Monday 10 January 2011

Not Biodegradable

As my solicitor described me, I am "an inveterate diarist" (that is, habitual and longstanding), which means that I can look back to any day (and it is every day) between now and the beginning of 1979 and I can tell you the main things I was doing or being done to me and what I was thinking about what I was doing. I wish they only went back further. A whole set of shelves now contains these diaries, and when I moved in here in Sutton a friend who features in them throughout stacked them up rapidly and I have since put them in order. The flood I suffered in New Holland partly ruined five of them in the kitchen at that time; thus is the way of such documents.

A few years ago I was in touch with the Mass Observation Unit, and although they'd take them the problem is getting them down to Sussex. There might be a nearer solution. It's not that I don't want them, but rather that I want them made available in a future time to researchers under conditions until my friends and I are dead. Although the subject of them - me - isn't exactly your usual housewife or chap, as picked by the Mass Observation Unit to keep a diary for a specific period, the diaries still contain witting and unwitting testimony of the present period. My diary is a bloody good account of being unemployed in this day and age, and it will be useful for Anglican and Unitarian interest historians.

In fact you can go through some of them now and see difference. Not just in me being younger and less stupid, but also the world around us.

We all know how diaries function: they are a kind of therapy. They work by putting down even the rotten things that have happened, and in a sense it is then done and time to move on. Of course that is a nonsense, because the same issue comes back again and again. But how many people have sat exams, and after each one has written down in some detail what went into the exams?

I have also become an inveterate blogger, and the same friends 'in the book' tell me it is too revealing. Notice, however, that they hardly ever feature, other than some references to going out to the pub and so on. Elena gets mentioned as my now distant wife, and she is on the website as a description of my personal history. But then she was present when I wrote it, and where it was too revealing I removed the content - usually before it appeared elsewhere. Some extended detective work might discover the identities of my friends, but everything I hope has been under control. I assume that potential employers will sniff around the information on offer. So what of this idea of personal privacy and the theft of information? Better they know my ID details, like the rare bird nesting that is revealed to everyone. Try and steal that!

Blogs are like a matrix. Once you have written a stack of them, they start to cross-reference even if you don't cross reference them (and I don't, myself). You do not need to be a mind reader to discover a lot about a blogger. So although you might think you are treating something with some confidentiality, you realise that by going to this entry in this month and that entry in that month, and jumping around, you soon reveal what you didn't want to reveal, especially if priorities of confidentiality alter. So blogs become very revealing. The repeat subject matter is also very revealing. Every time you put information out, you are a hostage to fortune.

We hear warnings going out to teenagers on social networking sites not to put down every thing they do, because they are leaving a trail of evidence that as adults they might want securely locking in the closet.

The problem with these repeat activities is that they become both addictive and part of who you have become. When my footprint has long since stopped pressing into the ground, I will transform and fade into some sort of very minor diarist. Once a Unitarian minister advised me to stop keeping the diary, and I ignored him. You defend the activity, because it becomes part of your identity.

First of all: is it? Is it that, or is it an addiction? Now, if it is an addiction then any good purpose has long been superseded by the warped motives of the addict. Like some drug addict, the positive highs have long since been overtaken by the negative consequences. The highs do repeat, but the consequences build up and up. If I am a diary addict, then I live with this. There are instant negative consequences: the writing up might take an hour or more and it cuts into sleep. If you don't have an organised day then it starts to affect how the day is organised. Another consequence is (though this is a phase, long gone, and usually during intense social contacts) you can actually think in daily actions how the diary will reflect what is going on, and that is distortion caused by doing the diary. If this bizarre future-reflection of writing tonight continues, you become a dual personality.

The diary can also become a strategic document: in other words, that as you write up it reveals connections that determine how to tackle the next part of the plot that it currently reveals. That's not an addiction, by the way: if the diary is without a daily size limit, it is virtually unavoidable. In the end you can do the same by thinking, but writing clarifies.

Blogging like diary writing comes under very similar defence justifications. But the difference is that blogging is straight into the public sphere. When you write a diary, you do it with yourself in mind and involves a cast of how many involved; when you write a blog you can write it with as few as one person in mind, and you write it with a cast present but often written out.

Incidentally, I have produced some 'fake' blogs in terms of those as at Radio Chadderbox and an earlier story. Of course they are not fake at all: they are barely concealed parodies that only allow a tiny bit more in the blog world than you would put otherwise. Even then I have edited out material: connections made are best left to individuals, so don't be too explicit, and there is no get-out in supposed fiction for libel either. Your guideline must be what the usual lazy but suddenly motivated journalist will seek out.

Now, being interested in or involved with religion is going to feed a diary or a blog or both. Religion requires writing of abstract connections and it forms thought easily, therefore, into short or longer essays, full of the content of the mind, the spirit, ethical motivations and social interaction. In a diary no authority will see them; and you can write at various lengths in a blog, and every authority can see them.

The problem with religion is that it gets confused with ethics. It's a good field for exposition.

You are not going to blog, are you, about goings on in your schoolteaching life even if the headteacher says It's OK so long as you disguise the school. See how reliable he or she is, or the governors, when the shit hits the fan. There is no ethical demand here; schoolteaching has long been a partly deskilled and twisted process of statistical output: B. F. Skinner reigns supreme and all that and even he has been misused. Blog on your thick or badly behaved pupils and a journalist bored for a story might spend five minutes finding where you do actually teach and soup up as tragic what your blog has exposed as comic. For goodness sake don't do it: even Gervaise Finn is long retired. You wouldn't blog about accountancy would you: why not? Anyway, should you have stopped blogging 'religiously' because your institution has spat you out, you wouldn't (outside its employment) withdraw and then do say an exclusive schoolteaching one? That really would be silly. Better to be outside the denomination's reach, and blog on religion then, if blogging is so addictive.

