Monogamy and Ghosts on M-Net’s ‘Carte Blanche’

by .reid.

I don’t really watch TV. When I do allow myself free-time it’s for reading some fiction (currently Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’ series). Anyway, I record certain programs then I watch them weeks later. I say this because I’ve only just watched Carte Blanche episode, from 12 June 2011. That’s a month ago.

Anyway, this was a largely disappointing episode but I’m still glad it was made. It dealt extensively with the large-scale alleged corruption within Jo’burg’s EMS. This was excellent, albeit a bit theatrical. Yet, within the episode, there were two stories that were intriguing to me.


The first was about how monogamy is not natural. The first problem that occurred to me was an appeal to nature. There are lots of fallacious statements from Dr. Christopher Ryan, author of the best-selling Sex at Dawn – which apparently debunks many things we think about sex – and others, in the sow.

Here are a few.

Devi: “Given that we share a similar same [sic] genetic makeup as our hyper-sexual primal cousins – bonobos and chimpanzees – Ryan and Jatha say that monogamy is not in our nature.”

Dr Ryan: We don’t take to life-long sexual monogamy naturally at all. In fact, we find it excruciatingly difficult as a species.’

“Sexologist” Dr Wasserman is perhaps the worst offender or the clearest thinker. 

“[What] we are meant to be as socially constructed, but are we naturally monogamous? No, I don’t think that we are naturally monogamous at all.”

What does “naturally” mean? I never know what people mean by this word, especially when  it comes to humans. It’s never been explained to me. Unless, of course, this is an appeal to nature which immediately makes it a fallacy. Just because it occurs “in nature” (wherever the hell that is), does not make it right. Or, just because it occurs “naturally” (say, without “technology”, whatever that means), does not make it right.

Of course this in reply to reporter Devi Govender (my favourite Carte Blanche reporter), who asks the loaded question: “Are humans meant to be monogamous?”

Meant? By what? Society? Religion? Naturally, there is no “meant”. Evolution is blind, not aiming for a goal. We might say propogataion of the species, etc., and it certainly appears to be the case, but so what? Are we “meant” to wear clothes? Are we “meant” to combat what nature throws up against us, like cancer and earthquakes?

Dr Wasserman: “Because, from an evolutionary point of view, we have to populate the world. So therefore an instinctive drive in men is to be able to spread sperm as far and wide as possible to ensure that there will be children. And, as far as women go, they have to make sure that they collect as much semen and sperm as possible to ensure that there will be pregnancies. They can’t just rely on man for a pregnancy.’

It’s not clear if she is endorsing it. Reading her charitably, I’m going to say she is merely explaining things empirically. Because, as Steven Pinker says, my genes can go jump in a lake. They don’t decide how I’m going to live my life. And, furthermore, I find it unethical to procreate and find it more important to alleviate the suffering of existing children. It also seems quite tiring, if it is what she is endorsing (though I don’t think she is).

Ryan correctly points out that just because it occurs naturally, does not make it a moral imperative. He’s book is not a criticism of monogamy. He ends it quite elegantly.

Dr Ryan: “This isn’t a book about arguing aging monogamy at all, but we say that choosing to be monogamous is like choosing to be vegetarian: it can be a very intelligent, healthy decision, but just because you’ve decided to be a vegetarian don’t expect bacon to stop smelling good.’

I do have a problem with enforced or expected monogamy, but one that is freely given and of my own volition is different. I do support and encourage polyamory, if mainly to help shift attitudes and make lives easier for people who do (unlike myself) find it easy to meet other people and become intimate. For people who do feel trapped in monogamous relationships. Relationships, good ones, should be dependent on trust and honesty where applicable (I think total honesty is not only impossible but possibly destructive: “yes, you look wonderful in those shoes!”); but it seems the writers of this show got confused since they assume polyamory and monogamy.

After discussing polyamory with a remarkable lady, the show continues.

“dealing with infidelity is devastating.

Alex [random person who has been divorced]: ‘You live with the guilt and you’ve got to go home to your partner… your wife, your fiancée, your wife, or whatever it is, and keep quiet and hold it in yourself. And that’s where the stress comes in, because you sit there and you think: how do I deal with this without hurting that person?”

This is exactly what polyamory allows for, though. Even in polyamory there can be infidelity, since polyamory is not being deceptive and secretly promiscuous: its about openly having lots of partners and being intimate with more than one person. Being polyamorous won’t solve infidelity anymore than adding limbs will make you less clumsy. There is even good reason to think there is more danger of infidelity, though I have no evidence to back that up. Perhaps it’s the complete opposite: I can imagine justifications for both, but that’s not evidence.

Anyway, aside from the appeal to nature fallacy and, apparently, thinking we’ve evolved from chimpanzees (as opposed to evolved from a common ancestors with chimpanzees), this is an interesting program. I’m just glad they made it seem unthreatening and indeed liberating. Which is exactly what it should be for many (but not all) people.


