Today I learned a new word: ‘skimmington’. As well as just a being a fabulous word to roll off the tongue on the school playground, at a dinner party or even whilst shopping in Aldi, it also has a brilliant definition: ‘a riotous expression of social justice… where a group gathers at some wrongdoer’s house and performs a noisy mock serenade with pots and pans, forcing them to pay a fine or perform an act of remorse’.
My first thought was that just the threat of a skimmington would be an inspired way to ensure all invoices would be settled in a timely fashion. “Pay on time or I’ll rock up at your office with some Le Creuset, a wooden spoon and give you my best rendition of Wonderwall until you hand over some coin.”
But as much as I enjoyed the mental image of me performing a ‘noisy mock serenade’ somewhere deep in the business district of Milton Keynes, my real joy came from adding a word to my own personal lexicon. I have always had a ridiculous love of words. Learning new ones. Making them up. Bringing archaic terms back into common parlance. (One movie scene guaranteed to make me smile is when Hugh Grant’s character in ‘Notting Hill’ says ‘whoops-a-daisy’, much to the amusement of Julia Roberts, who remarks that no-one’s said that since the 1950s. I personally think that our predecessors had some fine old words and we definitely need to take them out for a spin now and then – brouhaha anyone?).
And the etymology (or origin) of words is fascinating to me. Knowing how a place name evolved or finding out why we call a freckle, a freckle (thank you Vikings for that one) definitely gives me a small geeky frisson of delight.
So, discovering ‘skimmington’ in the recent ‘I Object’ exhibition at the British Museum was just delightful. Curated by Ian Hislop of Private Eye and ‘Have I Got News For You?’ fame, the exhibition examined the ways in which people around the world have dissented from authority over thousands of years.
From printers of banknotes in tropical climes who arranged their plates ‘just so’ and managed to spell the word ‘SEX’ in the palm tree fronds (just funny), through to invisible, visible defiance from protestors holding yellow umbrellas in modern day China (pure courage), dissenting voices are all around us. You just have to know where to look. Or where to listen.
Whilst wandering around the exhibition, admiring seditious texts hammered onto a coin of the realm or chuckling at vicious Punch cartoons from the 18th century, visitors were also asked to contribute their own thoughts and voices. First up: write a statement on a badge about something that matters to you.
Crikey. The pressure. How on earth to capture (in about five words – gulp) the way that I feel about a cause that’s important to me. Or to write a statement that would inspire others to think, feel or do something differently?
I have to admit I panicked and, in a typically British fashion, responded with flippancy: “Brevity sucks.” was my effort.
But it got me thinking. What did I care about? How should I use my voice? What does ‘having a voice’ mean in an age when we are drowned out by the noise of everyone else’s opinions? To what should I object? How should I disagree?
And do I actually need to be heard or is that just vanity on my part?
As I carried on through the exhibition, examples of other voices that had changed societies, improved lives and triggered revolutions were loud and clear. Whether or not I agreed with them – or the way in which they raised their voices. It didn’t matter. They were still there. Shouting, whispering, opposing, objecting. Demanding to be heard.
The final display in the exhibition – after a brilliantly subversive Lenin soup dish – was another interactive exhibit: share one act of disobedience that you have committed.
Disobedience?! I was genuinely flummoxed. Surely disobedience was a Bad Thing. Something that meant Not Following Rules (aka a Bad Thing). And not something to be celebrated in the British Museum of all places.
I stood there, pencil in hand, trying to think of a time (post-childhood and post-the-incident-with-the-icing-sugar-flowers) where I had been deliberately disobedient. And came up with zilch.
But instead of feeling smugly righteous, I felt discomfited and a bit ashamed. By not being disobedient, had it meant that I was blindly following, instead of actively choosing? Had I been residing in a complacent middle-class world, knowing that I’m carefully following all the rules, whilst being accidentally cruel or unintentionally dull or carelessly selfish, but safe in the knowledge that I’ve never been actively disobedient?
The more I pondered this point, the more aware I became of how mindlessly and easily we can all accept diktats and follow arbitrary rules when, actually, a little bit of disobedience would be better for everyone. Sometimes the need to challenge authority is self-evident (thank you Mr Trump), but at other times it’s that small voice of disquiet that first needs to be heard, and then needs to be amplified.
And a little amplification now and then is a good thing, don’t you think? A message doesn’t have to be new and shiny to be right. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t thought of it yourself. If we consult Roget’s Thesaurus (truly a doorway to a magical world… sigh), to amplify means to augment… to improve… to make bigger… to strengthen… to clarify… to magnify. Tiny whispers can become powerful crusades – with just a little amplification.
As I venture into the dizzyingly exciting period of my mid-forties (I’ve always loved the power of positive thought), I suppose there’s always a chance that I might end up being the very first person to publicly disagree with a government proclamation or a corporate declaration. Or personally challenge the status quo in a completely innovative way. But in our hyper-connected world, it’s far more likely that I’ll hear another voice, dissenting, objecting and trying to change society or transform lives. And I think those are the voices that need to be amplified, that need to be strengthened, that need to be heard. Far more than mine.
So, my act of disobedience? To say ‘no’ to the mantra that ‘everyone should have a voice’. In marketing jargon, multiple messages delivered simultaneously is described as noise. In plain English, it’s still just noise. No-one can hear anything in a hullabaloo.
You need cut-through… traction… momentum… resonance… whatever word you choose, messages need to be heard. And heard clearly for people to think, feel or do anything differently.
Therefore, I choose to be a loud speaker. A source of amplification. Or even a bullhorn. (Hmmm. Not loving Roget’s quite so much now). I choose to listen out for the whispers that challenge, the quiet words that transform lives, the murmurs that build into crusades.
And I choose to shout them out loudly, clearly, and, most of all, disobediently.
So, it turns out that I do have a badge after all. “Listen.”