing books that were shaped by the perspectives and cultural views of the day.
Because, surely, we do learn, generation by generation, to treat one another more humanely and equally and we do this learning through reviewing our behaviour and vowing not to do the same thing again. After all, we don’t put people on the rack these days or guillotine them in the village square. We do have legal acts to support equality and fair treatment.
But the tendency today of sending people to the equivalent of the naughty step, even if they were very young when they made their error, and without any legal process, means that people may be so nervous about speaking up that they stay silent; so nervous that they may get something wrong that they don’t try something new; or so nervous about doing something they feel is right that they take no action, for fear of standing up to the crowd.
I wanted, in the 1960s, to be a member of the Communist Party. My parents were horrified. At that time I was too young but it seemed a utopian movement that could bring equality to all. It was only later, through events, discovery and learning, that I realized that it was certainly not all it was cracked up to be, that there was cruelty, torture, repression, dictatorship and a very real lack of equality. I learnt this over time. I didn’t know it at an earlier age.
Why we live in such a puritanical time I really don’t understand. We have had witch-hunts before in history, certainly, and recently too, in dictatorships. We see it today in China and Russia, where journalists who contradict the government are imprisoned. Perhaps here it is because we have more time than our forefathers to look around us and point fingers at others. It makes us feel so good to believe that we are on the side of the angels and aha, you over there, you have said something nasty or done something wrong, or your great-great-grandfather did, and so you will suffer.
If you look at the corporate sponsors of the arts and of charities, it is inevitable that at some stage that organisation will have made a bad call, supported a client who turned out to be a fraud or worse. So, should we now stop accepting any corporate sponsorships in case way back in their records we might find that they put money into tobacco, DDT, petrol or some other investment that we now know was not good for humankind (and yet had seemed so at the time)?
It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? It’s challenging enough to put yourself forward for high office, whether in government or organisations, these days. Every single thing you do has to be squeaky clean even if those who are asking the questions may not be so squeaky clean or knowledgeable themselves. The armchair judges spit their vitriol down Twitter or whatever and have some extraordinarily high bar that we are all supposed to reach, even if they are not quite so judgmental about themselves.
Politicians have been lambasted for smoking pot at university but more-or-less everyone smokes pot at uni and then gives it up when they go into the world of work. We have all broken someone’s heart or misbehaved at some stage and regretted it later but, at the same time, known that really it wouldn’t have worked out if we had stayed in the situation. We must be allowed to make mistakes.
Time, surely, to accept that everyone will have done something they may be ashamed of when they think about it at some later stage of their lives and that this is the natural way of the human condition. Trial and error. Obviously if we break the law then the law will judge us and we shall pay the correct penance and should then be allowed to clean the slate, on the assumption that we have learnt our lesson. But if we break the law again, we shall be punished again.
I am not convinced that being forced to grovel by an anonymous group of Twitter followers who shelter their own life record behind an anonymous username is at all healthy. It can just build up resentment and could well lead to people trying either to be perfect (impossible as no such person exists) or to lie and blag. It could certainly result in a society where people are frightened to speak up or do anything that might be regarded in a negative light by all those invisible judges who could send them to the equivalent of the Gulag and deprive them of income and reputation.
We don’t want to live in a world like that here in the UK do we? Can’t we accept that youth is for living, for trying new things and getting them wrong, and also that we never fully grow up to be some perfect mature adult who gets everything right (something children often imagine happens when we become grownup) because in fact we make mistakes, learn and adjust our behaviour every day of our lives until the day we die. And when we stop trying new things, stop making mistakes, we stop learning and become stale. And if we reach that point we have very little to contribute.
When Gandhi and Churchill are toppled and defaced, despite freeing millions, what human will ever be perfect or squeaky clean enough to satisfy the current arbiters of who should hold office, play sport, give to charity, support the arts, or be placed on a statue? I can’t think of one.