Seeds of defiance

'I Object - Ian Hislop's search for dissent', an exhibition at the British Museum, visited by Ciara Wild.

History, as somebody wise once said, is just one damned thing after another. But is it really? Who decides what is ‘history’?

This is the question that the ‘I Object’ exhibition aimed to answer, by looking through the British Museum collection and finding examples of dissent across the world and throughout history. Benoît Monin and colleagues, in their 2008 article The Rejection of Moral Rebels, stated that ‘individuals who take a principled stand against the status quo, who refuse to comply, stay silent, or simply go along when this would require that they compromise their values’ often do not receive the respect they deserve. This exhibition aimed to find the voices of the ‘downtrodden, the forgotten, the protestors’ and in doing so, highlight the smallest to the largest acts of rebellion in society.  

On display were examples of defaced bank notes and political satirical cartoons and posters, lewd graffiti on an ancient Egyptian site and a hat worn in the Pussy March after Donald Trump was made president. There are examples of people from humble backgrounds making statements of dissent against their rulers and those in power. A shining example was the 1913 penny of Edward VII defaced to promote the suffragette cause.

In a time when religion and religious leaders were the main source of moral and legislative authority, small acts of dissent appear less about making a public statement of disobedience and more about an individual act of private defiance. An example on display was an edition of the King James Bible, published under the names of Robert Barker and Martin Lucas. It is known as the ‘Wicked Bible’ owing to a printing error in the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) that states: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. Elsewhere at Deuteronomy 5:24 another misprint changes ‘God’s greatness’ to ‘God’s great asse’. It is not known whether this was human error or a subtle act of religious dissent.

However my absolute favourite individual act of dissent was a book, that when copied by the monks and nuns, had all of the sex scenes removed. One audacious reader of the time painstakingly wrote in each sex scene, word for word, in the margins of the book. This small private act of dissent against religious and moral authorities would have taken him a significant amount of time, but to him it was worth taking a stand for his own values in the privacy of his own home.

Whilst many of the items on display were obvious pieces of satire – as you would expect from Ian Hislop – these smaller, more personal items were examples of independence of thought, of differing moral and political judgements and were the seeds of defiance that go on to blossom into different branches of public thought which influence how society grows over time. 

- Reviewed by Ciara Wild, Chartered and Registered Forensic Psychologist.

Illustration: Treason!!! Etching by Richard Newton, 1798.

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