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October 20th 2014 print

Murray Walters

Private Mail, Public Burning

Somehow, Professor Barry Spurr's private email correspondence came into the hands of those opposed to reforming the national curriculum and -- Bingo! -- they found some unseemly words in notes exchanged by friends. It wasn't much, but enough to cue the usual chorus of hypocrites and baying simpletons.

Hey Hey, Ho Ho. Barry Spurr has got to go
Hey Hey, Ho Ho. Barry Spurr has got to go

hypo meterThe irony cannot have been lost on the Sydney University  (and Australia’s only) professor of poetry. Oh, the hackneyed repetition, the pulverized rhyming couplets. The gathering of students outside Spurr’s office, sensing they were on the cusp of making the world just a little bit safer for the “most vulnerable and marginalized”, chorused for his dismissal. Then, suddenly, one of the throng screeched, “Barry Spurr has just been suspended!” A cheer rang out. “This is a great victory against racism we’ve had today!” she hastily added (to camera), resurrecting some hope of rhetorical symmetry with her fellow Hey Heyers and Ho Hoers.

And suspended, nay sacked, he should have been.  That is if he wasn’t about to die of shame if any of those who bayed for his blood had ever been his pupils. “Chinkypoos” and “Abott the abo lover”?  You’re kidding me. Spurr wasn’t even trying, or he doesn’t get out much – one or the other.

Some of us feel for Barry. It’s as if someone has broken into his house and caught him, pants around his ankles, sitting on the toilet. (That’s figurative in case you didn’t get it – “as if…caught with his pants down.” Not actually without his pants…oh never mind).

We have become a nation of humorless wowsers. That’s as may be. The more worrying thing is that some people don’t understand the difference between private and public spaces, between what we say and do and what we think and feel.

That his musings were in private emails and jokes between friends means nothing to his persecutors. They come from two groups: the young, who have not yet learned Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism — that all men have three lives: public , private and secret. These student protestors have no secrets worth having (yet) and in the vanity of youth believe that everything they think and feel is elevated and worthy. The other group ought to know better. These are the people who would not blush when confidently asserting that their every thought and private utterance could be read aloud in a court of law – a place where absolutely nothing is funny. These people of course are the most egregious hypocrites.

Come into my world and sit awhile on the therapist’s couch, or join me in the doctors’ tearoom. Listen to the president of the P&C who, frustrated and angry that her daughter is being bullied, tells her child to “punch the bitch in the mouth if she keeps teasing you.” Or the gay advertising executive describing a colleague as an “effing weak poofter.”  What about the ‘nasty old c…” who makes the life of the bank teller miserable. Misogynistic? Sure is!

Then there’s the doctor who confides to his colleagues that if the patient doesn’t kill herself, he’ll do it for her. Or the physician who says, “Of course she won’t die. She’s a drunk, a chain smoker, a cheat and a liar. They live forever”. Even better: “We’re wasting our tax dollars on this cretin?” Unfit to practice medicine you say? Well sack half the workforce. (Apologies to the congenitally hypothyroid. These are the true cretins.)

The fact is these are private conversations between colleagues or patient and therapist. They reflect the essential humanity of people in the business of life. A real life — not a pretend one.  They aren’t meant to be repeated or read out on the 6 o’clock news. Anyone who doesn’t know that is a child or a moron. Oh, sorry, about that. Apologies to the imbeciles and idiots who figure slightly higher or lower on the IQ scales.

But Spurr’s emails were obtained, somehow, and made public. It’s all academic now, some might say. The problem here is that these days everything is accessible — your emails, your internet searches, and on it goes.  It is amazing how people fail to understand the complexities of the merging of the private and the public.  It is a real problem for the simple-minded (and the law) when technology allows you to intrude into people’s private thoughts by downloading their brains onto a USB stick.

