I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I feel desperately sorry for Gordon Brown. Not of course that I forgive him for having sold our old age for the betterment of his own big-government ambitions or cashing our gold for a handful of beans shortly before the biggest taxpayer bailout in modern history, again for the advancement of his and his friends’ political careers. For these things, and others, he deserves to be sent packing on polling day. But it would take a very hard heart not to feel a pang of empathy over Bigotgate.
I just know that slow, almost-unbelieving, sinking feeling he must have felt when he first heard he had been caught referring to sixty-five-year-old Gillian Duffy, a former Labour supporter who had button-holed him on the stump in Rochdale, when he thought he had been speaking to his staff off the record. Forget the rights and wrongs (critics will inevitably point out that by his actions Brown has shown himself unworthy of the support for which he is asking Gillian Duffy and millions like her up and down the country). I think you’d have to be devoid of all empathy ever to have experienced the sickening feeling of dread that accompanies the realisation that you’ve seriously and irrevocably put your foot in it and, seeing the same discomfort in a fellow being, remain unmoved. I’m sure everybody has their tale.
My own Gillian Duffy moment was of lesser consequence and it was a long time ago, but the heart-sinking memory of queasy self-consciousness remains as lucid as if it were yesterday. As an adolescent, I was larking around in Brentwood High Street with my friends after bunking off school, doing nothing worse than displaying the gormless ineptitude at which teenage boys excel. Cavorting around the place like an idiot, my friends and I were having a good old hoot at my court jester antics, when I suddenly felt the whole world freeze around me. Where only moments before there had been laughter, abruptly there was silence. Not only had my friends suddenly appeared rooted to the spot, staring at me, so too were other passers-by. In mid-cavort, I had taken the act just a nanosecond too far before realising jollity had inexplicably turned to widespread opprobrium, but it may as well have been a week, for the weight of silent public condemnation heaped upon me.
Baffled by the sudden seachange, I cast around for explanation. Looking behind me, I found it. Standing there, with a look of utter fury and outrage on his face, stood a boy, probably around the same age as me, with extreme Down’s Syndrome. I felt quite sick with the realisation that my actions had been taken as openly mocking him, there on the High Street, for the amusement of my friends and me. Hard on the heels of this awareness, the boy started shouting at me. My shame complete, strangers around me stared for a little longer before putting their heads down and swiftly moving away, perhaps themselves feeling slightly degraded by the episode. I wanted desperately to explain the situation, but the feeling of utter evisceration left me capable of little else than shambling off after my friends back to school. Not one of us spoke as we wandered back, strangers to each other in our own private worlds.
Looking at it dispassionately, one interesting aspect of the feeling of sinking doom with the realisation one has committed a world class gaffe is that it is virulently infectious. While obviously it is felt most acutely by the person at the epicentre, by dint of the human facility for empathy it can spread, virus-like, to those around them. So when I heard Brown’s remarks repeated on the radio yesterday, I might have laughed like a drain at the sheer banana-skin comedy of it, but I was wincing in sympathy as well.
At the paper where I used to work, an incident of adultery and regret was told and retold in the fine oral tradition of jounalists in the pub. At the time of the story, a secretary and a section editor, both married, had been conducting an affair which they wrongly supposed to have gone unsuspected by their colleagues; in fact, everyone knew about it, but all had been too discreet to mention it.
Most of the office had decamped to the pub for lunch, and after a couple of pints, the assembled found themselves in a state of uproar as each egged the others on in an infantile conversation about sex. Hack after hack attempted to raise a bigger laugh than the one before with ever more bawdy remarks, the growing volume of hilarity forcing each to raise their voice incrementally. Just as the uproar reached fever-pitch, the adulterous section editor howled at the top of his lungs, ‘YOU KNOW, I DON’T THINK WOMEN EVEN LIKE SEX!’
You could have heard a pin drop. Driven by an urge as primal as hunger itself and unrestrained by any conscious sense of delicacy, all eyes raced to the secretary, who dropped her head, face flushing the deepest magenta before wailing, ‘Oh it’s no good!’ and, weeping, fled the pub, closely pursued by her feckless beau.
The way the story is retold, those left behind stayed in the pub and had a jolly good laugh about it before returning to the office. But the editor, who had stayed at the office and was still there when they returned, tells a different story; that in fact the journos had returned in a highly sheepish state of apparent sobriety entirely at odds with the accompanying odour of alcohol, barely speaking and unable to make eye contact. This has the ring of truth about it. An almost identical story, writ-large, recounted to me by the woman at the centre of the indiscretion, demonstrates a similar suffering by those at the periphery.
