People Are Strange
Victoria Wood once wrote; ‘You don’t know how strange other people’s families are until you’ve spent Christmas with one.’
If we seem a lot less individual in these homogenous times than, say, the average Dickens character, it doesn’t mean we’re more rational. There was a time – say, in the eighties – when it felt as if we had settled to an unpleasantly imperfect but probably accurate view of ourselves as rapacious, selfish individuals unhappily defined by Margaret Thatcher’s nihilistic view that there was ‘no such thing as society’.
Now, ‘populism’ has suddenly taken on a new meaning. According to a landmark global survey reported yesterday, populists across the world are significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories about MMR, global warming and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and thanks to social media and the ubiquity of podcasts it seems we’re getting weirder again, becoming tribally bound by superstition. The latest is the refusal to accept that a measles jab might stop a child from dying.
A number of journalists have been chronicling strange people who believe in everything from the earth being flat to the apocalypse; specifically, chaps like Jon Ronson, Louis Theroux, Dave Gorman, Adam Curtis, Ben Goldacre and Will Storr (no women, you notice). Their writings and films tend to the populist rather than academic, but all have a reputation for integrity and fair-mindedness.
Ronson, who wrote ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’, strikes a decent balance when looking at the strangeness of people, although he seems a bit too fixated on the porn industry, where expressions of surprise at the lives of damaged people carry little weight.
Louis Theroux is more problematic. His explorations feel unsatisfying, and I find myself unconsciously rejecting his hushed but urgent attitude as he listens to harrowing stories, always neutral, leaving us to make our own conclusions. Like Ronson he seems like a classic introverted careful BBC interviewer, his very aloofness feeling faintly prurient. That’s probably being unfair, but you come away from something like ‘My Scientology Movie’ feeling he didn’t nail what should have been an easy (if litigious) target.
Gorman is a comedian but people fascinate him, Curtis offers broad sociological views in an intriguing cut-n-paste documentary format, Goldacre casts a clear clinician’s eye over the machinations of the pharmaceutical industry. Which left me with Storr, whom I hadn’t read.
It turns out that, for me at least, Storr may be the best of the lot. In ‘Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science’ he does something rather extraordinary. After doing the usual rounds, attending conventions with homeopaths, satanic child abuse ‘experts’ and creationists, he first confronts them with the kind of direct questions Theroux never seems to take on, then finds his own prejudices unreliable.
As he becomes progressively more vulnerable, revealing his own patchy psychological history, we see that he’s ideally placed to get to something like the truth about disturbed people and those who exploit them. He’s clear about those whom he instinctively distrusts, shows patience while struggling to confront obsessed people with logic, and digs down to the roots of heretical thinking.
Storr has also written a book on the selfie generation, and how the West has become self-obsessed. I’m adding it to my reading list.