Medical practice is treated just like this by the simpletons (and the courts). Clinical notes belong to the patient. They have virtually unfettered access to them. So the doctor must not make any notes, aid memoires and so forth that they do not want the patient to read. Easy in an immunization clinic; difficult in psychiatric practice. And confidential? You must be joking! They are confidential right up to the point that you request or claim on an insurance policy, get a divorce, go to court over custody of your child or anything else. Your ex-husband and his lawyer and his family and friends are only one subpoena away from reading about your rape, your lesbian fantasies, your infidelity, your suicidal thoughts and haemorrhoid operations. Not so much fun now is it?

“Barry Spurr, rhyme this:
You’re a white supremacist”

Private thoughts need to be understood as just that. Hypocrites, beware. Bring out your clergyman, your politician,  school teacher or saint and I’ll tell you the real stories they share when they think it’s all in confidence. You’re not selfish or discriminatory or not like Barry Spurr? Well you’re either in Grade 2 (unlikely), a liar (probably), or insufferably boring with all the depth of character of a salamander.

Here’s a quiz to help you. What’s the difference between these two jokes?

Q: What goes up when the rain goes down?
A: An umbrella.

Q: How many Vietnam Vets does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: You don’t know? …’coz you weren’t there, man!

 The difference is that the first one is not funny (and aimed at 6-year-olds) and the second is (or might be) funny precisely because it mocks the prickly sense of specialness that groups of very traumatized people often exhibit. Maybe if I had been in Vietnam I wouldn’t laugh either. But I didn’t, so I do.

Educating the smug and the prim and proper about context is like teaching autists about how to get by at parties. For instance, we know that sexist jokes are told remarkably well by women, and men clever enough and good looking enough to pass then off as gentle (what about flirtatious?) teasing. You have to pick your moment and your joke, I suspect. But when told by a socially maladroit beta male the same joke is cringeworthy and insulting, and may well earn a trip to a re-education course.  It’s the difference between the clumsy and incompetent suitor and the skilled seducer: all in the eye of the beholder (or plaintiff). The first gets to hear his (in 99% of cases) artless quips read out by a woman with a strange resemblance to his great aunt at the Sexual Harassment Tribunal, the second’s jests are savored in the privacy of the boudoir.

One of the problems with Generation Yers is that they suffer from the delusional belief that a sense of personal integrity is synonymous with talking, acting and relating to people always in the same way, irrespective of the context. I was once asked to see a patient for a colleague. He was 24. I invited him in to the consulting room. He sat in my chair. When I said I would prefer if he sat in the other one he was miffed and scolded me for having sitting arrangements based on an anachronistic idea of status (perhaps in not so many words). He called me ‘bro’ and gave me ‘feedback’ on my interviewing technique at the end of the consultation. He appeared to think it really might help me.  I suspect he would think that one ought to speak to the Queen, a policeman and a mate at the pub in exactly the same way. He would have called it being ‘real’.  He did not understand that grown-ups know how to behave and talk in different ways in different situations.

“Real” too are the contestants on reality TV who think that the ejaculations of their limbic cortices have some kind of authenticity or truthfulness and should not have to be judged against their behavior over time and properly considered opinion. Their utterances are as “real” as it gets (“Amen brother”).

Bill Shorten publicly wondered whether Professor Spurr’s rude jokes may have affected his advice on the curriculum. We should all hope so! Anyone so stupid and bland as to not be capable of a rude joke should be kept well away from anything more important than sharpening pencils. Though, on second thoughts, it worries me what they might do with those. (Note: You must not stick them up your nose.)

This is Professor Spurr’s dilemma. He is dealing with people completely unable to understand context, private thought, humour or the fact that what you say, think or feel from moment to moment might not be the sum total of your character. They would not consider that the same doctor who thought you were an imbecile for bringing some particularly ridiculous injury on yourself might still try to save your life. The same man who tells a sexist joke might well appoint the best woman for the job. The same lesbian who thinks men are vulgar might treat a scruffy rude adolescent boy with great kindness.

Spurr’s persecutors will never understand this. In their dumbed-down world, we are all either squeaky clean or in need of purging (like bulimics…oops).

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist