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Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Universal and Compulsory Sunday School

There was a time in my country when lots of rough children got sent to Sunday School where the teachers tried to make them a bit more respectable. The teachers were often young and literate but not educated. They conveyed a sense of what was Nice and what was Not Nice but they had no real understanding, no coherent theory of what it was that placed one thing on one side of the divide and one thing on another. In this situation, teachers did not all agree with each other and it is most unlikely that their pupils really understood what they were trying to achieve anyway. There would have been some common ground, nonetheless.

It was Not Nice to fart loudly and appear delighted to have done so. Ideally, one should not fart at all but, if needs must, then an apologetic and shamefaced demeanour was required. And the audience should at least endeavour not to titter. In this way, Sunday Schools undoubtedly contributed to the cultural reproduction of local farting etiquette.

There were words a child should definitely never use, at least aloud, and in some cases they were words which adults should not use either. There were words which no children or women should use, but which might be tolerable when used by a man. And there were probably words which no child might use but all adults might. I will hazard that bloody was most definitely not available for use by children as a curse word, but that some uncertainty and disagreement surrounded words like ruddy and perishing and a range of other adjectives which might in context sound like code-words for an underlying, unvoiced bloody. The same would apply to exclamations like Jesus! and Christ! and Blimey!  and Crikey!, though the last was all right because it was used by posh children.

There was no unity of view about the punishment due to offenders against language etiquette – whether, for example, they should simply be reproved or whether they should actually have their mouth washed out with soap.

Nowadays, those Sunday Schools - which in any case only took up an hour a week - are thankfully a thing of the past. In their place, we now have the universal, compulsory and 24/7 Sunday school known as the social media. Here young and literate (or semi-literate) but not educated (though sometimes with a worthless degree) teachers call out the Rough and point them towards the path to the Respectable. They don’t use those words, but that is the general policy direction. If you don’t conform, then a variety of punishments are available, from social ostracism to loss of your job and even, potentially, imprisonment.

Where there is face to face contact over time, a modus vivendi may get established which departs in some ways from original policy on both sides. An idealistic young Sunday School teacher may end up allowing to pass a quiet fart and a restrained titter.  

But where there is no face to face contact, just individuals bunkered down with their smartphones, there is also no pressure to search for a way of getting along with your neighbour. Indeed, in practice the demands of the new Sunday school teachers are free to escalate to the point where those who were once regarded as feminists become mysogynists and those who championed gay rights become homophobes. If you get off on calling people out, then the higher you set the threshold for Niceness the more people there are to convict of Not Niceness.

The zealots of social media are well on the way to creating a world in which no one dares to breathe or achoo. There are just so many ways in which offence can be given and even more ways in which offence can be taken. For the present, people get by with grovelling Apologies which simply feed into someone’s lust to watch you swing.

But it only a matter of time before people rebel against the claustrophobia of it all and  decide that they will fart as loud as they like and you can just Fuck Off  if you don’t like it. They have nothing to lose but their Twitter accounts.

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