Folk law

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld* books hold wonderful mirrors up to our world. They take the things we take for granted, turn them around by 90 degrees and show us how strange they (and we) really are.

Many novels ago, Pratchett coined the term “substition” – meaning things that are actually true, but that no-one really believes. Among the things Pratchett calls substitions are “It’ll get better if you don’t pick at it” and “Sometimes things just happen”.

I think there are many Politically Correct beliefs that are probably substitions, to some extent. Things that we know we should believe, but that we really don’t, when push comes to shove. These are contentious things like “men and women are equal” and “race doesn’t determine intelligence or worth” and “it’s not right to discriminate against people based on how they look”. Daniel Goleman, in “Ecological Intelligence”, talks about psychological tests that reveal our deepest biases – the ones we would deny in our hearts and minds, but that nonetheless influence our actions in ways we would be appalled by, if we knew.

Some of these things are embedded in our folklore and our culture. Girls wear pink (don’t get me started!), boys blue. Girls have long hair, boys short. It’s the ones that become law, without any rational or indeed sensible basis, that puzzle and frustrate me. When my first daughter was born, she happened to be wearing a pink blanket one day when we were out and about. In my defense, she also possessed a blue one, but presumably it was the blue one’s day off. A friend who hadn’t met my baby yet commented that she was obviously a girl. Intrigued, I asked how he knew, and he laughed. “There’s no way you’d wrap a boy baby in something that pink!”

My friend, despite knowing me remarkably well, refused to believe my protestations that I would, in fact, have done just that without a qualm. Now that I am bald he might be slightly more ready to believe that I would do strange and unnatural things, but it puzzles me still. What harm would have befallen an innocent boy child, wrapped in a hot pink blanket? “People might think he was a girl!” I can see that this would be an undesirable fate for, say, a 15 year old boy with self-image issues. But does a 2 week old baby care, as long as there is a full breast, a dry nappy, and a comfy place to snuggle on hand at a moment’s notice?

Sometimes it feels as though we are hemmed about with things we SIMPLY DON’T DO. Of course, many of them are useful rules that prevent us from needing to attack our neighbours with a rabid teddy bear, like not scattering our rubbish about the street (it’s unfortunate that we can’t persuade more people that we simply don’t do that one!), or not setting our stereos on 11 and thumping out something with an uneasy bass beat at 3am (ditto). These are the grease that allow the wheels of large cities to turn without crushing people underfoot… too often, at least.

But these random, unthinking but nonetheless vehement taboos against innocent colours (well, perhaps hot pink isn’t entirely innocent – it does have a rather knowing look at times), hairstyles (perhaps I should try a mohawk next?) and clothing (quick, tell me what you think of when you see someone in a cape?) – these are the dirt in the grease, that clogs up the chain and starts to wear away at the bearings. These are the things that slow us down and make us just a little grubby. I believe I have overextended the metaphor, but you probably get the picture. I would like us to re-examine our prejudices.

It’s time to reclaim the scalp – once a symbol of prisoners, concentration camps and cancer, now simply the skin on my head. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes people just do stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t mean much, but sometimes it can make us think. So get out there and get thinking!

(* If you haven’t read any Discworld books, I recommend you start with “Going Postal”. While it’s not the start of the series (far from it), it doesn’t require much in the way of background knowledge.)

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