News Brendan O’Connor

Thursday 21 August 2014

Waters has the right to be offensive

The under-fire journalist exists somewhere between extreme intellectual rigour and deep Catholicism, writes Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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PHILOSOPHER FOR OUR TIME: John Waters is a guy who wasn’t too highbrow to write songs for Crystal Swing, a guy who didn’t lose touch with the soil of rural Ireland even as he became steadily more intellectual and abstract.

I never thought I'd find myself feeling sorry for John Waters. But life is funny like that, isn't it? I read John's interview with Niamh Horan in this paper last Sunday and watched his agitated encounter with her on Independent.ie with a certain amount of dismay. Here was a guy I used to respect, and used to defend to people around town, a guy I used to love having on the Saturday Night Show because he would talk intelligently about things that other people couldn't or wouldn't talk about, like faith, and the meanings of things. Here was a guy who wasn't too highbrow to write songs for Crystal Swing; a guy who didn't lose touch with the soil of rural Ireland even as he became steadily more intellectual and abstract. Here was a philosopher for our time. But last week I found him angry, defensive, histrionic, seeming to lack self-awareness, and moreover spouting opinions I found fairly offensive.

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I suspect if I were gay I would have found the things John Waters said about homosexuality, buggery and "the gay agenda" quite offensive. I certainly found his denunciation of depressives pretty offensive. The notion of depression as a cop-out and bullshit, as something that doesn't exist, is deeply offensive and daft. For me, it carries a suggestion that people who are clinically depressed are just copping out of life, making up a convenient excuse not to pull themselves together.

As it happens, I do think the word depression is overused these days. Sometimes it seems as if anyone, especially celebrities, who feels a bit down over anything now claims to be depressed. And I do think this overuse of the word does a disservice to people who are genuinely ill with depression.

John Waters is right when he says it is the nature of the human mechanism that we have ups and downs, and this is not depression. We all go through natural experiences in our lives that might cause us to feel down. Grieving is a classic example. Some people, of course, would say grieving should be classified as a mental illness. Others would claim that the death of someone made them depressed. But usually what they are actually doing there is conflating grief, a perfectly natural process we go through, with depression, which is when our processes break down. People who do not grieve properly may end up depressed. But everyone who grieves, while they may exhibit symptoms similar to depression, is not depressed. For grief to turn to depression it needs to become a pathology from a natural, if deeply unpleasant process, into something else, an illness, from a natural reaction to trauma to an unnatural one.

And you would have hoped that this was what Waters was trying to say. That depression is maybe overstated. But it wasn't. He said it was bullshit, a cop-out, made up by ... he stopped short before he said who had made up the notion of depression. I'd love to know who he was going to say had made up depression.

Waters was basically saying that people who claim depression are just experiencing a normal reaction to life, and they were indulging themselves by sticking a label on it, which allowed them to cop out. Waters was essentially saying that depression is not an illness but an existentialist pose, a decision taken by someone who does not want to take responsibility for their bad days, as he does.

Never mind about this being offensive, it is also irrational. Depression is a scientifically recognised illness classified in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) of mental disorders. There are several types of depression, carefully categorised with specific symptoms and treatments. It's a bit more complex than somebody feeling a bit down on a particular day. But then, maybe John, as a devout Catholic, has issues with some aspects of science.

Waters's depression denial was probably more serious because we currently seem to have a huge problem in this country with people finding it difficult to present with depression, to talk to their friends or family about it, or to admit to it when they do get a diagnosis. People like Waters denying the existence of depression, and suggesting it is a cop-out, do not help. Diseases of the self, like depression and personality disorders, are difficult enough to get help for anyway because people who are depressed tend to naturally think, "I don't have an illness, it's just that I am a bad person". Mood disorders can get lost in this self-loathing and can lead to the person thinking, "this is not an illness, this is just who I am. I am weak, I am lazy, I am useless". Because this is what the disease tells them.

And Waters reinforces all this with his comments. He assured these people who may blame themselves for their condition that they are right. That it is just a cop-out, that they should just take responsibility for who they are. He is

telling them they do not have an illness, this is just the human condition. Deal with it.

I think it's an interesting area because it raises the questions about where the self ends and mental illness begins and how disease can change your consciousness. It is certainly a grey area. Is your depression making you who you are? Or are you the cause of your depressive symptoms because of who you are and what you have done? And possibly Waters has something to add to this chicken-and-egg argument. I even wonder, if you teased him out on it, whether you would find him to be close to Scientologist Tom Cruise in his views on post-partum depression. Maybe Waters has his doubts about other mental conditions. I don't know, but I'd be curious to know.

John Waters exists somewhere between extreme intellectual rigour and deep Catholicism and that is an intersection that often throws up extraordinary and surprising contradictions. Some religious people have issues around various mental health conditions and believe them to be attributable to demonic possession. I doubt John Waters holds these views. But I think there is always something to learn from hearing about perspectives that are very different from ours. I have certainly thought a lot about depression this last week.

Unfortunately we will never know the nuances of Waters's views on this. Because John Waters's views were not only unacceptable to me, it turns they were unacceptable to most people on the internet as well. Last Sunday a mob whooshed up online and attacked John Waters in the most personalised and vicious way. Some of it, to be fair, was rational rebuttal of his ideas, but a lot of it was pure old-fashioned shit-kicking.

Waters was, to most people out there, the worst person in the world. There was almost something dehumanising about the way they spoke about him. He was not a person who has done some good things and some slightly crazy things, and had some slightly crazy views – to many of the online commentators Waters was presented unfairly as just being a lunatic asshole. Everything about him was bad and he was a bad person for holding these views and there were no other dimensions to him.

It is of course ironic that I find myself here defending John Waters's right to freedom of speech and his right to offend others. I am not sure he would extend the same courtesy to me, but I would hope he would.

I sometimes wonder if instead of creating a forum for free speech, the internet has become a place that is ruled by instantaneous mobs that whip up around every issue, usually on the politically correct side of the argument. I worry that these mobs hop on anyone who expresses views that are verboten, dismiss them as a troll, get nasty and personal in their treatment of any dissenters, and then move on.

I had hoped the internet would create more diversity. But in reality it seems that all these wonderful individual voices are becoming a monolith where only one point of view is acceptable and where the odd conservative/crank/dissenter who does engage is shouted down by laptop revolutionaries. I worry sometimes that a small rump of people are scaring other people off telling their truth, if that truth doesn't fit the bill, or if that truth is going to offend anyone.

While I find John Waters's views ridiculous I think we should all have a right to our story and our truth, however offensive it might be for others. You can't just agree with freedom of speech when you agree with what someone is saying. So I felt sorry for John Waters last week. And I would fight for his freedom of speech, just as I would fight for my right to be offended by him.

Sunday Independent

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