There is much debate at the moment about policing our thoughts; in fact we are probably only a whisker away from yet another compound verb: to thought-police. But this is nothing new: people were policing thoughts about sex for hundreds of years, especially during Victorian times when even the legs of chairs would get covered up lest men get lustful thoughts about a shapely calf.
People didn’t only police thoughts about sex. Where certain forms of expression are taboo, thought-policing (there, I’ve done it myself now) cannot be far behind. Hence servants, for example, would likely censor rebellious thoughts about their employers – or women about their husbands.* When I was a child you couldn’t swear in public, and when a show-jumper called Harvey Smith raised two fingers at the cameras, he was hauled over the coals for it.
In the age of deference the Royal Family never needed to worry about policing the press, because they policed themselves. After all, it’s not that long since the offence of sedition was abolished (2009) though in practice it was defunct long before that.
Nowadays nobody is hanged, drawn and quartered for treason; nor are they imprisoned, as poor old William Blake was (probably falsely) for sedition. But careers can be ruined and lives made impossible by a reckless tweet or a drunken misdemeanour; and last year an MP accused of sexual harassment killed himself:
So I reckon we have about the same level of self-policing; it’s just that the areas and the punishments have shifted. But there’s a problem: whereas in the past it was pretty clear what was taboo and what wasn’t, nowadays it can get a little confusing. Some things are obvious, such rape and molestation; but some aren’t. Is it OK for a boss to ask out a female subordinate? Is it OK if I tell a black guy his dreadlocks are amazing?
As it happens I did offend a guy recently by not realising he was Jewish. I was looking for a beanie-type hat (I have to say his skull-cap didn’t look very traditional) and when I asked him where he’d got it he said frostily he’d bought it online. When I said I was looking for something similar he said, in tones of ice, ‘you could try some Jewish websites.’
Then again, how was I to know? The guy wasn’t dressed in traditional Jewish gear, he didn’t have a beard or long hair; he was just standing in line at the supermarket in a t-shirt and jeans. He could have just said, ‘I’m Jewish and it’s a skull-cap,’ whereupon I would have apologised, instead of spending the rest of the day feeling foolish.
I guess we’re still working these things out. But complaints about self-policing are not new: I remember people back in the ’70’s moaning about not being able to use the word ‘gay’ any more. Gay people retorted that it was a fair swap, since they’d given back the word ‘queer.’ (Mind you, they’ve taken it back since and amended it…)
Yep, it’s a minefield out there. But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we can get away with being an arse…
* in fact the killing of a husband by his wife was until 1826 a form of ‘petty treason’ as distinct from ‘high treason’.