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What's wrong with holding the rest of humanity to account?

Opinion

A good rant is the last bastion of free speech, but there are certain rules to be observed, writes Stephen Orr.

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Getting older isn’t always pleasant. The scales turn triple-digit, your teeth start crumbling, your mail consists of bills and bowel-screening kits, and your hair turns into Steelo (the soap pad, not the celebrity). But on a positive note, your ability, desire and tendency to rant goes right through the roof.

There’s the racist rant (thankfully, almost gone); the drunken rant, in which you tell your friends how much they mean to you; the political rant, in which you dump (metaphorically) on your local member; the when-I-was-a-boy rant (a personal favourite), in which The Six Million Dollar Man, dragsters, no computers and carefree school holidays are invoked as a sort of cattle-prod to the next generation’s obsession with technology, social media and mostly, themselves. But the king of rants is the out-loud rant, in which you actually, physically, in real words, make some attempt to hold the rest of humanity to account.

So there I am, leaving the bakery, holding the door open for a mum, a teenage girl peering into her phone (God knows why, maybe Jay-Z just got out of bed) and the younger brother. Of course, they walk through without so much as a thank you, and I (I can do this now I’m over 50) say, “No need to say thanks … it’s all good.” Followed by a strange look, like, did we ask you to hold the door open? Are you some sort of unhinged lunatic? That’s where it ended, but if the conversation had have continued it might have sounded a bit like this: “No, you didn’t ask for me to hold it open, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I just thought … seeing how you’re trying to be a role model for your kids.” And her: “Have you got some sort of problem?” And me: “Well, just one.”

That’s what I mean by a rant. Saying exactly what’s on your mind, no censorship, no thought for the fallout. All of this is possible past a certain age because your time on planet Earth is shortening by the day. This, of course, is very different from social media, which promises a certain anonymity. I’m not condoning bad ranting, just rants that flow from wholesome family values, a love of the past, an understanding of the history of Western civilisation.

The importance of the rant lies in the fact that most public discourse today takes the form of lies. For example, a state government determined to sell off every square inch of land, close or amalgamate schools, run everything on the smell of an oily rag while, at the same time trying to increase, invent and convince us that more taxes, more fees are good for us. A government that (here, I’m on a rant!) fails in a series of key measures (eg NAPLAN, Emergency Department waiting times) but still loves extracting money from tobacco, alcohol, gambling. Like George Costanza said: “You know, we’re living in a society.” Apparently not. Apparently, it’s an economy. Apparently, humans have become externalities, liabilities.

Not one of my best rants, but a rant nonetheless.

When it comes to rants, I’m probably best at the road rant. Let me explain. I’m not talking road rage, tailgating, anything illegal or nasty. Just the cross-referencing of road rules with the dismal driving I see each day. Examples include: “Can you believe he’s parked on the line?: My kids replying: “So what? Everyone does it?” And me: “Does that make it right?” And them: “What can you do?” That’s the thing. What can you do?

When everyone (according to my rant) has decided not to give a f***. When did that start? When did it become okay to reverse out of a carpark without looking? Change lanes without indicating? See, I haven’t become Bob Francis, have I? All I want’s a bit of common sense.

The carpark of Dernancourt shopping centre has become an automotive Lord of the Flies. All bets off. Dozens of gym-bods staring into their “smart” phones, standing in the middle of the road daring you (gone on, make me!). The ute backer-inners (when did the whole backing in thing start?) slowly, carefully gliding their mega-machines into “Small Cars Only” spots. People driving on the wrong side of the road, forcing you to grind your wheels against the gutter to avoid an accident.

I can hear what you’re saying? Gee, he’s angry, isn’t he? No, I’m not. I’m particularly well-adjusted, the rest of the world has turned septic. But, apparently, I’m not meant to say anything.

Ranting can become undignified, racist, homophobic, and just plain dumb, if not handled correctly. It’s probably best left to professionals.

I used to teach in a state school, and I ranted in this newspaper about falling standards, crap classrooms, teachers stuck on contracts for twenty years, ideology over good education. I was told I wasn’t allowed to rant, but I said I only ranted on behalf of the kids. They said it didn’t matter, and the following year my contract wasn’t renewed. Another ploy to de-rant sensible people. Going on in government departments the country over. Now the ranters are called whistle-blowers and are “shut down” (to use the modern parlance).

Ranting is the last vestige of free speech, although it needs to be used responsibly. There’s a fine line between making a good point and sitting at a bus stop in your trakky-daks telling everyone you’re Floyd Mayweather’s brother.

Ranting can become undignified, racist, homophobic, and just plain dumb, if not handled correctly. It’s probably best left to professionals.

George Costanza could rant, but he could also do some bad, bad things (“It’s all pipes!”). Generally, ranting is not for anyone under 40 (and anyway, what would they have to rant about?). I’d also recommend against the classic “expletive-laden” rant. This rant has got a bad reputation (along with the talkback radio rant, the letter-to-the-editor rant, the Facebook rant and the drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding rant).

A good starting rant might be the neighbourhood rant. This often begins with a reference to a barking dog and descends into a Goebbels-like denunciation of every neighbour within a kilometre. Sub-topics might include lawnmower starting times, parking across driveways and people refusing to wave back. This type of rant usually gets personal (“Anyway, what’s the deal with the safari suit?”) and often descends into violence. This makes good copy for the Current Affair rant.

Then the local shops. The classic food-hall rant about people not putting their rubbish in the bin. Or what about moving to accommodate the local Katy Perry fan club, walking six abreast? Then there are the people who smoke on the wrong side of the blue line; the guy who conveniently doesn’t remember who’s next at Bakers Delight; the supermarket aisle trolley blockers, barricading the pasta section like it was the Spanish Civil War; people who look at their phone as you talk to them, then say something like, “Oh, this is important, I’ve got to take it”; the company that shrunk Bounty bars to the size of five-cent pieces (while charging the same); the woman with 23 items in the “12 Items Or Less” lane. All good fodder for the beginning ranter. Personally, I’d like to have a rant about how we should teach ranting in schools, but that will have to wait for another time.

So, in summary, what have we learnt about ranting?

Rule 1: 50+ (although I’d like to start a branch of Young Ranters Australia: YRA).

Rule 2: stick to the facts (mostly, unless you’re sure the other person doesn’t know them).

Rule 3: conflate issues that have no real connection. For example, start ranting about how councils are blood-sucking amoeba, using the pretext of rates to pay themselves enormous wages. Drift into a discussion of corporate excesses, Christopher Skase (don’t worry if the kids don’t know who he was), Bondy, the ’80s. Slowly segue into the glorious Hawke years, Kylie Minogue’s fledgling career and the halcyon days of Neighbours. Then finish with the coup de grâce (see Rule 4), a rant about how we’ll never see days like those again. By now anyone under 40 should have left the room, or fallen asleep. Don’t let this put you off. Keep ranting!

Rule 4: develop your own style. This might include spitting on the listener when you get excited (wipe it off before anyone notices), throwing your hands in the air and shaking your head, using out-of-context quotes (“Ah, yes, didn’t JFK once say …?”) or unreliable statistics to gain credibility (if people try to check these on their phone, use the anti-social line). Each rant must include a few French words or phrases (poseur, allez savoir pourquoi!) and plenty of popular culture references (“I bet he follows the Kardashians!”).

But most of all, don’t stop. Don’t allow your listener the chance to question you or make his or her point. It’s your rant, not theirs!

Stephen Orr is an Adelaide writer. His latest novel, This Excellent Machine, is a coming-of-age novel in the most fibro tradition.

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