The punishment should fit the crime, not be dictated by our obsession with drama and personality politics.
Not many people realise it, but Eastenders is the most powerful corrupting influence in public media. Graphic films and violent computer games ordinarily bear the weight of responsibility for disfiguring the national psyche; they are, in fact, completely harmless. ‘Grand Theft Auto’, for example, is so manifestly uncivilised that it speaks honestly and says: I am by no means a viable way of life.
But soap operas are tricky and dishonest. They present a version of reality which seems valid, but isn’t. Consequently, people confuse soaps with reality. They think that the way characters behave in soaps is adult and acceptable. The logic of soaps is reductive and hyperbolic. Phil is not moderately angry, he is really angry. People don’t debate or discuss, they trade insults – or cut the verbiage altogether and beat the crap out of each other. When they do talk, their conversations are a mixture of emotional clichés and moral absolutes.
So we arrive at Gracegate, our sobriquet for the debacle that surrounded Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, Academic and Welfare Officer, Dan Taylor, a litigious malcontent, and an ensemble cast of soap opera-watching students who are much given to witch-hunts and unsightly public displays of morality.
Now we know all about democracy, that it is a virtuous process and that its mandate is final and unalterable. We also know that democracy doesn’t change the fact that we, the electorate, are often woefully misguided. It was easy for Dan Taylor to drum up support, but he needn’t have bothered: the soap opera-saturated students would have booted Grace anyway.
After all, we had already decided that Grace’s crime was capital; that if she fell, she had to fall hard (reduction and hyperbole). Her YUSU peers suggested that she be censured – the middle way; but the oh so pious students shouted “No! She must go!” (ethical absolute). Meanwhile, at the UGM, one speaker was heard to lament that Grace had “let her down” (emotional cliché).
Most disturbing were the frequent claims that Grace should go ‘on principle’. I don’t know what sort of principle this could be, that smiles with a turned thumb on every wounded public official, regardless of the particular circumstances of their offence; but I think that those who prize such principles above basic common sense would do well to examine what any reputable legal system history has to offer and take note of the recurrent emphasis on proportionate punishment.
Everyone loves a drama, naturally. But it would be comforting to think that this one – the appalling crucifixion of a benign individual for a trivial offence – will never be repeated. I hope that this year’s lynch-mob may in the future learn to assuage their animal bile, to think in real-life terms and – following the advice of WS Gilbert’s Mikado – to let the punishment fit the crime.