Saturday, 21 July 2012

Tolerance, freedom and nudity

Just caught something about Stephen Gough on the BBC website. Stephen Gough, aka the 'Naked Rambler', came to public notice in 2003 when he attempted to walk naked (well, with walking boots and a rucksack) from Land's End to John O'Groats in the UK. The reason was apparently something to do with things happening in his personal life. Since then he's spent more than six years in prison for repeated 'breaches of the peace'. And he's just been re-arrested in Fife for a 'breach of the peace', a few days after being released from prison for public nudity.
This whole episode raises a bunch of questions in my mind about attitudes to public nudity and why we seriously want, as a society, to police it in the way we do.
There's an interview with him, and with his lawyer, on the BBC website. In it, Gough makes a serious point about tolerance and freedom. It's far from being a comprehensive argument, but then he only gets about 60 seconds. I think it's a point of view that can be applied in all kinds of circumstances, from international politics to interpersonal relationships. I've tidied up the hesitations, false starts, ummms and aaahs, and what he says is this:

The point is that underneath it all, we believe, in this country, in tolerance and freedom. And you can't have freedom unless you've got tolerance [...] It isn't tolerance if you can accept something easily. You've got to open your mind further. And through tolerating things that you have difficulty with, you find, actually, that your mind becomes more open and actually you become more free too. So it's a two way process.

Hear the whole interview (it's only 4 minutes 16 seconds) on the BBC website. If it interests you, there's also a news item on the arrest that includes trackbacks to previous news items about him.

While writing the above I remembered something I once read, though can't lay my hands on the book at the moment. In 1935, the Prison Commission decided to open a new 'Borstal' for young offenders, North Sea Camp, near Boston, Lincolnshire, UK. The population of the new institution was taken from around the system and gathered at the existing institution at Stafford. Staff and inmates then marched from Stafford to the new site, staying overnight in local community centres, farmer's fields, etc., led by one W W Llewellin as the new institution's governor. My memory of what I read says Llewellin had inherited early-20th century views on the benefits of exercise and fresh air, and that every morning on the march, all staff and inmates - all, of course, male - were expected to run around the campsite, naked, as part of a health and fitness regime. And no one thought that was exceptional or unusual. I stand to be corrected on this and I know early 20-century morals on nudity were complex, to say the least. But if I'm right, how and why have attitudes changed so much in the course of just a couple of generations?


  1. I have no idea Fulani, but you certainly raise some interesting points. I shall be thinking a lot, about this one!

  2. I'm sure there's more to say on this, because there are many things I and presumably most other people wouldn't want to tolerate because of the moral values we hold. But at Gough raises a serious question about how we interrogate our values and act on them, and the extent to which we can and should accept that people with different values should be left to act on them without interference.