On the other hand, ministry and religion ought to be about honesty and personal integrity, and the Church represents 'truth', and of course truth and integrity are public products. So we can blog away. We are not going to blog on pastoral situations, of course, but we can on our own personal encounters and on the institutional interface and here honesty can be given free rein. Yes, I've made the same sort of mistake. Let me try and suggest why this is not so and therefore is wrong.

Recently a bishop via social media said 'bollocks' in public to the upcoming royal marriage. The result was the institution fell in on him, and shut him up. The person who represented the institution said to everyone else tough and put up with it and he is the one to preach national lovidoviness at the royal privileged pair. It was all very naked, shutting up the episcopal underling, and the reason was simple: the institution has multiple roles; the more you are connected with the institution, the more attached you are to those roles and one of them is to serve the establishment - and that supersedes personal honesty.

I know I haven't, and won't, and lay others in it don't, but the Church of England requires promises of its operatives. It does not say, please join your personal dots with the public picture, but rather and simply make sure you present the public picture and do not confuse it with any different private picture. If, however, in the cause of truth and integrity, your revealed personal picture is at variance to the public one, you are going to create tensions. It is not for nothing that anoraks like me sit and listen to sermons and work out the preaching 'strategies' being employed. I have blogged on those too, somewhere. Well, there are preachers who live in a kind of history time-zone, and other preachers who always ask questions whilst never contradicting the pre-given answers. Occasionally you get a preacher who says, "I don't know," whereas when you spoke with him or her in their house and you discovered that, actually, they think they do know.

I'm not just concentrating on the C of E here; I recall my friend who appeared on TV with his wife as 'the naked gardeners' and it caused a furore among some Unitarians. It was pathetic. The petty institionalists ought to have known better (and so much for radicalism), though of course they lacked having formal levers to pull. But the problem with Unitarianism is the public affirmation of freedom of belief and actions, only to find your arm twisted around your back by various committees and the like. I've been there and thought, well if this is the case I may as well have stayed in the C of E!

People have long developed sophisticated conversational routes by which they put their personal variance from institutions into the public sphere. Social media, including blogging, is recent, and is not one of these techniques. It does not slip past out of sight, but leaves a public deposit asking for feet to step in it.

Of course there are direct political institutional issues, and you can argue about those in the public sphere. One is the Anglican Covenant: you can argue against that, despite the contrary pressure. But this is rather like people who argue against exams: you pass them first, and then you argue against them. People who hammer the institution have to be institutional people: and that means impeccable at least in public appearance. Now, no one is impeccable, but many so perform to be upstanding and fine. So you can engage on a public level, but not rot the institution from within by exposing its deeper duplicity. After all, it is not we, complicated humans, who are duplicious but the institutions said to stand for one thing when they operate as another. We become duplicious because it is about negotiating the public sphere.

Just suppose, however, that the institution is really pervasive, and even goes so far as to tell its operatives not to have nookie unless married heterosexually, and not to have relationships that have involved previous divorces (or seen to have done), and - most of all - not to appear to be anything other than above suspicion. Remember: it is appearances that matter. You could be bedding half the town, but if you appear to be angelic white then its a done deal. If you are a Church employee, of course, you can't stray into the congregation. When a minister I knew married a member of his congregation I wondered how he'd even strayed out into the reserved space: it must have been done at speed and clear cut. Decades on they are still well and truly together. I never did ask him how he did it (a Methodist - perhaps that's a clue). When a minister I knew had an affair with the daughter of a congregation member, he was spat out good and proper, and the ex-wife did a superb job on him via the press and his gullibility. He disappeared from the north into the hills. I still spoke to him, but many didn't. And yet he had done all the slippery things through theological college, whereas I was an idiot and thought something called integrity was involved. No one is going to blog about this minefield, are they? Er, yes.

Even I, going to buy a sound system, went to the little shop about six times as a representative of the church, wearing a public label, and I have blogged about this and wondered. But goodness me if that concern was to pervade my private life as well! In some places, being a representative in a general sense is what is required, like in the Unitarians, but others have a third person in the bed who has big eyes and says Shush! But if you don't shush, then that third person tosses the other two out. And even if you do keep mum, the third person is there every time you get on top of each other, and you know he is there (it is a he, too, at present). He is always in the bed, receiving phone calls, hearing whispers, and located nicely in the jungle telegraph, and biding his time. It is the easiest place for him to grab the man's nuts as well, and, as for the woman...

Well the trouble with blogging is that you can stop but you can't shift the rubbish heap: it is not biodegradable. The shit you have spread everywhere stays everywhere. Even if you bury it, bits will pop up and a stray dog will come along, dig and pull bits up.

Before I did teacher training I cleaned up my website. There were a few pictures of models and paintings to match. The trouble is, you can still see them because there are websites that archive websites. There are websites that even show changes made. I've seen my own at stages of construction. So even a wiped blog still exists. You may as well carry on and try and curtail the damage by degrees of fine tuning, and changing the stress of things. You can only hope that stray people don't get their front paws working.

So what is the conclusion of this long and winding road? It is that once you have started blogging, you are making deposits, and those deposits cross reference. You would think you could blog about that abstract subject religion, and ethics, and integrity, but you soon find the institution has its own superior interest, and not only will it defend that interest but can even send its representative into your bedroom. If you are addicted to blogging, perhaps you need a management detox programme; if it isn't an addiction, make sure it is properly managed before it is - and ask, 'Who in the world needs my wisdom?'

Remember: you owe no one anything, even if you like to reciprocate.

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