001 Unconformity

The illustration is misleading since I have been thinking of unconformity, or non-conformity, in a human rather than a geological sense. Stephen Gough is better known as ‘the naked rambler’. For reasons best known to himself he wishes to be naked almost all the time. He is famous for lengthy walks taken in this state of nature, for example one from Land’s End to John O’Groat’s. Stephen has been convicted of various public order offences. Since usually he will not dress even to appear in court so he frequently has penalties for contempt of court added to any existing convictions. His refusal to conform has resulted in several periods of incarceration lasting many months. I have heard one estimate that he may have spent up to ten years in prison during his adult life. If so this is longer, in total, than many sentences given to violent offenders. His own children have hardly seen him during this time.

Stephen Gough is a perfectly peaceable man and I’ve not heard anyone suggest that even impressionable children would be significantly harmed by seeing a naked male in a non-threatening situation on the public highway. I think that there is also not much doubt that he is highly eccentric and utterly uncompromising in his behaviour. Unquestionably most people, in the same circumstances, would be content to be naked on their own property or in nudist clubs, but if Stephen has an actual psychiatric disorder I really cannot put a name to it. I don’t see that it is in the public interest to incarcerate him for the rest of his life so, in my view and in our liberal society, we have to say he has won his point and let him have his way. It is perhaps a pity that Stephen hasn’t suggested that God has told him to be naked since this is accepted within Hinduism and in certain protestant groups like the Doukhobors.

In the ‘blue grass state’ US Rowan County clerk Kim Davis is also languishing in jail, again for refusing to conform to the law. It seems that part of her job is to issue marriage licences and for religious reasons, she is a born-again Christian, she will not issue these to single-sex couples. Without her signature, she claims, any licences so issued are invalid. As I understand it since June this year SCOTUS has ruled that attempts by individual states to place a restraint on single sex unions is unconstitutional. But despite the efforts of the state Governor and various courts Kim Davis will not budge an inch. If the facts stated in the press are true her adoption of this rather extreme view of the ‘sanctity of marriage’ is fairly recent. She was ‘born again’ only four years ago and has been divorced herself on three occasions.

It seems quite obvious that US citizens taken as a whole approve of the recent extension of marriage rights. I think that they are right to do so. It is possible that within certain states where evangelical Christianity is dominant, and Kentucky may well be one, there is not a popular move for such an extension. It’s a more complicated system in the US than here in the UK, as I understand it, since Kim Davis is an elected state official who may have the support, spoken or unspoken, of a significant number of her immediate neighbours. The equivalent people in the UK, registrars I imagine they would be, would be paid local officials who would be expected to conform to the existing law, or lose their jobs.

I cannot deny that individuals who utterly refuse to conform to existing orthodoxy under any circumstances do interest me. In the nineteenth century outbreaks of infectious diseases such as typhoid, cholera and smallpox were common. They could be immensely destructive in teeming cities with poor housing, inadequate sewage disposal, and unsafe water supplies. Vaccination against smallpox became free on a voluntary basis in 1840, and in the 1850s was actually made compulsory by law. There were occasional harmful consequences of vaccination, in children who suffered from atopic eczema for example, but it is hard to believe that the consequences of mass vaccination were not almost wholly beneficial. Such measures have now resulted in the elimination of the disease altogether throughout the world. The enforcement of compulsory vaccination in the nineteenth century was the responsibility of officials called the Poor Law guardians. It is quite evident that during that period there was a significant anti-vaccination movement. This movement seems to have particularly strong in Yorkshire. Significant numbers of people opposed compulsion even with health measures on grounds of conscience. We saw the same phenomena with fluoridization of water supplies much more recently. Others, less plausibly, objected because they saw compulsory vaccination as a conspiracy between government and the medical profession in order to put money in the pockets of doctors.

In 1876 seven Poor Law guardians in Keighley, West Yorkshire absolutely refused to initiate compulsory vaccination in their borough despite repeated official requests to do so. These ‘Keighley Seven’ were eventually carted off to jail in York but not, as often stated, to York Castle (Clifford’s Tower) but to a debtors prison. Keighley was not unique. Guardians at Dewsbury took the same view despite smallpox outbreaks there in 1892, and also in 1904 when 70 people died and there were hundreds of recorded cases. As an ex-doctor their resistance to this life-saving intervention is totally baffling to me, but in the long run the guardians won. I’m not sure at what stage compulsory vaccination was abandoned in Britain but it certainly has not been part of the NHS since its inception in 1948. The prevention of of infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and meningitis has been a triumph of scientific medicine. Why even today some parents are adamant that they do not not wish their children to participate in such a beneficial scheme is equally baffling, but if that is the position they take no prison cell awaits them today.

Why do some people, at considerable personal cost, utterly refuse to conform to what the law or society demands regardless of the consequences? It is seldom a rational choice. I suppose that Stephen Gough while resisting one of the law’s demands would, quite rightly, expect the law’s protection if hostile individuals took advantage of his state to abuse or intimidate him. Kim Davis, surely, can see that the customs and practices of the 21st century are not those of biblical Israel. My guess is that she probably eats bacon and certainly would not stone members of her own gender to death for adultery, even if she did disapprove of their conduct. So why pick on this aspect of the Old Testament teaching to die in the last ditch for? Why elevate nudity and opposition to single sex marriage to the position of a ‘sacred cause’.

What ever the origin of these causes they cannot be said to have much to do with rationality. I can only presume that the rational conscious mind is the tip of an iceberg; most of the emotional and mental activity that really matters is going on unperceived below the surface. One probability, which I believe has been demonstrated by psychologists, is the likelihood that ‘group polarization’ occurs. Discussion with like-minded individuals has a tendency to reinforce extreme views. If Kim Davis debates her views with born-again friends and neighbours she is unlikely to become more liberal in her outlook and I imagine that some similar process went on with the Keighley guardians. I also assume that challenging a cause may reinforce it. Perhaps many people feel uncomfortable with personal nudity, correctly in my case, but this feeling does not surface as an issue until it is opposed by someone with a very different perspective. There is not much more I can say really except that if your standard of right and wrong is determined by belief in a transcendent force utterly immune from reason or logic be very, very, careful over the standards you demand of others.


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