The protagonist was at the time doing shift work at a bakery factory in west London. The bakery itself for the most part comprised a single shop floor spread across several hectares. Overlooking operations was a glass-sided manager’s office on the first floor, from which management oversaw operations and communicated with those below using an intercom tannoy system. My friend had not been working there for very long when she struck up a rapport with the manager, who was about the same age as her. This took the form of an apparently harmless flirtation, either on a face-to-face level when he walked onto the factory floor, or at a distance, as he spent much of his time in the glass-sided office above her work post. Reading between the lines, the (married) manager did not read any more into the situation than a bit of fun, whereas I think my (single) friend may have invested a little more in it.
This had been carrying on for some months before the unfortunate day in question when my friend and her workmates finished their shift in the middle of the day and, it being payday, decided to go to the local pub and make an afternoon of it. Not a little drink had been taken when my friend made the unwise decision to send a series of ‘playful’ (by which I mean quasi-pornographic) text messages to her manager’s mobile phone.
Little did she suspect that the manager had switched his phone off and set it to redirect all incoming messages and calls to the landline phone in the office. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a text message sent to a landline, but it is quite eerie: Thanks to some technical wizardry at the exchange, the message is read out using the recorded voice of a rather haughty-sounding woman speaking in the tones of received pronunciation popular during the 1950s. As it turned out, there was no-one in the office at the time and the haughty-sounding BBC announcer from 60 years ago relayed her series of steamy payloads to the answering machine.
Now under the circumstances, you might think it was lucky there was nobody in the office. Well, you’d be wrong. For a start, the answering machine was one of those with a speaker which plays the message as it is being left. Had someone been in the office, there is at least the chance that in a knee-jerk reaction of shame they might have switched the answering machine off. Or if no shame were forthcoming, at least they might have switched off the tannoy microphone, which had carelessly been left on. But no.
So it was that, over the next few hours, the workforce on the shop floor were intermittently regaled with the weirdly displaced, female voice of a very well-spoken dalek, claiming to be their colleague, going into nauseating detail regarding the different sexual positions she would like to attempt with their manager. According to my friend, far from the ribaldry and teasing one might expect after so comprehensive a faux pas, her next appearance at work was met with funereal silence, and stayed that way for some time after. Indeed it was several days before anyone would explain to her what had happened. The irony of it was that, after overcoming her initial embarrassment, my friend found herself able to laugh off the episode long before her colleagues were able to overcome their own mortification on her behalf.
In the Wikipedia entry on ‘empathy’, a research paper - Tunstall N., Fahy T. and McGuire P. in Guide to Neuroimaging in Psychiatry, Eds. Fu C. et al., Martin Dunitz: London 2003 – is quoted as saying that, ‘while some psychopaths can detect what others are feeling, they do not experience any reciprocal emotion or sympathy. However, some research indicates that components of neural circuits involved in empathy may also be dysfunctional in psychopathy’. So here’s what I think could be a pretty good test of whether you’re a psycho or not. Very simply, read this short facebook exchange, and see if it causes you any discomfort.
Yes, with all her youthful hubris and contempt for her employer, many would say the young woman deserved pretty much everything she got. But if you can tell me that you could not feel the slightest pang of empathy for the vertiginous sensation of jarring realisation she must have felt when she first read her boss’s comment, then I would respectfully suggest you put all the sharp things in your house far beyond reach. (For those who enjoy a good dose of schadenfreude, there is a similar story here.)
Such are people’s propensity for indiscretion in the digital domain, particularly – as with the woman at the bakery – if drink has been taken, Gmail has a special tool which can be calibrated to deny the user access to their email account if, after a few sherberts, they are likely to make an ass of themselves online. Personally, I think that if someone habitually does this to the extent they consider acquiring such prophylactic measures, there might lie a deeper problem which cannot be addressed with software, and they should perhaps consider drinking less. Whatever, I bet Brown dearly wished for some kind of automatic muzzling, and for this my heart goes out to him.
To those who want an end to Brown’s government, I would say that when it comes, in the words of Colonel Tim Collins, remember to be magnanimous in victory. Whatever ill you wish upon him can not be worse than the evils he will visit upon himself, after ignominiously crashing Labour’s longest-ever term of office into the dirt. As he lays awake at night, it will not be the real issues over which he lost the election – defence, education, the economy, that occupy his thoughts of ‘what if?’ – no, it will be the face of Gillian Duffy and the memory of the first time he heard himself call a lifelong Labour supporter a bigot on the radio, which will return to torment him.