Why DO women have these tramp stamps?

I almost wasn’t going to blog this column from Liz Jones, because aesthetic opinions can’t be right or wrong, but then I hit the conclusion:

“She [a concentration camp survivor] is proud of her tattoo, an indelible reminder of mankind’s inhumanity to man. Her disfigurement is a badge of courage, not a woolly-headed fashion statement.”

As ever, the column isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be. It starts off solidly enough as a ‘aren’t tattoos awful‘ piece, with tints of ‘isn’t society in decline’ as everyone starts to take on these awful fashion symbols. It then collapses into a list of people who have tats, and where they have them¹, followed by a little history, some ‘tattoos are stupid, in addition to being ugly’ and a barnstorming finish by way of comparing meaningful tattoos to vacuous ones. Liberally sprinkled throughout is some glorious snobbery (“[Tattoos] merely detract from [Angelina Jolie’s] beauty, rendering her cheap and hopelessly common”) and hyperbole (” tattoos, the most tasteless, tacky, tawdry, terrible plague to infect our nation since mad cow disease”²), as we discover that the negative judgement of tattoos has more to do with the sort of people who have them (Dame Mirren’s is fine) than anything actually intrinsically wrong.

To try and pad this out slightly, the second half of the column aims at undermining arguments for tattoos, while resolutely looking past the most obvious one: some people might disagree on points of aesthetics with Liz, and genuinely believe them to look nice. In the same way that expensive handbags do. Or, in the way Angelina Jolie does. In this sense, they need not be any more “a load of self-indulgent b******s” than any other kind of adornment. ‘Scarring’ is, in this light, the wrong term.

Possibly understanding that there wouldn’t be much of a column in ‘aren’t tattoos awful, even if their uptake shows that people disagree with this judgement’, Liz moves on to misinterpreting symbols:

“It is as if the person is trying to say: ‘I love my son/boyfriend/wife more than you love yours.'”

It needn’t be a competition – maybe it is merely an outward sign to the loved one, after the fashion of a wedding ring. Although, obviously, more permanent than a wedding ring (and, arguably, more impressive as a result). The ‘it’s as if’ is entirely Liz’s own take on it – a perceiving of aggressive intent when the benefit of the doubt was a more obvious alternative.

Then she misreads the interplay between belonging and rebellion. Although social mores are a natural target for rebellion, founded as they tend to be by generations other than ones own and thus invested with values that you have not created but merely had passed down, it needn’t be that large scale³. Courting parents disapproval, or challenging the expectations attached to the role of Tory-leader’s-wife would do quite well. Symbols of belonging and allegiance can also be rebellious – combining examples, a teenager wearing the name of their first love is a way of rebelling against their parents through the display of new commitments. Rebelling implies the holding of alternative values, a owning of them and belonging to the group which shares them which you can display in ink.

This lack of understanding of symbols informs the seemingly tenuous conclusion that only concentration camp tattoos are worth being proud about, while a better understanding would have proved the opposite. The Nazi’s tattoos were brands – imposed and unwanted. They symbolise a shared suffering, but also a shared endurance and survival. The pride lies in the object of the representation, not the tattoo which is the representation. In exactly the same way, we can have pride in the commitment symbolised by the name of a loved one, or the achievement of the rebellion in upsetting Tory grandees. One could even take pride in marking oneself out as sharing different ideas from Liz Jones, if one disagreed with her. And if you can do that while adorning yourself in a way you find aesthetically pleasing, I say go for it.

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¹ Stat watchers may have noticed 14 of the 40 sentence in the piece (not including picture captions) refer to named individuals, which is a little more than a third.

² And notice the sound of a metaphor breaking as it tries to carry too much weight – tattoos are a plague in as far as they are a bad thing and widespread, but not in as far as they are tawdry, tacky or tasteless. Those aren’t the defining features of a plague, hence them resolutely failing to apply to Mad Cow Disease.

³ Although the very fact that it does still upset Liz shows that tattoos still work as a way of breaking with the values of the previous generation.

A heart-rending dispatch from Ethiopia reveals the plight of donkeys – at the hands of the people who need them most

About a week ago, I was wondering why Liz Jones bothered going to Ethiopia if she was only going to conclude that the famine was the fault of ex-bankers. Turns out she was there for the donkeys:

“I have been invited to Africa to see the work done by The Brooke, a charity that aims to promote healthy working animals for the poorest people on the planet, and which has been working in Ethiopia for three years.”

Which is fair enough – cruelty to animals is an inhumanity, and we should be concerned about it wherever it occurs. Having said that, going to a famine-struck part of the world to look at how they treat their domestic animals is a bit like wandering round an art gallery looking at the dehumidifying equipment. Arguably the problems are secondary.

This is something Liz herself is happy to admit:

“I tried to imagine how I would treat a donkey if I had seven mouths to feed, and I hope I would still have a vestige of compassion. But if my children were starving, I cannot be sure that that would be the case. No one can.”

The obvious conclusion to draw from which is that dealing with the starving might provide some respite for the animals. Liz is trying to intervene one step too far down the line – as a result, she and her vets will only ever be firefighting, treating the symptoms.

It’s interesting how the focus of the stories has shifted from one week to the next. The concern for the human side of things is largely gone this week (with quotes like the above only thrown in as afterthoughts) and any consideration of broader causes has gone completely. Unlike last week, there are actual details of how readers can help (donation details for the charity are given at the end of the story), allowing readers to contribute to the fire-fighting. Although human suffering is mentioned, the focus is on the brutality and inhumanity. Rather than the brutality towards the animals being evidence of dehumanising effects of poverty and the need for us to help Ethiopians, the brutality is merely taken as brutality with the poverty something which is an insufficient defence.

The worry with last week’s story was that the potential to help Ethiopians was looked past to score points off the rich, this week’s story explains why. The Ethiopians were only ever incidental – the real victims were always their animals. Which seems slightly misguided, to say the least.