SOCIAL media has killed the eccentric. This was the argument on Archive on 4, The Death of the Eccentric (Radio 4, Saturday), in which Will Self trawled through the rich resources of the BBC footage in search of old-fashioned eccentricity. It is both a disappointment and a validation of his argument to find that a quick Google of one of Self’s heroes — a character who goes by the name Jake Mangel-Wurzel and who preaches a philosophy of non-conformity — reveals that even he now has a Facebook page.
Where does naïve eccentricity end and knowing self-display begin? Into this generally delightful programme the sociologist and fellow presenter Laurie Taylor injected a generous phial of scepticism, laying into modern celebrities who are strategically eccentric: characters whom we tolerate because they make us feel more tolerant; we love ourselves for loving them.
Taylor reserved particular disdain for the ceramicist and cross-dresser Grayson Perry, whose appearance is all part of a well-judged PR act. Of Salvador Dali a BBC interviewer once asked: “Are you a businessman, an artist, or an entertainer?” Taylor would have liked to ask the same of Perry.
To his credit, when confronted by these accusations later in the programme, Perry conceded that his behaviour did him and his public visibility no harm. But it was not the motivation: he had been dressing up in women’s clothes long before he was a twinkle in the Turner Prize’s eye.
More profound a criticism of English eccentricity came from a journalist, Yomi Adegoke, who pointed out that black men were more likely to be sectioned than white men. Eccentricity is, among other things, a race issue; and it is a good deal harder to express abnormal behaviour if you are black. Arguably, a character such as Chris Eubank challenges our perception of the tipping point between eccentricity and mental instability in a way which a white celebrity might not.
Outside the West, the moral obligation to make people laugh for a purpose will often sit heavily on a comedian’s conscience. In The Cultural Frontline (World Service, Saturday), we heard from stand-ups in the United States, Venezuela, Singapore, and Uganda about how they use comedy in politically subversive ways. All of them felt that there were no holds barred when it came to political satire. But, when it came to religion, it was a different matter: that, the Ugandan comedian Patrick Idringi “Salvado” said, would be a sensitivity too far.
The religious situation in Xinjiang Province, in the west of China, is certainly no joking matter. As reported in the Beyond Today podcast (Monday of last week), the network of “schools” for the Muslim population represents a vast programme of secularist re-education, in a province already characterised by the most advance civil surveillance programme in the world.