Boaty McBoatface and the need for Civil Disobedience

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” – Martin Brody – Jaws (1975)

When the British Natural Environment Research Council asked the general public to participate in an act of engagement to help decide the name of their new £200m research vessel, they were probably expecting a flood of dignified and courteous responses.

No doubt they had in mind the names of old colonial seafarers and explorers that recalled a time when Britain was an imperial force to be reckoned with. What they didn’t perhaps anticipate – all though they clearly should have – was that the one individual  joke suggestion would become the leading choice by a large amount of the democratic vote. The grand moniker of Royal Research Ship Boaty McBoatface, which as of writing is the leading favorite, flies in the face of the pomposity of these kinds of social occasions that define upper-ruling-class absurdity.

This is of course not to discredit the brilliant research that will no doubt be carried out by the craft and its well qualified crew. This action of sniggering tomfoolery is nothing unique. This is the same sense of British mischief that in 2002 elected a football mascot by the name of H’Angus the Monkey as Mayor of Hartlepool, and kept him in office for three full terms. It’s the same grave humour that sends ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’, the celebratory song from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, rattling up the music charts a week after former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s death in 2013. It’s the same sarcastic two fingered salute the British public flicks at Conservative politicians and the monarchy when the nation is requested to voluntarily “Clean for the Queen” in order get the country looking like the green and pleasant land it once was before austerity measures meant that those actually paid to clean our streets lost their jobs in local government spending reviews. These little acts of defiance are minuscule, yet through one lens they could be read as hilarious calls of civil disobedience.

Such moments act as small yet significant release valves which temporarily free us from wider social concerns. American historian Howard Zinn didn’t think civil disobedience was “our problem.” Instead he pointed out that “Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” And indeed, this is our problem today. Another budget delivered by Chancellor George Osborne has dealt yet another massive blow to our social services that many people on the bottom rung of the ladder rely on just to get by from day to day, whilst the elites have been handed yet more tax breaks and incentives. We are on the brink of yet another financial catastrophe that could be more devastating than the 2008 crash because those who benefit from our neoliberal economy refuse regulation and alternatives. We are in the midst of an immigration crisis that despite the ignorance of the British Conservative government (and some governments the world over) is never going away because we continue to feed the problem at the source with high value weapons and oil contracts that generate wealth for only a few, yet devastate local populations and our environment. The world is gravely unfair, and the apparatus for us to form mass protest and provide new political and social discourses is eroding away. Mischievously voting in these faux democratic occasions gives us an opportunity to vent our frustrations on real – though rigged – democracy.

In a 2013 speech delivered to the Parkland Institute of the University of Alberta, Canada, author and activist Chris Hedges stated that: “We can surmount despair, not by ignoring reality, but by responding radically to it, and this includes acts of civil disobedience, including jail time. In these acts, we become fully human.” Thankfully giving a boat a silly name, voting a monkey a mayor, or sardonically tweeting that the Queen should clean her own streets will not result in jail time. Yet these acts offer a light reprieve from the cruelties of our modern existence. Larger acts of defiance and mass movements will call for a hard-handed response. We will one day find the correct measures that allow for these mass movements to flourish. Jail time might need to be served to allow it. Within the mainstream our voices are drowned out by the bluster of stuffy parliamentary politics. Right now all we have to keep us sane are these tiny rebellions against order.

RRS Boaty McBoatface will no doubt be renamed with a more appropriate moniker, an unfortunate outcome in which democracy fails us yet again. We must allow ourselves to continue to defy wherever we can to let those in p know that we can and will misbehave. As Hedges concludes it’s these acts that allows us to be “fully human.” and come together in that humanity.

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