This next story (it’s the transcript for the show and the video player) was about all the hauntings that supposedly occur in Jo’burg. Though reporter Derek Watson appeared to be slightly amused the entire time, the screen-time was dominated by the psychics, clairvoyants and “paranormal investigators” (apparently describing what they investigate, not the investigators themselves). They dragged in a couple of bedraggled scientists, ordered them to sit behind hi-tech looking thermal equipment for an hour, to stare blankly at a prison wall, then shushed them off. Go science!

I don’t mind that the believers dominated the coverage. Stories like this allow for the skeptics, like myself and others, to point out the flaws for longer. I also am not one of those “equal time” people, since there is no equality between scientific explanations and random feelings by the credulous vox pop. That’s why we don’t often see astronomers and astrologers sitting on the same panel or given equal screen time when talking about the heavenly bodies; it’s why you won’t see a traditional healer sitting alongside doctors in discussions about the future of medicine. (I say “won’t” when I probably mean shouldn’t considering large scale endorsement. After all, if it works, it simply becomes medicine.)

Back to the story. We are introduced to “paranormal investigators”, Nicky Carter and Lance Hutchinson who run around being scared by funny noises. Nicky claims she once heard, when using this tech, the voice of someone who she thinks was her father.

“Well, I’m not saying it is my father, but one voice said in January: ‘Drive carefully, Nicky.'”

Sage advice, that. Why are we using traffic signs, officers and seat-belts – we should just capture a couple of ghosts and tie them to the bonnet. Afterwards, we can catch a couple that remind us to breathe.

Carte Blanche took these original recordings to audio engineers Janno Muller and Tim Pringle.

“They have no interest in the paranormal. We did not tell them … what Nicky claims to have heard – only that she picked up some unexplained sounds at a very low frequency.”

Well telling them “there were unexplained sounds” kind of gives the game away. Why not just say: “We’re wondering if you can detect anything coherent from this? And no, it’s not the new Black Eyed Peas.”

“After a while, even these non-believers started hearing things. Janno Muller and Tim Pringle [said]: “Sounds like: ‘Drive safely, Nicky.'”

Sure this sounds impressive, but it’s not. We are not told how the tape was recorded, whether it was a hoax, or how many other phrases the audio engineers could possibly have heard. There are many possibilities.

“Shortly after receiving the warning, Nicky did in fact have a car accident.”

In other words, the ghost was useless. In other words, Nicky is one of either 40,000 or 110,000 people who are injured in car accidents in South Africa. Basically, the ghost could’ve whispered “Careful of the corner” and then – shock, horror – she snubbed her toe. It’s likely to happen, so it’s not really surprising. Furthermore, I like this story because the surprising thing isn’t actually the existence of ghosts, but friggin’ precognitive ghosts. It’s great because once you’ve dunk your head into the loony lake, you might as well take a whole gulp. Heck, just say it could shoot fire-balls out its hands, too.

Apparently, Nicky says the reason we struggle to hear the ghosts – because they’re made up? – is because “we’re in a much denser energetic bandwidth so to speak”. When I hear the word “energy” and it’s not a physicist speaking, I usually become sceptical. What does she mean by this? In physics, energy is the capacity “of a physical system to perform work.” It can be kinetic, mechanical, heat, light and so on. Anyway I can’t really reconcile this with her statement but someone will surely correct me? And bandwidth? How does she know this?

Moving on…

“Listening to a different sound clip and without being prompted, these nay-sayers independently identify the same words Nicky had on this clip.

Janno Muller and Tim Pringle: “This definately sounds like: I love you Nicky.”

Again, as above, this is not really impressive.

Nicky: “‘I love you Nicky’, ‘sleep well darning’, ‘good night Nicky’.”

Words of affection that Nicky believes are the whisperings of her departed father.”

Wait. So she’s not sure who this ghostly bastard is? It could be some creep? So instead of telling her the date to be careful of the accident, when not to drive, he tells her useless things like “Sleep well” and “good night”? Actually, we shouldn’t get those “breather” ghosts anymore if they can become this inefficient.

Nicky: “What is imagination? I mean, imagination is what comes to us, through us, where does it come from?”

Er, from our brains? I don’t think believers really understand how powerful and deceptive our brains can be.

There’s also an interview with someone who looks like philosopher Simon Blackburn. His conclusion that the supernatural exists comes from finding tilted paintings and creaking floorboards – which you would NEVER EXPECT IN AN OLD HOUSE!

We are then introduced to clairvoyant Jeanette Mackenzie. She is asked how she does it.

Jeanette Mackenzie: “First of all I pick up the ‘energy’ and then secondly she’s like standing and there’s mist in front of her.”

Arg! There’s that word again. We all pick up energy, we all have it inside us. In potentiality in the wood, in the light, etc. It’s everywhere. But that’s obvious and not interesting. That’s plain science. She means energy on a completely different sort and they never bother to explain what she means. By the way: notice energy is in scare-quotes. Sigh.

They discuss the famous haunting of Daisy de Melker, who poisoned three of the men in her life. She was the second woman hung in South Africa.

Jeanette says the first time she’d ever heard of Daisy de Melker was when we invited her to be involved in our programme.

