Craig Raine and the Toxicity of Conformity

Yesterday poet Craig Raine received a thorough virtual beating on Twitter, as legions of the self-righteous flocked to demonstrate their unimpeachable ‘liberality’ by attempting to crown him the new ‘pervert laureate’. In case you didn’t see, his poem, ‘Gatwick’ (below), recounts an interaction between Raine and a female airport employee, and (inelegantly) details the former’s lusting over her ‘big bust’. It is a bad poem, but not because of its subject matter. The panicky response to its publication is illustrative of a worrying expectation of conformity which presides over public discourse like an overbearing aunt.

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That an artist should be able to express whatever he wishes is inarguable; whether or not he can, without incurring the collective wrath of armchair commentators is very much up for debate. For it seems the boundaries of accepted attitudes are shrinking. We are witnessing a bizarre phenomenon, whereby many people who think that diversity ought to reign supreme are ironically opposed to any form of dissent. What we see in incidences such as the Rainestorm is the ugly face of a stifling conformity laid bare.

It goes without saying that it is in the interests of the established order of one-percentist capitalism to have a passive, compliant public, and the preparation for a conforming life begins at school. The current system of co-existing private and public education lays the groundwork for an adulthood governed by class. While those at elite institutions don the blazers and ties of their presumed city jobs, everyone else is required to wear downsized imitations of the cheap uniforms of the service industry worker. As they are readied for their future roles, pupils work a five-day week, with homework bringing the working hours up to industry standard. Like workers, they are also subject to routine performance reviews in the guise of exams. Education in its current form, as Noam Chomsky observed, is essentially a triaging suite, designed to weed out and designate as ‘troublemakers’ those independent few for whom institutionalised life is ill-suited.

Once in the workplace, the individual is lulled into docility by a quotidian bludgeoning by expectations and manufactured aspirations. From a day unquestioningly performing tasks of dubious productive use and moral value, he goes home to spend the evening bathing in advertisements promising a better life, which is always another few pay cheques away…

But what does this have to do with Craig Raine? The reaction to the publication is his poem neatly illustrates the extremely narrow spectrum of acceptable opinion. It shows how truncated many educated people’s imagination has become. Raine transgressed the boundaries of ‘enlightened’ mainstream thought in the smallest of ways and was greeted with so much vitriol that it became a news story. But if you look for anger of any kind of magnitude about our dysfunctional economic system, it is much harder to find. When lively debate occurs about trivialities, but the egregiously unfair structure of our society is passed over, the extent of our toxic collective conformity becomes painfully apparent. After all, “if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

 

Originally published on the Huffington Post (2015)