Cover Story: You've got to draw the line somewhere

Racist pundits, reckless royals and overzealous admen: all stand accused of `going too far'. But who's deciding where the boundaries of taste and decency lie? John Walsh goes beyond the pale...

``Ilike Rodney's style as a pundit, but he has overstepped the mark by a long way," said an unnamed football fan outside the BBC, joining the chorus of head-shaking that followed Rodney Marsh's play on the words "tsunami" and "Toon Army" and cost him his six-figure job at Sky Sports.

"The girls are used to men coming on to them," said the manager of a lap-dancing club in Mayfair, about an incident when a drunken Formula One driver exposed himself to a pair of pole-dancers, "but Raikkonen overstepped the mark."

"We demonstrated against the broadcast [of Jerry Springer - the Opera] and our demonstrations were peaceful," said the Reverend George Hargreaves of the Scottish political party Operation Christian Vote: "The BBC has clearly overstepped the mark."

"This time it's different," fumed the Sunday Mirror columnist Carole Malone about Prince Harry and his swastika armband. "This time the young man who's obviously bored witless with life has overstepped the mark on an international scale." Meanwhile, the Daily Mail soberly reported in December that Little Britain, "the controversial comedy TV show," had received a complaint from the Women's Institute for "depicting its stalwarts as projectile-vomiting homophobic racists". What had the show done? Well, blow me down, it too over-thingied the you-know-what.

Going too far, crossing the line, overstepping the mark has become a national sport. Racist football managers, thoughtless royals, insensitive comedians and homophobic darts players have all been accused of going too far, and ticked off by the collective nanny of British society.

Detecting signs of transgression - literally "stepping over the limit" - is a new national pastime. Every mildly shocking public event is accompanied by some hitherto-unknown moral authority asserting that, yes, we've checked the rulebook and this behaviour exceeds the bounds of the acceptable. But where is the rulebook? By whose moral authority is our behaviour condoned or condemned? Who sets the mysterious line that must not be crossed - and how do we know when we're near it?

Originally, the "mark" was a sporting reference: you didn't set your foot (or "step") beyond a certain mark when shooting in an archery tournament, just as you wouldn't want to foot-fault at tennis or no-ball in cricket. More recently, the image has been eclipsed by the line drawn in the sand of the Alamo in 1836 by Captain William Travis to encourage the 187 last defenders to fight to the end. Cross the line, therefore, and you're a dead man. Overstep this mark and you're asking for trouble.

But the area most taboo to British sensibilities is neither sport nor death. It's religion. If you're looking for the first line you shouldn't cross, start with Jewishness. When Prince Harry put on Nazi fancy-dress he was criticised, not for implying support for people who bombed London and killed thousands of Allies, but for implying support for people who killed millions of Jews. When the Labour Party unveiled their election posters to reveal Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as pigs, it was the MPs' (scarcely obvious) connection with kosher diet that was so loudly deprecated.

When another poster appeared showing Howard swinging a hypnotic pocket- watch, voices said the image was a representation of Fagin, Dickens's Jewish crime impresario (presumably because the watch put them in mind of "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two" from Oliver!). "It crosses the fine line between genuine political attack and unacceptable anti-Semitic undertones," said Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain.

Of course it did no such thing. Yet the territory of Jewish sensitivities is so wide, it's very easy to cross a line into it. You can do it from a dozen directions. There is, some have pointed out, a double standard operating here. Jewish people can joke about Nazis and the nature of bad taste (as Mel Brooks did with The Producers); they can, unlike Gentiles, make rueful references to lampshades, gas and chimney-stacks and be congratulated for keeping the memory of Auschwitz alive and in perspective. They cannot themselves "cross the line" unless they start denying the Holocaust.

Sensible citizens know better than to visit the mined crossroads where art and religion meet. No good ever comes of it. Last week, a poster campaign was banned in Milan because it depicted Da Vinci's Last Supper with a table-load of (clothed) fashion models. A similar fate befell Channel 4's poster for Shameless, which featured the Gallagher family's Christmas version of the Last Supper. The Nativity at Madame Tussauds, starring the Beckhams and Kylie Minogue, was attacked by a hammer-wielding zealot, and closed down.

Why does a modern society fall so foul of religion? We think we're creatures of tolerance, harmony and respect for other people's belief structures, however weird they may seem. The danger comes when you regard them only as belief structures - doctrines you can adopt or discard - rather than fundamental tenets of someone's life.

To Muslims, The Satanic Verses was indefensible because it insulted the prophet Mohammed by giving to prostitutes the names of his wives. You could say that this was a work of fiction and, in a post-Enlightenment universe, anything can be discussed in the arena of art, but it cut no ice. "We have no interest in your games of what is real and what is made up," an Egyptian Muslim told me. "The quality of the insult is what matters, and must be avenged."

