Honours system a preposterius charade

OSCAR-WINNING actor Ben Kingsley has denied he orchestrated a campaign to have himself referred to as Sir Ben Kingsley on a poster advertising his new movie. But Kingsley, renowned for his superlative performance as Gandhi in the 1983 epic, once apparently chastised a German reporter who had the temerity to address him as ‘Mr. Kingsley’. “It’s Sir Ben. I’ve not been a Mister for two years,” said Kingsley.

It is amazing that talented individuals who have achieved recognition in their chosen field should think that a knighthood is somehow the ultimate accolade. It’s particularly striking in Kingsley’s case because he became a star playing someone whose life was marked by selflessness and asceticism. Not that I’m expressing surprise that actors should fail to resemble the characters they played. But you would have thought a little of Gandhi’s humility and saintly forbearance would have rubbed off onto Kingsley’s shoulders.

Two years ago, a secret list appeared, detailing the names of 300 or so celebrities who have refused knighthoods, CBE’s and other awards. One of the most recent “refuseniks” JG Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun, said he turned down a CBE for “services to literature” because he was opposed to the “preposterous charade” of the honours system. “Thousands of medals are given out in the name of a non-existent empire. It makes us look a laughing stock and encourages deference to the crown,” Ballard apparently told The Sunday Times. He is absolutely correct.

How can people with a vestige of common sense and self-belief accept an honour that supposedly raises them to a higher plane than their fellow mortals? How is it possible that intelligent people are so seduced by the trappings of fame that they not only take this ridiculous elevation seriously but also mouth the obligatory platitudes about the award being “the greatest honour” of their lives? Why are the endeavours of actors and writers, however distinguished, more worthy of recognition than those of nurses and doctors – people who have spent a lifetime quietly assisting others?

Reputation and character

The honours system is anachronistic, archaic and totally ridiculous – breeding a sense of (false) vanity in the misguided recipients and awestruck subservience in commoners. In particular, those individuals who have paraded their left-wing credentials, and then accept this elevation, should never be taken seriously again. The really illustrious club (and I use the term ironically) is composed of those who have declined these absurd honours – among them actors Kenneth Branagh, Vanessa Redgrave and John Cleese, celebrity cook Nigella Lawson (good on her – a real rebuff for the old man), playwright Michael Frayn and painter LS Lowry. Actor Albert Finney, another “refusenik”, summed it up when he said that knighthoods perpetuate “one of our diseases in England – snobbery”.

We are suffering from an overdose of awards ceremonies. Real satisfaction should derive from an inner awareness that we have done our best to contribute to planet earth and its population. The British honours system, singling out particular individuals as permanently superior is particularly rancid. But other award ceremonies are also very dubious – the recent announcement of the names in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize highlights the absurdity of playing God. Nominees for this year’s award include Bono, Bob Geldof, former Secretary of State Colin Powell (what?) and Israeli nuclear ‘whistleblower’ Mordechai Vanunu. It’s impossible to pit these people against each other in a competition. So let’s not even try. And, if you need any further proof of the ridiculousness of the whole exercise, bear in mind that previous Nobel Peace Prize winners have included Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger!

Some awards ceremonies are more legitimate than others. Academy Awards, for example, merely seek to pit actors against each other for the most notable performance of the year. They do not seek to elevate certain individuals for life or gauge their overall contribution to humanity. So they are passable. But, please, let’s stop trying to second-guess who deserves distinction and instead leave it to a higher power. As Thomas Paine once wrote: “Reputation is what men and women think of us – character is what God and angels know of us.”

By Gabriel Hershman