BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatization of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame on 7th December. Quasimodo in the novel is treated in a manner similar to the treatment of anyone considered to be not ‘normal’ in medieval times. Quasimodo is crowned ‘Pope of Fools’ in the Paris of the late Fifteenth Century, and is despised for his misshapen body. Cruelty and viciousness were the norm of such times. Hugo, a champion of human rights in the mid-Nineteenth Century, depicts Quasimodo not as the caricature of public perception, but as a man of deep humanity, of profound thinking.
Maybe medieval Paris was not so different from more modern times. How long ago is it since circuses played upon people’s differences as a source of entertainment for the paying public? To be different was to be a spectacle. Perhaps the public profile was chosen in some cases; though how many people would choose to be pointed at and talked about is questionable.
Perhaps, having reached the 21st Century, we have moved on from ceremonies mocking people with disability; perhaps we have found a bit of basic human decency that recognizes a human being as a human being and not as a figure that can be ridiculed for sport; as someone who can be baited for easy laughs.
Yet there seems a deep-rooted human desire for entertainment where a public platform is used to ridicule other people. Judging by the audience for such events, perhaps we haven’t moved so far from the days when a hunchback was crowned Pope of Fools.
There were always talent shows on television. Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks drew massive audiences. Sometimes the acts were truly bad, but Hughie, the accomplished professional, was always kindly. Sometimes it produced bizarre results, (Wikipedia cites Su Pollard being beaten into second place by a singing dog!), but it was without nastiness and featured a string of acts who went on to be household names.
There has been a change in the nature of such programmes. Hughie Green recognized the humanity of people; maybe their act was bad, but they had a dignity as human beings that had to be respected. Bruce Forsyth stands in that tradition of great showmen who can entertain without belittling; who can make everyone laugh while retaining great human warmth. There are few like Bruce around.
The BBC News of the death of a contestant who had been subject to ridicule by judges in a television talent show should prompt people to think. In a more polite age, judges would have thanked people for their efforts and allowed their voting to reflect their thoughts; now programmes cannot pass without panels giving expression to their own ego.
Rotary Clubs have four principles by which members are expected to govern what they think, say or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
The principles applied to Saturday evening television might encourage respect for the humanity of those appearing. As it is, we have not moved so far from the days when people went to the circus to mock those who were appearing.