The Art of Donald McGill is one of George Orwell’s most brilliant and perceptive essays. It’s a dissertation on the naughty British seaside postcard – now I think a thing of the past -, on forms of ribald humour that most likely escape people who are not native to these islands. Towards the end he makes the following observation;
I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuhrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.
When the author was writing the common people may very well have responded to the pompous and the high-minded in the fashion described. They may also have done so in their millions, but if they did they did it, by and large, privately and in isolation from one another, especially if their destinies were governed by despots.
Now it’s different; now we have Twitter, millions of raspberries blown in the face of the latest absurdity from those formerly used to public reverence. It’s a form of freedom that manages to transcend the limits imposed on everyday expressions of dissent. Even those who live in authoritarian states, at least where tweeting is allowed, can express a view reasonably free from detection.
I was thinking of this on reading about the latest absurdity by Saudi Arabia’s morality police. Yes, the country has a morality police, bearded auxiliaries employed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. They are more familiarly known to Saudis as Hayaa. In Damam on the Kingdom’s Gulf Coast they recently marched into an education exhibition featuring models of dinosaurs, turned off the lights and ordered everyone out.
The reason for this heavy-handedness is unknown. Perhaps because it was being held in a shopping mall, one of the few places that Saudis of both sexes are able to mix publicly, something that’s bound to attract the attention of these absurd guardians of rectitude. But no sooner had the exhibition been closed a new Arabic Twitter hashtag, @Damam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show, appeared. Before long it was attracting dozens of theories, many of them hilarious, some of them ribald.
Perhaps, one went, there is a danger that people will start worshipping dinosaurs instead of God. No, said another, it’s only a temporary measure until such time as the male and female dinosaurs have been separated. The real problem, said a third, was that a female dinosaur had been caught in public without a male guardian.
Some Twitters saw it in political terms – “It’s not as if we don’t see dinosaurs in newspapers and on TV in the government every day.” Another suggested that it would be better to go after the dinosaurs in gilt-trimmed cloaks, a form of dress favoured by senior sheiks.
For still more it was all about sex. One of the exhibits depicting a dinosaur riding on the back of another was declared to be sexually suggestive, an obvious example of a Westernising influence. “I confess”, one penitent declared, “I saw a naked dinosaur thigh and felt aroused.” Another attempted to enlighten the Hayaa – “No, no, that long thing is a tail.”
A great many challenged the real dinosaurs – the religious police themselves. “They worried that people would find the dinosaurs more highly evolved than themselves.” Another wrote, “Hello Stone Age. We have some of your people – can you please come and collect them.”
How true it is that laughter is the best weapon against the killjoys, the moralists and the dogmatists of this life, all those who take themselves so seriously that they simply can’t be taken seriously.