Does it matter what you think?
The last of the Film talks at Head Office in the early part of the year was entitled: “Does It Matter What You Think?”
The film was lively and interesting, for many reasons. It had been produced for the Army authorities. It was a very clever film, from the point of view of the powers that be. It made great play about the freedom to think, write, make up your mind yourself, and organise to influence Parliament in the direction of your point of view.
It gave examples of newspapers and political party speakers, describing a measure as in the best interests of the country, and others describing the same measures as one that would bring the country to ruin. It gave a picture of a man at the bench just after the war who was told that the man whose job he had taken was coming back from the Army to his old job, and the wartime worker (who was rejected from the Army on account of ulcers) getting the sack. It then showed the opposite look of the two men to the question of the returned soldier. All through the picture there was a discussion between two men at an exhibition—one contending that no matter what you did, nothing would come of it, and the other arguing that you should listen and read all points of view until you made up your mind, and then organise to influence Parliament. The latter was the main speaker, and his points were illustrated by flashes on the screen.
In fact, the film was so beautifully fair that one felt there was a catch in it somewhere. And there was! It was prepared for the purpose of easing the troubles in connection with the rehabilitation of soldiers after the war. Its sponsors obviously wanted to drive home two main ideas.
Firstly, that this is a country with institutions that were worth all the miseries involved in defending them.
Secondly, that if you are disgruntled over your conditions you can organise to improve them; if you are active enough, get a large enough body together and exercise patience, you can influence Parliament to remedy, in the course of time, the most pressing evils. But there was no suggestion in the film about a basic cause for the evils mentioned, and hence no suggestion of abolishing this cause. Thus you were urged to occupy yourself with piecemeal legislation, palliatives, which would keep your mind off the idea of abolishing the system from which the evils arise. The method of procedure that has been followed by reformers for over a hundred years and still leaves the mass of people groaning under burdens, both old and new.
The illustrations of reform activity that were given in the film were examples of the limitation of the outlook put forward.
He mentioned Wilberforce, and said he was instrumental in abolishing slavery. Well he wasn’t. Slavery still flourished long after his day. But there is more to it than even that. Wilberforce was a pillar of the Church and, as Lecky points out in his History of European Morals (Lecky was a Protestant!):—
“Slavery was distinctly and formally recognised by Christianity, and no religion ever laboured more to encourage a habit of docility and passive obedience.” (Page 66, Vol. 2.)
“Christianity for the first time gave the servile virtues the foremost place in the moral type.” (Page 68, Vol. 2.)
What was Wilberforce’s attitude towards the oppressed at the time he was agitating against negro slavery in America? In the period following the Battle of Waterloo, when industry was changing over from hand work to machine work, children of six years of age and upwards were employed for long hours in factories; girls and boys were working up to sixteen hours a day in coal mines. Wilberforce was deaf to all appeals for assistance on their behalf. He, and those who associated with him, shed tears over the condition of the black slaves in faraway America (whose traders were threatening to undersell English traders by the use of cheap labour) and were blind to the anguish of the tiny white slaves at their door. He used his influence to support the Government in savage acts of repression against the overworked and starving workers. In 1818, when a peaceful meeting of working men assembled at Peter’s Fields to protest against oppressive regulations, a body of militia set upon and massacred numbers of them. Wilberforce opposed any enquiry into the matter, and the same year voted £1,000,000 to build new churches!
Shaftesbury right enough did a lifetime of good work mitigating some of the worst evils of the factory system, and did it against opposition and vilification by the factory owners and their supporters. But he also lived on the same basis as they did, and consequently did not think of abolishing a system that, at best, involved wage slavery and its consequences for the mass of the people.
Florence Nightingale was an active, energetic woman, who was appalled at the slipshod method of dealing with wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. She brought some order into the confusion, helped to make a more effective army, but was not interested in abolishing the system from which wars sprung.
Though the film urged you to think for yourself, the sponsors wanted you to get a satisfied feeling that everything is fundamentally all right if only people would spend their time ironing out some of the wrinkles in the complicated system of production for profit. Thus production for profit could go ahead piling up comfort and security for some, insecurity and misery for the mass, but at the same time it was the best of all possible systems.
We also urge working men and women to think for themselves. Our idea of thinking for ourselves differs in important particulars from what the film portrayed, and what it left out. One of the things we face is the fact that after over a century of remedial legislation the world is still an unhappy place for most of its inhabitants. The alleged progress has been, to a considerable extent, backwards. For instance:—
- Freedom of expression—but not for the S.P.G.B. on the B.B.C.
- Freedom of expression—but you must not hold Parliament up to ridicule.
- Freedom of expression—except for the libel laws. The truer the facts, the greater the libel.
- Freedom of expression—except for the action of powerful individuals, groups and governments, who take action to deny expression of what hurts their interests or their particular outlook.
On the very day the film was shown the following appeared on the front page of the Daily Express, relating to a statement sent to the Press Association by Lambeth Palace for circulation to the newspapers throughout Britain:—
“The statement arrived in the Sunday Express office headed: Private and confidential memo to Editors: We are requested on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury to send you the following:—
The Archbishop of Canterbury wishes to convey to editors his earnest hope that in the interests of the 14-year-old mother and her twins recently born in Scotland, it will not be felt necessary to make further comment on this case.”
On the same page we are also informed that action had been taken officially to prevent the circulation of the current number of the American magazine Newsweek on account of its comments on a recent court case.
It does not matter what the intentions were of the people behind these two actions. They were, in fact, instances of the limitation of freedom of expression by people who set themselves up as judges of what people ought or ought not to read.
The conditions that limit all forms of freedom of expression are bound up with the present system of society in which goods are produced for the sole purpose of profit for the owners of the means of production and distribution. It is not the goodness or usefulness of a thing that determines its production. If its production will realize a profit, it does not matter whether it is harmful, shoddy, or merely useless.
Profit comes out of the difference between what the workers get in wages or salary for producing, and what the owner gets for the sale of the article. Wars, crises and industrial strife arise out of this basic position. They will plague the world until a new system of society is established in which all that is in and on the earth is the common possession of all mankind. Where all will join in co-operative production, privilege will no longer exist, and each will take according to his need.