The violence of culture

2010-02-17 00:00

THE other day, I glanced casually over at the gym bag of the naked man who was standing next to me — the way one does (you know how we boys have to compare everything). And to my horror, I saw, lying among the aftershave and sweaty Jockeys, a gun. It was a large-looking gun in a leather holster, and it was lying at the bottom of his gym bag.

I shook my head in disbelief. I looked up at the naked man and then back at the gun. He glanced disinterestedly in my direction and went on dressing. I said: “Is that a gun in your gym bag?” He looked into the bag with some surprise, as though I was asking if it were, perhaps, a tortoise.

“Yes,” he said, followed by a silent “Duh. Of course it is a gun, you idiot. What did you think it was, a tortoise?”

“In the gym?” I said, my voice rising the way it does when I am about to have a heart attack.

“In my gym bag!” he responded aggressively, as though that solved everything.

I left the matter. I said nothing. I stared horrified at the bag and its extraordinary contents again and then I just carried on getting dressed. On my way out, I asked for one of those silly little cards to write down a complaint (which never gets attended to, or answered in my long experience at Virgin Active). I asked whether Virgin Active had any policy about bringing guns onto the property. The unhelpful man at the desk didn’t know if there was any policy. I asked him whether Virgin Active had any safe to lock the gun away, or any system to keep it safe. Or any sign anywhere prohibiting bringing guns into the gym. He said no, it didn’t.

I once made a suggestion, on another one of those placatory little suggestion cards that the gym provides to make you think something is going to be done about your issue, that Virgin Active­ provide condom dispensers in the change rooms. After all, a healthy lifestyle is what a gym is all about. Surely this would be a little thing to do, which could go a long way in making free condoms available in a closed and non-threatening environment. The smiling man who continuously asks me how I am, but doesn’t give a fig, stopped smiling briefly when he read my suggestion. He said he didn’t think “they” would allow it, because the gym is a family gym. So, condoms are not allowed, but guns are. It is a strange world we live in.

Indeed it is a strange world. It is a strange world where it is fine for dad to leave the house in the morning, on his way to the gym, with a gun strapped to his chest. It is a strange world where his partner sees that as normal. And, in an environment such as that, it is even stranger that a business seemingly dedicated to health, wellness and all those other good things, can simply ignore the fact that in the flimsiest of lockers, with the tiniest of locks, a gun can be left lying­ in a gym bag, unattended.

But that is now our culture. And the more we accept it, the more we remain silent in the face of it, the more it gains power and credence, and the more it becomes the norm. That is the tyranny of culture. Because “that is what we do”, it is allowed to go unchallenged. So, we can publicly torture bulls to the point of death in Spain, or we can tear them apart with our bare hands in KwaZulu-Natal, because “that is what we do”.

We allow the thing to gain a power of its own, because we are too feeble to call it what it is: ghastly and unacceptable, whether or not it has the veneer of “culture” hiding its ugliness. The man in the gym, with his gun lying in his gym bag, undoubtedly feels that it is his “right” to carry a gun. One could say, I suppose, that carrying a gun is now part of his “culture”. He would undoubtedly argue that there is a prevailing “culture of violence” in our society and that he is simply trying to protect himself. But the violence of his “culture” — of gun owning and gun carrying and leaving guns lying in gym bags — simply adds to it, and allows it to normalise and continue.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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