It was announced this week that the tour of the UK programme The Voice has been cancelled. I watched the first series only a couple of times but admired the premise: four "coaches", seated on ornate chairs facing away from the stage, made the decision in the initial show whether or not to mentor each singer based solely on their voices. Appearance, personality and dancing ability didn't count for a thing, which in this day and age is nothing if not refreshing. Wikipedia describes The Voice as "exciting and warm-hearted" and the prevailing spirit was one of encouragement. But unfortunately the novelty quickly wore off, viewing figures dropped and the tour was scrapped owing to poor ticket sales. And inevitable comparisons have been drawn with programmes such as X Factor, and last month its judge Louis Walsh sneered that The Voice was "dull and boring" and was quoted thus in a newspaper article: "Simon Cowell is the king of TV, and if he's not involved then it's not good." Oh dear.
On Day 12 of Jeff Goins' writing challenge we're being invited to provoke. To push buttons, raise hackles and make people uncomfortable. Not for the sake of being contentious, but simply to be honest about something that's important to us. And there's a paradox to be explored here, as far as I can see, because as soon as writers start getting controversial they set themselves up to lose as well as to win readers. Samantha Brick, an now-infamous British journalist living in France, recently penned an article for the Daily Mail entitled "Why Women Hate Me For Being Beautiful." A media frenzy ensued and the article received 5725 overwhelmingly negative comments in response; Samantha Brick's apparently stratospheric self-belief levels were regarded as ridiculously disproportionate and for a few days she enjoyed the status of a minor celebrity. I genuinely believe that Samantha Brick is a very smart and savvy woman who either devised the notion of writing such an article herself or was clever enough to recognise the beauty of someone else's idea when she saw it, and that after more than 1.5 million hits on her piece of writing both she and the Daily Mail are laughing all the way to the bank. By being provocative, Samantha Brick has managed to make a reputation for herself. It's not a nice one, and she's gone down in the estimation of many, but she has proved that people enjoy controversy even if they disagree vehemently with the thrust of what's being said, and even if it makes them angry.
But as writers we must examine our motives for wanting to write provocatively. Are we just trying to get ourselves noticed more than usual? Are we trying to widen our readership? What if people don't like what we write? Does that even matter? Being controversial is also a big step to take when one is more accustomed to sharing cookie recipes and potty-training anecdotes. But it's also a chance to muse upon an important subject. To present an argument carefully. To justify your belief in something which matters to you. So I've decided to rise to Jeff's challenge, and to try and use the opportunity for good if I possibly can.
We will soon need to start looking at primary schools for our older son, who is due to enter his Reception class a year in September. I'm a former teacher so I'm well versed in OFTSED-speak, and having taught in three very different schools I know there is more to consider than whether a school maintains high literacy levels and a pleasing array of extra-curricular activities, very important though those things obviously are. So I'll be looking at teaching and learning, behaviour and attainment during the process of selecting a school, but one of my main priorities will be to research the ways in which the various possible schools handle the issue of bullying, something which rears its head in almost every school to some extent or another. Now please don't imagine me to be an absurdly overprotective parent who wishes to shield her little darling from all of life's hardships. It would be naive to think that any school is capable of stamping out bullying altogether, or indeed that children should be subjected to nothing unpleasant or challenging during their early years. Young people must of course be equipped with the skills to deal with relational behaviour of all kinds, and must learn to cope effectively with prejudice and unkindness. But what I'm seeking is a school that strongly opposes the practice of bullying, a teaching staff who visibly reject the notion that picking on younger and weaker children is acceptable, and an environment of encouragement and positivity that seeps into life outside of school as well. I think our society in general ought to be taking a proactive attitude towards bullying and should make a conscious decision not to be apathetic or passive about it. And I really worry that programmes like X Factor and its ilk are actively sanctioning it and trying to persuade us that bullying is no big deal, when in fact it damages and destroys and limits those who experience it seriously and repeatedly.
Such TV shows are, of course, predominantly about identifying and offering a platform to previously undiscovered and talented individuals, but they maintain a significant sideline in downright unpleasantness. Those in charge - who are powerful and influential people - know that a large slice of their viewers will be at least mildly amused by the spectacle of a tone-deaf, malcoordinated performer with an unconventional appearance or demeanour, so they deliberately put such people under the spotlight in the early stages of the proceedings in order that they can be appraised and then laughed at by the judges, the audience and those watching at home. This is bullying. Self-appointed leaders such as Simon Cowell deem themselves worthy to judge others, to size them up and to find them wanting, which you might argue is fair enough in a talent show, but what is absolutely unacceptable about shows like Britain's Got Talent is that vulnerable and weak people are being manipulated and mocked within the sphere of light entertainment. This very fact means that we can kid ourselves into believing that bullying is no big deal. That it's an inevitable, and indeed amusing, part of life. Something that people deserve and invite and bring upon themselves. And here's the thing: I genuinely believe that anyone who is watching such programmes at the point where the juxtaposition of potential winners and obvious losers is still painfully evident should be asking themselves whether they should really be supporting and associating with such an unkind and destructive collection of people as the X Factor panel and audience. As far as I'm concerned, switching on the TV for want of anything better to do and listening half-heartedly to the sniggers of derision whilst whiling away a few moments on Facebook is roughly equivalent to standing idly by in the schoolyard whilst a classmate gets his head kicked in. Swelling the viewing figures of such programmes gives the impression that what they stand for is cool and entertaining and acceptable. Actually it isn't any of those things, and anyone who opposes the concept of bullying - which I do realise isn't everyone, by a long stretch - should, I think, stop for a moment and consider carefully the insidious effect of these television shows and celebrities who are actively promoting them, and switch over to a different channel. Bullying, if experienced consistently, damages people permanently. It drags down confidence levels, limits the ability to fulfil potential, breaks spirits, causes depression and fear and reticence and self-loathing, and is usually a factor in teenage suicide. Why are we allowing programmes like X Factor to sanction it in the name of family entertainment?
Maybe you agree with me. Maybe you have no strong opinion on the subject. And maybe you think I ought to get a life! I honestly believe that what I've said is true, so I won't apologise for it. But I'd love to hear what you think too, so please comment below. Let's have a conversation. If you disagree with me, please explain why. Bring along your best powers of reasoning. Try and convince me I'm wrong.
In other words, have a go at being provocative!