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The secret life of a ventriloquist’s dummy

Still practising

Chris Preece

Friday, 31 August 2018

AdobeStock_153322864_puppet.jpgAs I write this I’m coming to the end of a much needed fortnight off. As part of this annual ritual of battery charging and family bonding, we decided to join the swarming masses that descend on Edinburgh for the festival. This resulted in the usual running back and forth from one show to another, some planned, some spontaneous, with the exciting new element this year of constantly wondering whether or not the show in question would be entirely suitable for our teenage children. One attempt to solve this dilemma resulted in us going to see ventriloquist extraordinaire, and all round funny person, Nina Conti. For those unfamiliar with her show, Ms Conti has developed a number of interesting spins on the previously well-established ventriloquist act – most notably she invites audience members up to the stage, straps a prosthetic mask onto their face, and proceeds to talk for them. (If you’re struggling to picture it, try watching this.)

Ever the cynic, I had previously wondered whether there was a degree of cheating involved in this process, a few willing stooges dotted around the audience perhaps. I can now answer that question with a fair degree of certainty as, predictably enough, I was one of those hauled up for the performance. (This often happens to me. My wife suspects that it’s because I look “keen but not too keen”, whilst my kids tell me it’s because I insist on wearing stupid t-shirts. It’s probably a bit of both.)

It’s a weird experience, standing in front of a huge room full of people, whilst someone else provides words to match your increasingly bizarre hand gestures. There were a couple of things that struck me about the process. The first was that Conti was a particularly considerate torturer – as she strapped me into my new face she gently explained that I had nothing to worry about, and that the onus was entirely on her to make it work. The jokes weren’t at my expense, but more at the general ridiculousness of the scenario we’d generated together. What’s more, her attempts to fathom out what I was conveying through hand gestures and frustration, were remarkably accurate, even as they seemed increasingly surreal. (In retrospect it was a mistake trying to explain a story I’d written about a man who lives in a hole.)  

Whilst I said nothing, I was in no doubt I was being listened to, and that it was abundantly clear who was really speaking on my behalf. This, it struck me, is somewhat at odds with my experience as a doctor of late.

Take for instance the recent furore surrounding comments made by Arvind Madan, who was until fairly recently NHS England’s Director of Primary Care – or “the NHS’s Top GP” as some outlets insisted on describing him, implying some sort of mysterious ranking system. (Apparently my placing is somewhere around 34,300, but I’m hoping this position will improve as yet more doctors leave the NHS.) It turns out that Britain’s Top GP™ had been quietly contributing to Internet forums making statements that called into doubt his suitability for reflecting the views of the profession. Statements like one suggesting that GPs should be pleased when other practices are forced to close because “most businesses are pleased to see a rationalisation of providers”. (As an aside, this view of General Practice as business first, service second, may go some way to explaining the mess we’re currently in.)

Madan’s comments had been made anonymously, revealed only because he’d used the same pseudonym when commenting on a piece he’d written himself. Britain’s Top GP® hadn’t been as open as he should have been, and it emerged that the voice that supposedly represented all of us in NHS England perhaps wasn’t all that representative after all. He subsequently resigned, but not before causing me to wonder precisely what opinions are secretly held by those others who “represent us”. (Some elected, others simply selected, presumably by the same secret score board that chose Dr Madan.)

Still, just as I was working myself into a lather over the ways in which the profession is represented by named individuals, I learnt of a new, even more bizarre existential threat. Russian Twitter Bots have, supposedly, got into the health business. Recent findings by a team at George Washington University have shown that bots and Russian trolls were used to spread misinformation about vaccination in the run up to the US election. My knee jerk reaction to this news was that, whilst both irritating and dangerous, this was at least a very clear case in which the message being put out there very clearly wasn’t mine.

However, whilst some of this traffic was malware pushing a fairly straight forward anti-vaccine message (designed to make you click on links and, ironically, infect your computer) the Russian bots were peddling just as many pro-vaccine posts as anti. A message I would normally stand squarely behind was now being weaponised in an attempt to spread discord in the US. The aim being, of course, to amplify disagreement, and force individuals into warring camps. The pro-vaccine posts weren’t intended to educate, and certainly not to reconcile, they were intended to reinforce the sense of otherness, and to push disagreeing individuals yet further apart. (“You can’t fix stupidity.  Let them die from measles.”)

In the conclusion to their paper on this phenomenon, the researchers note that counteracting it won’t be easy as “directly confronting vaccine skeptics enables bots to legitimise the vaccine debate”. Arguably not only are the bots misrepresenting the views of others, they are potentially robbing us of the opportunity to put forward our own opinions.

In this world of sinister artificial intelligences, and powerful men posting anonymous messages, I suddenly feel more like a puppet than ever before. How, exactly do I get my voice heard, and how do I ensure that when it is, I’m not complicit in someone else’s agenda?

Stood there on the stage in Edinburgh, I may have stumbled upon one simple, obvious, answer.  When I first donned the mask, Conti asked me innocently if I was Scottish, and without thinking I instinctively replied with the word “no”.

“Well, you’re certainly not going to be now,” she laughed, and I remembered with some embarrassment that I wasn’t supposed to be saying anything. That simple act of saying no, altered the immediate course of the show, and had I carried on speaking it would have fallen apart completely. And really, that’s all there is to escaping the fate of the ventriloquist’s dummy. Keep talking.

More than that though. Keep talking in your voice. It is not simply enough to choose other seemingly like-minded voices and amplify those - lest they prove to be hypocrites or robots. It is not enough to retweet those you think clever - if it’s not what you would have said, in the words that you would have said it – it isn’t really what you think at all. 

We need to find a way back to making all of this a conversation, rather than a performance – or we all risk becoming dummies.

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Chris Preece

Chris has worked as a GP Partner in North Yorkshire since 2004, and still relishes the peculiar challenge of never quite knowing what the next person through the door is going to present with. He was the chair of his local Practice Based Commissioning Group, and when this evolved into a CCG he joined the Governing Body, ultimately leaving in April 2015. He continues to work with the CCG in an advisory capacity. When not being consumed by all things medical, Chris occupies himself by writing, gaming, and indulging the whims of his children. He has previously written and performed in a number of pantomimes and occupied the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Tragically, his patients no longer tell him he looks too young to be a doctor.
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