The title is a quote, fittingly from a food critic turned journalist and documentary maker: Jonathan Meades. Equally fittingly, Meades television output has a distinctly ‘marmite’ flavour: some people will lap up the breadth of source material and viewpoints, while others will blanch at some of the sourer notes or just flinch facing a monstrous feast of syllables. Mangling a culinary metaphor mercilessly, Meades is a man who serves up curate’s eggs by the dozen, some highly nutritious, some possibly addled. Approach iPlayer with caution. But, returning to earth – or, rather, Earth – he actually wasn’t talking about food. He was talking about how different cultures think about and value diversity.
Even if you are a BBC4 watcher with a thesaurus perched next to your remote control, some background might help. Apart from his print and TV work, Meades is also Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and (in the language of its own website) a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. His work, as blogger Aethelred the Unread describes it by comparison with the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, has a point to make:
Like Curtis, he’s not so much a polemicist for a particular viewpoint as he is a polemicist for the necessity of thinking for oneself. Like Curtis, he’s interested in unorthodox juxtapositions (especially of apparently serious and trivial things), and in approaching weighty topics from unusual angles.”
His current TV series focuses on France, where he now lives, although it won’t help if you want to learn about garlic, accordion music or a nice gite in the Dordogne. The angle – to over-simplify monstrously – is to consider France as it would like to see itself, and to ask why it does and why it wants to. France vs. The Myth of France, if you like. His love-it-or-loathe-it style (acerbic but deadpan) strikes many as arrogant or pretentious, although I suspect his response might be to point out that we can’t hope to improve without initial pretending – and then aspiring – to be better than we are. What it mostly conceals, often behind some formidably dense use of words, are occasional moments of righteous anger. One of those flashpoints – from which the title of this piece comes – was a section in Episode 2 that explored diversity.
Meades’ argument was that the French Empire’s attitude to its colonies, and particularly to its colonials, was very different from the English one. Whereas the English saw colonies as places to import raw materials from, the French saw them as places to which to export ‘Frenchness’. The aim was to make these people – in Martinique, Vietnam or French Guinea (which still elects members of the French Parliament and uses the Euro – French. As a constitutional secular country (of which it was clear Meades broadly approved), and a very ‘statist’ country, France has been – at least in theory – ‘colour blind’: as a French citizen, you can grow, learn, develop and so on regardless of the starting point. There was fair warning that, behind the trademark Ray Bans, he would focus on diversity in Episode 1, where the syllable count dropped for the aggressively stated:
The constant injunction to celebrate vibrant diversity is moronic.”
(And if you need proof that someone like Meades can reach a broad audience, that very line was quoted this week on The Official Board For Leyton Orient Fans, whose posters use more refined language than Guardian Cryptic Crossword fans. Another myth blown.)
But, for avoidance of doubt, we’re not into something like Norman Tebbitt’s ‘Cricket Test’ here. Meades’ argument, if I can do it justice, is that emphasising our diversity and clinging to our origins holds us back. By valuing ‘the community’ – a fashionable phrase, but for many people not a particularly meaningful one – over the individual, we restrict and limit our view (and theirs) of what they might be expected to achieve. By categorising people into communities, diversity can actually be divisive rather than diverse.
Aethelred the Unread quotes another excerpt from Episode 1 (which I’m truncating a little):
Identity, in this sense, is a form of communitarianism, which defines people by their race and inherited culture rather than by their individuality, their aspirations, and their talents. It’s a kind of prison.”
As Meades explored in Episode 2, it can be a prison of the prisoners’ own making too. Looking at the tendency in recent decades of some minority groups in France to ‘not play the game’ of assimilation, and to live a quasi-separatist life within an existing country, his concern is that France has no way of making a response. Constitutionally, everyone’s a citizen. End of. Faced with groups of citizens that won’t join, it feels like a jilted suitor: it doesn’t know what to do.
Moreover, he says the problems that this situation poses. How can society help – even if it genuinely wants to – to make the most of the opportunities it can provide to someone who will most likely decline the offer? As one Digital Spy commenter observed, contrasting the French scenario with the British ‘multiculturalism model’:
He equally pointed out the flaws in the French model of ruthless integration. What struck me about the faith / immigration / identity bit was just how dense it was in terms of the opinions he was trying to get across.”
Indeed. If anyone needed a lesson in the challenges that diversity can bring – and not just for ‘the diverse’ – then this was a programme to provide it. The pleasant surprise, judging by the places online comment has turned up since, is that the audience wasn’t as self-selective as prejudice might lead you to believe. (Leyton Orient fans plainly aren’t prisoners of people’s perceptions of footie fans, and hats off to them.)
And difficult viewing or not, Meades continues to attract a generally warm press that respects a refusal to dumb-down. Here’s a TV Review from Spike Magazine:
Illustrated overtly in documentaries about Nazi and Stalinist architecture and more subtly in ones about British culture, the message Meades tries to convey, and rightly so, is that identifying too closely with where one comes from stymies progression of culture and diminishes us as individuals. Modernism, for example, has no ‘nationalist etiquette’ attached to it and was thusly despised by the far right; fascism allows its subjects no identity other than homogeneity. This might sound unpatriotic, but people (those Republican candidates especially) should consider whether they’d rather be defined by their background or by their talents and individuality.”
If you have a professional role in developing others, or helping them to develop themselves, there are some important points to ponder crammed in there. I’m no fan of Modernist architecture (living in Milton Keynes, you discover than aversion therapy does work), but I’m all for people defining themselves by their talents. No final angry point to make, but if you have nothing better to do tomorrow night at 9pm, tune in to BB4 for the final episode. It’ll be a Dundee cake of a viewing experience, but there’ll be enough food for thought to keep you digesting for quite a while.