When Sikhs rioted in Birmingham over the play Behzti, it was not because it portrayed Sikh people as violent bullies and sexual predators, but that it was partly set in a gurdwara, or temple. "In a Sikh temple, sexual abuse does not take place, kissing and dancing don't take place, rape doesn't take place, homosexual activity doesn't take place, murders do not take place," said a Sikh elder. The play also recited bits of Sikh scripture. It went too far in putting real religious rubric in an unreal setting, so "tarnishing" the former. It's the juxtaposition of passionate personal-God beliefs and the casual sophistication of art that causes the trouble.

Compared to religion, racist slurs have gone off the boil in the past decade. Slighting remarks about black people are shocking only as an index of the speaker's stupidity, not of his or her prejudices. So thoroughly miscegenated are we that racial insult seems almost hilariously old-fashioned; shocking bad manners rather than line-crossing anarchy.

That's why Ron Atkinson's on-mic condemnation of the black footballer Marcel Desailly as a "fucking lazy thick nigger" was such a venomous surprise. The media watchdog Ofcom - and there is one of the inscribers of the rulebook and cartographers of "the line" - reminded us we were dealing with one of the last taboo words left: "The word `nigger' is one of the most offensive and it should only be used where there is clear editorial justification."

Discussions of sex, portrayals of sex, the imagery of sex have also become commonplace, such that casual references to sadomasochism turn up on Saturday evening television. I have sat in my in-laws' living-room with two septuagenarians and watched several elderly naked people being wheelbarrowed across the studio in Jimmy Carr's show Distraction; we registered mild disgust and turned over, but had no sense that this was beyond the pale. It's what people do these days.

When you can see all-out, real-time hot sex on screen in 9 Songs and Baise-moi, it's a little late to purse your lips at naked flesh and talk of rimming and fisting. Except, of course, when it comes to sex and religion. The fundamentalists who ganged up on the broadcasting of Jerry Springer - the Opera pretended to be appalled by the 3,000 "fucks", but were most appalled by the portrayal of Christ as a trashy chat-show guest in a nappy, saying: "I'm a little bit gay." It was at that point, opined Paul Hoggart in The Times, that "for thousands of devout Christians, Jerry Springer crashed through the barrier between the offensive and the unacceptable."

Sexual identity has become so polymorphous, so many-headed, that few things incur censure or intolerance - except paedophilia, still the worst, most baleful and socially stigmatised transgression. Incest was a fashionable shock-device in the early 1980s (especially in fiction), but the most common reaction now is to remark that it's nothing to be proud of and the perpetrator really should get out more.

Jokes are a popular index of where the notional line can be drawn. The kerfuffle about what subjects might be banned from comic mockery, under the proposed Incitement to Religious Hatred legislation, revealed us to be a society desperate to be tolerant. Anything, argued Rowan Atkinson and others, anything is grist to the humour mill - death, bestiality, nuns, war, disease, babies, evisceration, bananas, lavatories, cancer, God, Satan.

He's almost right. We are magnificently tolerant of jokes about anything, provided the timing is right. Where we cross the line and step over the mark is in joking about disaster too soon. We are British, and believe in observing a decent period of mourning after a tragedy. Hence the sacking of Marsh for joking about the Asian tsunami less than a month after it hit. Hence the storm that greeted Billy Connolly's "joke" about the execution of Ken Bigley in Iraq. After the September 11 horror, any jokes at all were, in effect, banned in America. It took about two months for Joan Rivers to steel her nerve and make a joke about a speed-reading student in the twin towers who got through 39 stories before breakfast.

Any suggestion of category differences in social or racial groups, especially if backed by scientific research, is guaranteed to land you swiftly beyond the pale. Saying that woman are genetically programmed to be rubbish at science led an American professor into swift and mortal combat with the academic world. So did The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and Richard Hernstein's 1993 thesis that intelligence was linked to race, and black people were 15 per cent less intelligent than whites. Seething outrage followed, not just over the findings, but over their extrapolation - it meant, they said, that the national IQ was being lowered by immigrants, and government welfare to the poor should be curtailed.

What else is taboo? What other things count as "going too far"? Something tells us that anyone insulting your parents, spouse or children is not to be joined in debate, but punched in the mouth. Craig Brown, the satirist, wrote that he thought nothing on TV could shock him any more until he watched John McCririck dredging his nose and eating the spoils in Celebrity Big Brother.

We may think ourselves enlightened citizens of the 21st century, but we're still capable of being as shocked as a maiden aunt at a Jenny Eclair show. We use the language of exclusion to insist that, although most things are familiar territory to us, there are boundaries we still must not cross.

It's intriguing to think of the strange land that lies beyond The Line, The Mark, The Pale. It's presumably a country of blame, shame and moral blankness, beyond civilisation, inhabited by taboo objects, words and sexual perversions, a place of unbridled discussion, religious scepticism, embarrassing physicality, tastelessness, lawlessness and common insult. It's a place of total freedom, which sounds a bit like Purgatory. As American chat-show hosts learnt to say to their guests: "Don't go there."

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