Jeanette: “After, I put down the phone to you she came through, but not very strongly, and said she’s got a story to tell and she’d like me to tell it.”

In an attempt to contact the murderess, Jeanette spent time in the Women’s Prison at Constitution Hill where Daisy was held.

Jeanette: “And then she started to tell me one of two things, especially about how she was mistreated as a child, abused sexually, abused physically…”

  1. Isn’t it strange that after discussing the show the ghost in question “suddenly” decides to communicate? Anyone surprised? I mean, imagine she said: “Yeah, sorry for the invitation, award-winning, widely-watched tv-show. I can’t be on your show because the ghost you told me about just ain’t talking. I mean I get tons of other guys, like King Louie X and Ludwig II, but not some random SA poisoner.” And haven’t we been constantly told that time is different in that realm? Or denser? Or something? So timely things shouldn’t be happening, surely? Like being warned of an imminent car accident (without providing details).
  1. And why is everyone always abused as child as if this is some justification for her murders? I don’t know why I’m asking this as a serious question as though the ghost actually spoke to Ms Mackenzie, instead of it being her overactive imagination being enfolded in a personality and given voice through credulity. Why Ms Mackenzie and her ilk don’t just become fiction-writers is beyond me.

Jeanette: “Because I also said to her: ‘Was there anybody else that she’s killed that they’re never picked up on.’ And she said, ‘Yes, there were children.’ Only to discover later that she did work with children at the hospital – I did not know that at the time.”

Well, she was a female, working, in the early part of the twentieth-century. She wouldn’t be working as an economist at Harvard. Again, it’s not hard to guess that if she was a nurse, she probably also worked with children. This isn’t sexist merely recognition of history and where women could be found due to the climate.

Carte Blanche then travel to different places de Melker supposedly haunts. They go to a bunch of cells where she was kept before being executed.

 A few years ago, an American crew searched these cells for evidence of the unknown.

Darryl Peterson (Site director): “And one of the things they found was that the highest concentration of paranormal activity is at Constitution Hill.”

Dammit. What the hell does “highest concentration of paranormal activity” even mean? Do you measure it by the amount of gate-swingings? The amount of times you get scared, hear a funny noise, sweat, see a ghost? What is this “measurement of paranormal activity”?

Darryl: “I’m Christian, I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t believe in paranormal activities, etc.”

No, you just believe a magic man made the universe, walked on water, made a burning bush talk, turned water into wine and could come back from the dead. You certainly don’t believe in paranormal activities! Go science!

Darryl: “I am not going to tell you I saw a ghost, but I certainly felt the presence. And how I felt the presence – I’m bald, but these little thick hairs on the back here [neck], they started just picking up. It was like somebody standing behind you; it fills you with fear. I made a very hasty exist, and I’ve never been back here – not after nine – on my own again.”

Do I need to tell you again about the power of the brain? People hallucinate all the time, hear voices and see things. We aren’t interested in feelings; we want facts. Verifiable facts. It’s not that the place isn’t creepy – there are plenty of places I would be too afraid to go because it looks terrifying.

But it's not ghosts that I'd be afraid of.

Remember: just because your body reacts in terror doesn’t mean there is something to be terrified of. Just ask people who have had limbs removed but still move their “arms” in case they get knocked. There are some amazing naturalistic explanations which make oogly-boogly seem less daunting and even less exciting.

Anyway it gets more stupid from there. Watch the episode for yourself.

When I see programs like this, I think back to when I claimed to be able to do hear and see and communicate with ghosts. People’s need for closure was the key and a vague utterance of consolation from me was the locked door. We’d walk through together, coming out the otherside, each feeling accomplished: the client having gained some sense of worth and reassurance. Me sometimes with more cash, but definitely the feeling I was helping someone.

Except there was an endless number of doors; and closure, I’ve learnt, is as great an illusion in life as the ghosts they represent. When loved ones die, when tragedy strikes, there is no closure. It’s simply life. Bad things happen to good people and that’s just how it is. We fight it by throwing magic and god and crystals at it but it still remains. I may take the piss out of this, I may mock it – but the reason we really need to oppose it is the very reason vulnerable people go to it. The need for consolation and comfort. For engagement and understanding. The problem with putting a crystal around vulnerability is that it hollows out the heart of the problem. I realised this when the same people kept coming back: I wasn’t their helper, I was their dealer.

In this Carte Blanche episode, it was like watching crack-heads chasing down the newest stash. These people were their own dealers; or rather, the world was. I don’t pity them and I’m not offering sympathies. I am, however, aware of that feeling of vulnerability and the need for explanation. I know what it’s like to watch someone you love die, slowly. I know what’s it’s like to really believe you can contact dead people, what’s it like to think you have powers and to think you’re helping.

But I’m not willing to be a dealer anymore. And neither should these people. I don’t mind if they harm themselves but there is a constant danger of this harming others.


One thought on “Monogamy and Ghosts on M-Net’s ‘Carte Blanche’

  1. Pingback: Episode #19: Genes, jelly and ghosts | Consilience

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