It is not so very long ago that the opinions of a sportsman on the deeper philosophical questions of existence would not have been thought worthy of mention in the pages of a serious newspaper - or any other newspaper, for that matter. This was not because a man such as Mr Hoddle had no right to his opinions: clearly he had. It was simply that his opinions were thought unlikely to be of greater intrinsic interest than those of anyone else. His off-the-cuff remarks about the transmigration of souls would have been deemed no worthier of report than those made during the average pub conversation: which, indeed, they much resemble.
No doubt the purveyors of the inessential information about Mr Hoddle's opinion of the previous lives of paraplegics would argue that they were only responding to public demand: but not every demand should be supplied. The public appetite for trivia grows with what it feeds on; and newspapers lead as well as follow.
As for Mr Hoddle himself, it was too much to expect of him that he should remain silent when asked about a subject dear to his heart. Few of us could resist the temptation to hold forth to a large audience on subjects about which we feel deeply but have thought hardly at all.
It would therefore be an excellent principle for newspapers henceforth not to ask film stars, rock musicians and sportsmen for their opinions about dolphins, ozone layers, Third World debt, karma etc.
The howls of outrage that greeted Mr Hoddle's published remarks, however, had a distinctly synthetic and whipped-up quality. It was as if he had uttered a heresy in a theocracy that was uncertain of the adherence of its citizenry to the official doctrine. The greater the fervour of the denunciation, the more unimpeachably orthodox the person making it: in this case, the more you hated Mr Hoddle, the more you loved the wheelchair- bound.
Not, of course, that Mr Hoddle's remarks deserve to be considered genuinely religious in nature, and therefore the affair was not really one of religious freedom. He explicitly distanced himself, while making them, from any Church or denomination. Genuine religion requires some public observance and submission to a discipline. Mr Hoddle's views are more New Age than religious: the continuation of psychotherapy by other means. They are redolent of an eclectic spirituality that manifests itself in wind chimes, joss sticks, perfumed candles and healing crystals. His views have the same relationship to religion as alternative medicine has to real medicine, or creationist science has to real science.
I have little doubt that had I been physically disabled myself, I should not have been pleased or flattered by Mr Hoddle's remarks, at least initially. But I think I should have been able to contain my wrath sufficiently not to demand his resignation from a job that, by its very nature, requires no special dealings with the physically disabled. Moreover, a little reflection would have attenuated whatever slight displeasure I had experienced on learning of his views. I should quickly have distinguished between a few remarks made to a journalist in circumstances that are still not quite clear, and actual personal conduct: a distinction that one demonstrator at the press conference Mr Hoddle gave after his resignation was unable to make when he shouted that not even football hooligans would be unpleasant to people in wheelchairs (an assertion which, as a matter of empirical fact, is mistaken, since as a doctor I meet in a lot of disabled people who describe insults and physical attacks by precisely such hooligans). By contrast, Mr Hoddle has done charitable work on behalf of the disabled.
Furthermore, there is no strictly logical reason why his beliefs should lead to any practical mistreatment whatever of the disabled. Quite apart from the uncertainty about the ontological connection between past lives and present ones, there is no reason why a person who has supposedly been punished for misdeeds in a past life should be subjected to ill-treatment by his fellow- beings in his present one. On the contrary, he has paid his debt to karma, and has returned to Earth with the opportunity to redeem himself. He should therefore be helped by every possible means to do so.
But such subtleties are easily overlooked. A predisposition to indignation is now a characteristic of many groups in our society, and any pretext to feel it will suffice. The headlines of our daily newspapers (of all political persuasions) foster this unpleasant tendency. With increasing frequency, such headlines begin "Fury at...", as if fury were a kind of caffeine, without which no one could be expected to start the day. It is indeed surprisingly easy to work oneself up into a tizzy under the influence of a lead story in a newspaper. And nowadays anger, in the words of the journalist Bea Campbell, is its own justification: I'm angry, therefore I'm good.
This propensity to anger reminds me rather of physiological experiments performed years ago, in which electrodes were implanted into the amygdala of cats' brains which, when stimulated, resulted in an insensate rage reaction. Reports in newspapers of unorthodox ideas act as electrodes in our amygdala.
There is, however, a difference between the cats and us: we enjoy our rages. When we feel rage on others' behalf, it is like doing good works, but without going to the trouble that good works usually entail. We glow with moral satisfaction, because we have been both generous and compassionate, without so much as having moved from our chair. And when we feel rage on our own behalf, it is because we are victims. By definition, victims are good people.
To cause pain to others in the name of virtue is, of course, one of the great illicit pleasures of life. To have brought about the downfall of a successful man in the name of compassion is thus to have indulged in that vile pleasure while feeling virtuous at the same time.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to be tolerant and angry simultaneously. The greater our propensity to anger, therefore, the greater our propensity to intolerance. The Prime Minister's support of anger and intolerance on this occasion was opportunistic and despicable, an example of the unhealthy combination of caesaropapism and spin-doctoring. When applause for the Prime Minister's remarks about the affair was not universal, he sought to backtrack: like Mr Hoddle, he never said them things.
Which brings us to the thinly-veiled snobbery which manifested itself in our newspapers. The evident glee with which Mr Hoddle's grammatical solecism was repeated was distasteful; it was deliberately burned into our consciousness by repetition and emphasis, and it would not be altogether surprising if it were to appear in the next edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
There is no reason why a football coach should be a master of English prose any more than there is a reason why a master of English prose should be a prolific goal-scorer. Mr Hoddle is a man of limited educational attainment who has done much better in life - at least financially - than the vast majority of highly educated scribblers. His talent is decidedly not for words. Alas, there is no one as envious as the man who should know better, and who should be above spiteful emotions such as snobbery and envy. The boy done good: too good, in fact, for his own good. He had to be brought down a peg or two.
What would a detached foreign observer have concluded about England from the episode? First he would have been surprised that such importance could have been attached by the press to what a football coach said, in a country with such serious problems as our own. Second, he would have been aghast at the virulence of the vituperation that followed. He would have concluded that the future of freedom of expression in our country was highly problematical. He would have concluded that our head of government was a shallow opportunist, inclined self-importantly to poke his nose into affairs which were none of his business. He would have concluded that officials of the Football Association were pusillanimous and cowardly. He would have concluded that spite, envy and snobbery were rife in our media of mass communication. It is not a pretty picture.