Friday, 5 December 2014

Breastfeeding the Pseudo Truisms

There are few things more irritating in the world than the rise of the pseudo truism. By 'pseudo truism', I mean statements that have all the characteristics of a truth but don't actually make much sense once you start to leverage a little bit of thought beneath them.

Let me give you an example, though there are many you can find in your everyday lives if you simply leave your ears open to them. An obvious example of this would be variations of the phrase 'things were better back in the day', which is not only the motto of The Daily Mail  but also describes much of the UKIP manifesto. It's a statement that is obviously true until you actually begin to raise objections ranging in mildness from ration books to World Wars and The Black Death. Then you begin to realise that very often, things were simply not better than they are now. Another phrase is 'what goes up, must come down'. It sounds like a self-evident truth but astrophysicists would probably argue long into the night about the absolute certainty of that or, indeed, the very definition of what constitutes up and down within the infinity of time and space.

One phrase that really grates the brain is currently in vogue. 'Oh, there's nothing wrong with it. It's perfectly natural'. You often hear it from liberal Guardian readers who use variations of this addled phrase to justify anything from drug use to hardcore pornography. When the BBFC recently declared their intention of banning certain forms of extreme pornography, there were very many responses that made the point that 'they'll be banning kissing on the lips next' as though there was a simple process of causality between strangulation videos and a peck on the cheek. 'Sex is perfectly natural', they argue. 'There's nothing wrong it it'. Indeed there isn't but I'm not sure that natural sex should involve the use of a Black and Decker power drill.

There is an easy switch being made from something being 'perfectly natural' to the statement there's 'nothing wrong with it'. We move from a statement of fact to one of morality and the two are entirely different spheres of thought and action. There are, of course, many things about the human body that are natural but we have culturally decided should also be taboo. To take one crude but obvious example: the humble flatus. Every human being needs to fart but most of us choose to do so in a way that doesn't offend the people around us. There are, of course, people who take great pride in their farts. These people fart openly and often comment on the quality, duration, and fragrance of their flatus. These are usually the very same people who resort to the pseudo truism to justify their behaviour. These are often the same people who strip off on the beach and exclaim, 'there's nothing to be ashamed about. I'm just showing off what the Good Lord gave me'. It is the kind of statement that would require an entire book just to unravel its complex stupidity, so it is usually left unchallenged and thereby enhanced as a truism.

I could continue down this line and describe hundreds of things which are perfectly natural which I wouldn't consider doing in public. I wouldn't cut my toenails in public. I wouldn't urinate or defecate in public. Yet these are things which, I think, most people would agree would be unacceptable. I also wouldn't pick my nose or spit, actions you often see performed in public and which are (still) generally frowned upon. Personally speaking, I wouldn't speak with my mouth full or chew with my mouth open. I wouldn't take off my shirt in public, walk around topless or wearing just a vest. These are things that many people do and are considered perfectly acceptable depending on context. Vests on holiday in a hot climate: good. Vests to a funeral service: bad. But even here, these are questions less to do with taboo and are more about public taste and mores.

All of which brings me to the subject of breastfeeding in public.

You would have to be a fool to suggest that breastfeeding isn't natural. It's impossible to argue that it's either right or wrong. 'Right' and 'wrong' are terms that measures morality and context changes everything and it's this context which is really the point of the discussion. The discussion is really about the manner in which a person lives their live and interacts with the world around them. In any public space, there has to be a degree of compromise. Is smoking ethically wrong? Well, no it isn't. Smoking it on a bus, surrounded by people who don't wish to inhale your smoke might be said to morally wrong because it forces other people to accept your own personal choices. You are impinging on their freedom to not smoke. Should you smoke in a cafe? Again, the answer is no because you not only force people to accept your choice but you ruin their meal.

Put simply: do your actions impinge on another person's life and rights?

Breastfeeding is a passive activity. In most cases, a person can simply avert their gaze whilst a mother performs this natural duty of care to their baby. The problem, then, isn't really about breastfeeding. It's about the politics surrounding breastfeeding. The debate is really about the rights of certain people to stand up and say in a loud patronising voice 'oh, there's nothing wrong with it. It's perfectly natural' and use this as a means of closing down debate about interactions in the social sphere. Politicians are very keen to be seen adopting this pose. David Cameron is on their side but he's usually on any side which has the easiest position. It is far more complicated to make an argument about compromise and discretion than it is to resort to the argument that it's natural and there's nothing wrong with it.

The act of feeding is normally performed in a restaurant and that there's no difference between a person eating their lunch and a child feeding from its mother's milk. It means that it's apposite for a child to drink its mother's milk in a restaurant whereas it wouldn't be appropriate for me to remove my shirt and begin to wash my armpits.

As with many things involving social graces, it's the manner in which it's done. Many times I've sat beside women breastfeeding their babies in restaurants and coffee shops and I've barely even noticed. Indeed, I guess there are thousands more instances about which I wasn't even aware. There are other times, however, when I struggled to do anything but notice. I recall one woman in the coffee shop of my favourite bookshop who brazenly lifted up her t-shirt so her tit flopped out like a funfair goldfish in a plastic sack. Discrete? Hardly. Offensive? Well, for me it was simply because I felt it was a deliberate attempt to provoke controversy. She wasn't expressing her right to feed her baby. She was expressing her right to say in a loud voice, 'oh, there's nothing wrong with it. It's perfectly natural'.

And herein likes the controversy and, I think, a matter of old fashioned manners. It's the difference between my eating a meal and then burping quietly into my hand or opening my mouth and letting out an almighty belch. Both are natural and, in a pure and quite practical sense, there's no difference between the two. However, one is considerate towards others and one is only considerate to myself and my desire to say, "here I am. Look at me."

Yet I say all this not to put the onus on mothers when, in truth, mothers are hardly the worst offenders. Loud boastful men on their mobile phones are far more likely to ruin a meal than some mother nursing her child. There shouldn't, therefore, be a febrile debate about mothers feeding their children. There should, however, be a much quieter debate about manners in our society and what it means to live in a progressive modern liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, quiet debate is one thing that is currently definitely out of vogue and, yes, I realise that's also probably a pseudo truism..


  1. Thank you. Glad you liked it. You can breastfeed in my company whenever you like.