A literary friend of mine has cautioned me to stay off two subjects. One is the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and the other is the Olympic Games. Her advice is sound. There is too much written about both subjects already. There is no need for any more ink to be shed. So, I am not going to say anything about either: if people are enjoying Fifty Shades or the Olympics, background moaning from someone indifferent or hostile to one or both is hardly interesting.
Everything that needs to be said about the games has been said by our own Dr Oddie and by the great Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday’s Observer. I do recommend Mr Rawnsley’s article which makes compelling reading, quite apart from being a model of what a good opinion piece should be.
It is worth bearing in mind that when the Pope visited the United Kingdom at the invitation of the government back in 2010, a whole load of people protested. They did not protest about the government’s decision (well, not much) but rather aimed their protests at the Catholic Church and at the person of the Holy Father in particular. There was also a great deal of talk about how the Vatican was not a state and other such matters.
Protesting about public events is always going to be problematic. Here’s why.
First of all, if a group of enthusiasts want to watch diving, or beach volleyball, or a Pontifical High Mass, that is up to them. They are free to do so. Such activities are voluntary, and no one who is forced to take part. These enthusiasts are exercising their right of freedom of association, their freedom to hang out with like-minded people, and their freedom to spend their own time in their own manner. No one could possibly object to that, could they?
Well, they could. They could claim that, for example, turning Horse Guards Parade into a beach volleyball venue is both ludicrous, undignified and a waste of government money. That charge does have some force, but it is hard to quantify the ludicrous or undignified nature of beach volleyball. It is best if we merely say that tastes differ and that we must all learn to practice tolerance in matters of taste.
But what about the money side of things? Money is quantifiable. If the beach volleyball (or a Papal Mass) costs a certain amount of hard cash, the bill for which will be picked up by the taxpayer, then the taxpayer can surely object.
But this is the Scrooge argument. I might not like beach volleyball, but why should I object to paying for it, when the government regularly underwrites many things that I may or may not like, and which I never protest about, such as the opera, or our palatial embassies around the world, or the civil list, or Trident? Why protest against this particular government spending just because I do not like it? And isn’t it a bit much to protest at spending on beach volleyball as a waste of money when, generally, I may be opposed to all cuts in government spending?
Let’s remember that beach volleyball enthusiasts pay tax too – isn’t it time that they, like opera-lovers, got their cut of the government spending pie?
Then there is the inconvenience argument. Yes, a lot of people who would otherwise have been able to walk through Horse Guards are now not going to be able to do so thanks to beach volleyball. But this needs to be seen in context. London’s public spaces and roads are constantly being subject to restrictions because of large public events such as State Visits, and, of course to large scale rallies and protests, as well as celebrations in Trafalgar Square. This happens regularly because London is the capital of the United Kingdom and thus the natural place for such big events. That is what capital cities are for. These events are one of the great reasons to live in the capital, as well as one of the annoyances. But we have to take the rough with the smooth: we may love the Trooping of the Colour; putting up with the volleyball is the reverse side of the coin.
Finally, we need to consider the rationality of protest. This has been done for us by Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. Here he talks of what he calls incommensurability – the fact that people speak languages that are mutually incomprehensible, despite using similar words. He says:
It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. ‘To protest’ and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else.
But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestor can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.
The language is dense, but the point, I hope, clear: protest is a form not of rational discourse but self-indulgent talking to yourself. That is why, even though I am an Olympicphobe, I shall not be protesting. In fact, like Andrew Rawnsley, I wish the Games, now we have got them, well. I may even watch that beach volleyball myself, if I can get someone to explain me the point of it.