All the news headlines in the country, in the past few days, have mentioned what I understand to be the recent publication, by a French magazine – and now, apparently, also an Irish newspaper – of the Duchess of Cambridge seemingly sunbathing topless in a French château. It now appears that an Italian magazine is also following suit.
Mostly, these headlines mention “topless photos” or “topless pictures”. I am astounded by the poor grammar. Are the actual photos, or pictures, topless? Have their tops been snipped off with scissors? Or is the person in them topless? After all, if you said “the black and white photo of so-an-so”, the black and white would refer to the photograph print – and not to the colour of the so-and-so in it.
Still, that is a small, possibly pedantic point. There is a more serious issue here.
Newspapers and magazines need to sell copies of their publications. That is a fact. However, they rely on the public buying them. What I find nauseating, is that there are so many people who will rush to buy newspapers or magazines because they contain photos of a semi-naked Duchess of Cambridge. What does that say about these humans? Do they think Catherine Middleton’s breasts will be somehow differently shaped because she is a Duchess and the wife of the second in line to the throne? They are just breasts. Nature distributes them evenly among all women. Or is this curiosity driven by a desire somehow to own an intimate part of an individual whose status and fame places her outside the reach of their social circles? Or is it a deep-seated satisfaction to see her embarrassed and humiliated? An urge to see a crack in an even veneer? Whatever the motivation behind this voyeuristic tendency, I find its expression repulsive and disturbing. I also find it profoundly sad. I feel deeply uncomfortable that such a large part of humanity, of which I am an indivisible part, should have it in it to act this way. If, as John Donne put it, “No man is an island” then I, in part, also bear the responsibility and the shame of this. We all do – even those of us who exercise their freedom not to look at such photos.
Once again, this makes me think of the concept of freedom and right, and of the overuse and abuse these words suffer every day. The term freedom lost its power to inspire me some time ago. When I hear it, I am sorry to say, I often equal it in my mind to the word bullying. As for the term right, all too often, it makes me think of tyranny.
I was on the bus, going to work. A young woman opposite me was listening to her iPod. I could hear quite clearly the songs she was listening to, in spite of the rattle of the bus, it was that loud. I could sense the man sitting next to me growing increasingly irritated. I, on the other hand, kept trying to distract myself from a Salvador Dali-style mental image, inspired by the dream sequence in the film Spellbound, of a pair of gold manicure scissors floating in through the bus windows, by magic, and snipping through the white cords of her earphones, in two clean cuts. Finally, the man snapped, “Turn that down, will you!”
Immediately, the young woman told him, in a rather superior tone, that he should ask politely, then – so predictably – said it was her right to listen to her music. An argument ensued. I controlled my impulse to butt in. On London public transport, asserting your rights against the sprawling rights of others has been known to lead to unpleasantness and even violence. Still, this looked like a potentially reasonable young woman. Even so, I needed to dispel my frustration, before speaking. It is true, the man could – and perhaps should – have said, “I’m so sorry but would you mind turning it down just a little?” However, I find it interesting how people push and push your boundaries with their actions but then judge you as the bad guy for reacting to them. Somehow, it did not cross the young woman’s mind that she could have been responsible for causing the man’s abruptness. It annoyed me profoundly that she was taking the moral high ground just because she was managing to keep a calm and polite – albeit patronising – tone of voice. I took a deep breath, and smiled at her (was I proud of myself!) and said, “You’re absolutely right. It’s within your right to listen to your music. The problem is, that I don’t actually like your music very much but I have to listen to it because it’s loud. Do I have a right not to listen to it? You see our problem, here… That’s the thing about crowded buses. We’re all thrown on top of one another, so everybody has to compromise a little… What do you think?”
I could not believe it. The young woman gave me a long, intense look. “Yes, I guess that’s true,” she said. She turned down the volume on her iPod; I thanked her and we travelled in the silence. When I got off, I thanked her again, and I wished her a good day. She responded with a beaming smile, and wished me the same. This episode restored my faith in humanity, and cheered me up for the rest of the day.
There is a reason the word right as an adjective – meaning morally good and correct, is the same as the noun. The OE Dictionary defines it firstly as “that which is morally right”. Never mind the fact that, legally, we are entitled to do something. Is it actually right that we do it. In Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy, barrister Sir Robert Morton expresses the desire that right, as opposed to justice be done. Justice provides guidelines on what is acceptable by law but it is up to our conscience to do right. It may be legal for embarrassing photos of celebrities during their moments of privacy to be printed in the press. Is it right, though?
It is legal to make noise in your flat until 10 p.m. You are free to do so. Does that mean you cannot exercise your freedom to be considerate towards others, and spare a thought for them, by keeping the volume contained within the walls of your flat?
US American lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”
If we do allow our personal freedom to sprawl and invade a part of another individual’s personal space, then our freedom become tyranny. If the pursuit of our rights infringes on another person’s rights, then we bully that person. Your freedom must be limited by the boundary marking the start of my freedom.
Personally, I do not believe we come into this world with rights, but with privileges; and, as such, we should exercise our freedom of personal responsibility to treasure and safeguard them.