The source of the affront was the news that David Cronenberg's film Crash is to be released without cuts. It isn't that I mind Mr Cronenberg's film being screened, though I don't happen to be a fan of his rather sermonising form of grand guignol. What really stung was the revelation that the British Board of Film Classification had shown his film to an audience of disabled people before granting it an 18 certificate. Apparently other specialists were consulted too: a top lawyer and a forensic psychologist, who were presumably consulted on their respective areas of knowledge.
But what precise kind of expertise were the disabled viewers expected to bring to this vexed issue of censorship? After all, in all other respects they were presumably an average cross-section of society. They weren't road-safety advisers or paramedics or manufacturers of prosthetic devices. The only answer, surely, is that they were regarded as experts in taking offence, arrayed there like coal-mine canaries in case the film should give off an invisible gas of insult, one undetectable by the coarser nostrils of the able-bodied.
This seems to me a rather peculiar development in the regulation of what we can and can't see - if only because offence is such an intangible substance, an element that can be brought into existence by a simple act of declaration. If people say they are offended, what possible evidence could I advance to contradict them? Besides, would James Ferman, the board's director, really have come to a different conclusion if the audience had reeled back in unanimous distress (or wheeled back, even)? If so, then this seems to set a rather bad precedent. Will an audience of people suffering from achondroplasia be assembled to vet the next re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Will vegetarians be invited to scrutinise films in which explicit acts of butchery take place?
Logically there is no obvious point at which the delicate sensibilities of a sub-section of the audience might not compromise the right of the rest of us (all the other sub-sections put together, if you want to balance the claims for consideration) to watch a film. And this is where I feel my sense of affront rising. Why does Mr Ferman care about disabled people's feelings on this occasion and not mine (or, for that matter, those of the moral commissars of the Daily Mail)? It is all very hurtful. Perhaps, for the sake of fairness alone, all questions of screenability should be decided from now on by a kind of mini-referendum (raising the neat paradox that in order to prevent a film being shown, those most likely to take offence would be obliged to see it).
But this wasn't a real act of consultation - it was an act of tactical protection. Mr Ferman presumably wanted a line of defence when the Daily Mail went into hysterics (as it duly did) and a wall of unoffended disabled people must have seemed as good a bulwark to hide behind as any. The essential timorousness of the device is further exposed by the language of his press release. This "unusual and disturbing film" was neither illegal nor harmful, he announced, choosing the canonical adjective for a film which you know full well will offend many people but which you deem to be worthwhile anyway.
This raises yet more questions - why is it acceptable to "disturb" audiences but not to "offend" them? We can be virtually sure that Mr Ferman would never have described Crash as an "unusual and offensive" film because that would have undermined the implicit claim to artistic worth. But if "disturbance" is so virtuous, such an invigorating challenge to our conventional assumptions, then surely disabled people should not be arbitrarily excluded from the disturbees? The arguments about equal access must extend to what is shown on the cinema screen, as well as the auditorium itself.
What this incident demonstrates, in truth, is the extent to which an entirely illusory human right - the right not to be offended - has been incorporated into the pious observances of daily life. Hurt feelings, and the grounds for them, are now cited as if they constituted a valid argument in themselves, rather than just a confessional prelude to the debate. There was a good example in a recent television account of the fuss caused by Benetton's new-born baby poster. One of the many letters of outrage began, "As a woman who has just had a miscarriage I wish to...", an intimidating display of emotional credentials. It is possible, just about, to feel sympathy for this woman while still being astounded by the ineffable solipsism of her remark, the implicit sense that the world should turn around her personal misfortune. It is the kind of vanity that marks all arguments from grounds of hurt feeling.
This isn't to say that slander or bigotry or even perceived depravity should pass unchallenged. Nor is it to suggest, as many commentators did after David Evans's yahoo prejudices were broadcast to the nation, that "political correctness" had imposed a mental censorship on all public discourse. But it is to argue that personal offence is the very weakest argument which you can deploy against something you don't like - as feeble as if you were to whine, "but I just don't like it". "Offensive to millions" declared one of the Mail's critics yesterday about Crash. Well, so what? If millions actually go after all they have read about the film, perhaps they should take responsibility for their own wounded sensibilities, and not expect the world to do it for themnReuse content