The Importance of Joy, Lightness and Irreverence

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 1st 2017

Scandals and controversies are thick and fast these days. There are the indictments against senior members of the Trump campaign, allegations of impropriety by sexpest MPs, and the ongoing stand-off and clampdown by the Spanish authorities in Catalonia.

All of these are serious issues asking important questions about politics, public life and the nature of democracy. Yet at the same time, the manner of how these and other factors are brought into scrutiny and debated often seems to contribute to part of the problem. There is a sense of decay and something rotten at the heart of what was once seen as accepted democratic norms. Alongside this there is a prevailing feeling that institutions and elites which once knew certain unwritten codes of behaviour, no longer abide by these, and that in large parts of the West, we really are part of, what is in effect, a complete free for all.

This has become an age of anger, discontent, rage against the machine, and populist revolts. It has also connected to social media, and become a time for simple solutions, soundbite politics, and uber-partisanship amongst the most vocal and true believers.

This has its obvious shortcomings. But it also leaves us with a deep and palpable absence of feelings and expressions of joy, light and hope in public life. Thus, our entire experience of public debate and conversation across the West is situated in a narrow range of possible expressions and even a sort of straightjacket.

Take the allure and possibilities of joy. This isn’t some add-on but a quality which is intrinsic to modern life and part of the human condition. Joy aids well-being, health and quality of life, from relationships and connectedness to self-esteem.

Joy is a fragile and rare quality. It needs in public to be nurtured, cared for, cultivated and protected. It needs to be given space to grow, prosper and take root. It doesn’t come about or find form easily under stress or pressure. And it also requires that it comes from a sense of strength and sureness in an individual – an inner strength, centredness and even resilience.

This is far removed from the age of rage which defines too much of public life. A large part of left and radical politics have a problem with this. At a recent Poverty Alliance conference, one speaker said that ‘I am not going to stop being an activist even though it exhausts me.’

Herein is a problem version of politics and campaigning. This is the politics of potential burn-out, of feeling you have to struggle, and respond to a higher calling, putting individual needs at the demands of the collective, no matter how exhausting.

A different approach would try to make joy, fun and lightness part of any radical politics. This is the message and lesson the New York based Centre for Artistic Activism have learned over the years and have then taken around the world in workshops and forums. Instead of thinking about activism as some kind of enormous responsibility which you have to undertake for the greater good, wouldn’t it be helpful to think of different types of activism?

They pose that deep down many left-wing activists actually yearn for the day when they can stop being activists, put down the banners, and go and have a quieter life with time for reflection and a cup of tea. That made them think that really a large part of what passes for left-wing politics isn’t very sustainable or stimulating at a human level.

What would a different kind of activism look like? Examples they cite include the Latin American guerillas who in areas they liberated set up committees of fun, knowing that there had to be a deliberate contrast from the serious activity of fighting a war of liberation. Another was the example of ‘The Yes Men’, who with brilliant daring and aplomb, sent up the global masters of the universe and their grotesque worldviews of endless globalisation.

This is as germane to the state of Scotland now as anywhere else. There seems little joy, uplift or lightness in public life in Scotland at the current moment. The independence case which in 2014 so energised this country, reached parts which had been left disenfranchised and ignored for a generation, and which spoke and exhibited a politics of positivity and possibility, has not maintained this approach and spirit.

Moreover, Scotland’s public life has all sorts of soft no-go areas. Where is the satire and comedy of our existing politics and political classes post-2014? Indeed, where are the irreverent insights and takes on the independence referendum and its aftermath? Dare I say it, but after ten years in office, aren’t the SNP class of politicians, from Nicola Sturgeon down, due some biting, penetrating satire, which throws a different light on them and the ridiculous elements of the Nationalist elite?

To some in today’s Scotland such views are sacrilege. But in life everything has to be open to satire, comedy and send-up. Armando Iannucci has just unveiled his dark comedy ‘The Death of Stalin’, much to the fury of the Russian authorities. Yet in Scotland we still seem to operate as if some areas are no go areas.

Serious times require serious politics and responses. But even the darkest times – such as the 1930s and height of the Cold War – always demanded a fuller palette of emotional responses than just being serious, didactic and partisan all the time.

The idea of joy or ‘collective joy’ as Barbara Ehrenreich has written is intrinsic to human behaviour from the earliest examples of civilisation to the present. It is there in how the individual finds expression in the collective. It is present in how protest and euphoria are articulated, and also used by repressive authorities such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to stage choreographed spectacles.

Such concerns have come centrestage in the age of zombie capitalism: which has witnessed a decade of stagnant and falling living standards, and the securitisation and militarisation of many aspects of public life and space. Lynne Segal, following on from Ehrenreich, has just written a book on the pressures on happiness and individual joy called ‘Radical Happiness’. Segal believes that we have lost the art of radical happiness: the coming together of multitudes that are transformative. Without this we face, she argues, the prospects of lives increasing alone and atomised where our potential to flourish is significantly diminished.

For all this bleakness, moments of joy and connection still breakthrough. Look at the popularity of BBC Saturday night programme ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Apart from it mixing celebrity and old-fashioned family entertainment, its popularity is shaped by its fun, joy and escapism, while it being about dancing – one of the perennial expressions of the individual and collective isn’t accidental. Similarly, the affection for the national treasure of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and the near-scandal when it was purchased by Channel Four from the BBC tells a bigger truism: about the appeal of people cooking together in a show characterised by gentleness. These are but two of numerous examples which make the point that people want, need and will find joy.

There is also the rise of craftivist activities in younger generations, from the appeal of hand-made crafts to guerilla knitting. There is a return to time honoured practices of craft, a deliberate turning away from the mediated experience, and the same mix of the individual self-worth and seeking out new networks of belonging. ‘Knitting your way to revolution’ might sound like the unlikeliest phrase ever, but at least you have the prospect of a new garment out of it and possibly some new friends.

The above shows that humans are innately creative, inquiring and complex, and will do their outmost to search out, find and create joy, play and imagination. But the public lives we lead, the cultures and societies we inhabit, don’t seem to reflect these qualities or recognise their worth. Instead, we live in an age of discombobulated politics: made up of lifeless managers and cartoonesque, dangerous demagogues and populists and the limitations of each feeding off and reinforcing the other.

Public life, spaces, culture and politics increasingly defined by bitterness, anger and miserablism isn’t going to take us very far. It isn’t good for the human condition, psyche and imagination, and there is a good chance it will be counter-productive, not aiding the chance its advocates desire, and instead perpetuating the existing order.

So as the news channels are filled with the latest tails of Trump’s indiscretions, the numerous cases of sexual harassment emerging after Harvey Weinstein, and what the Catalan case says about Spain and Spanish democracy, maybe we should rethink how we not only react to such news, but how we live our lives.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote at the conclusion of her study of joy, ‘Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy’:

The capacity for collective joy is encoded into us almost as deeply as the capacity for the erotic love of one human for another. We can live without it, as most of us do, but only at the risk of succumbing to the solitary nightmare of depression. Why not reclaim our distinctively human heritage as creatures who can generate their own ecstatic pleasures out of music, colour, feasting, and dance?

Time to get those dancing shoes on.