Spot The Bull

The following is an excerpt of dialogue from a British comedy called The Thin blue Line, which is set in a fictional small-town British police station. In this scene Inspector Grim of the CID is bemoaning the fact that Inspector Fowler hasn’t granted a single sponsored application for firearms, and in particular one for the chief of Grim’s secret society, the Todgers.

Grim: “It is your job to vet the applications. You’re supposed to ask questions to find out who’s a suitable person to own a gun.
Fowler: That’s right. And surely the first question must be: Does that person wish to own a gun?
Grim: Of course
Fowler: And if the answer to that is yes, then clearly that person is not a suitable person to have one.
Grim: This is the nanny state gone mad!
Fowler: What, because I don’t happen to think that a man who lives in a suburban semi needs an automatic weapon?
Grim: He’s a sportsman!
Fowler: Then tell him to buy a pair of plimsolls! Sport? When did you last see a wild boar in Gasforth? Or an elk? If you did, dispatching it with a spear or an arrow would be sport, but deploying an elk-seeking missile is just cheating.
Grim: This is a civil liberties issue. You are denying my friend his rights!
Fowler: And what of the rights of those who do not wish to live next to an armed man?
Grim: I am talking about the rights of the individual here…
Fowler: …Which I consider secondary to those of the community as a whole.”
This comedy was written by Ben Elton whose “left-wing political satire” and comedy writing has proven very popular over the years.

Good observational comedies such as this one and The Simpsons (another one of my favourites) can often tell us much about the predominant beliefs that have shaped, and continue to shape, our societies. When inspector Fowler says he considers the rights of individuals secondary to those of the community as a whole it perfectly encapsulates in one sentence the belief that sits at the root of collectivism/socialism. His words reveal to us that he believes that the “community as a whole” has rights. To believe this one must believe that the “community as a whole” is a thing with distinct and independent existence because only things that exist can have rights – that is, a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way – and so we can deduce that Fowler believes this also. Both beliefs are false. Community is a concept, a term, a label we use to refer to a group of people. Therefore, the “community as a whole” doesn’t exist and cannot have rights.

Fowler, at this point, has left the realm of reality. He is away with the fairies. He has just said that he considers the rights of people who exist secondary to an entity that doesn’t exist. That’s like telling your wife that Santa Clauses’ right to use the fireplace must take precedence over hers. How would your wife respond? If she was to say: “right, so what you mean is youdon’t want me to use the fireplace?” she would be correct. Even if you don’t realise it yourself, it must be and indeed is you that doesn’t want her to use the fireplace, because between you and Santa Clause only you exist. The question is, what motivated you to disguise the fact that you don’t want your wife to use the fireplace? What motivated you to pretend you were ‘doing good’ by pretending to be acting in the interests of someone else? We usually use morality like this as a way of getting some preference or desire met when we haven’t got any good reason or evidence for wanting it met. We know that it’s not morally acceptable to bark an order at someone or threaten to hurt them if they don’t do as you desire, and furthermore we know that others would be more unlikely to comply with your wishes anyway if you did. And so we come to realise that one of the most effective ways of controlling other people is by making them believe that in doing what you want them to do they are acting for a greater good or their own good, or even both.

Let’s return to Inspector Fowler. What he really means, then, is that he considers the rights of those who wish to own a gun secondary to his rights – and by extension, the rights of the police force (who, let’s not forget, own lots of guns). Which means his moral principle boils down to nothing more than meaning: the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others. That this is also an accurate description of human societies is no coincidence. If you asked an alien to observe humanity and then decipher the principle that our societies are organised according to, it would probably come up with something very similar this. If you asked a human being, on the other hand, you would find it very difficult indeed to find one who gave you an answer that bared little if any resemblance to the alien’s answer, or indeed reality.

The next time you watch a good observational or satirical comedy try to spot the moment when the roots of an entire ideology, the one that you have been taught and that shapes the world you live in, are exposed. Then have a good rummage around and see what you find.

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