I was asked to speak on a panel about offence and free speech post Charlie Hebdo. I always quite like the idea of speaking at some serious discussion, but in practice I just make everybody uncomfortable and they all smile at me uneasily in the way a posh café owner does when builders come in to buy rolls.
And yet current attitudes in Britain to offence and free speech certainly mean that I've got a lot of fucking time on my hands, so I thought I'd take a break from building matchstick cathedrals and learning the harpsichord to share my thoughts.
I find it incredibly worrying that we no longer need to hear the actual content of the thing we're told to be offended by. We hear of people being arrested for tweets without the tweet being reported; comics are blasted for routines that aren't printed; newspapers hire lip-readers to find something to get offended by at the tennis and then print the resulting fuckfest as asterisks. And who decides whether we should be outraged at something we haven't seen or heard? The press. Our seething collective id. None of us would trust a journalist to hold our pint while we went to the bathroom, yet we allow them to be ethical arbiters for the entire culture.
I don't read newspapers anymore — I just lie to myself and cut out the middleman, but I think it's important to note that the press themselves are not actually outraged by what they report on as being offensive. No tabloid journo — whose life is invariably a shattered kaleidoscope of prostitutes, gambling, cocaine, self-loathing, literally going through a strangers bins, erectile dysfunction and cocaine — is genuinely offended when some students dress up as the Twin Towers for Halloween.
Outrage just makes good copy. It's easier to write, and simpler to understand. A tabloid hack knows that their average reader can barely read and they're not going to try to communicate anything like ennui in the vocabulary of a ten year old.
Offence is often simply an attempt to deny reality. Avant-garde film makers get attacked for saying things that are avant-garde; comedians get attacked for making jokes and footballers get attacked for being stupid. Nowadays offence is taken symbolically. It even gets translated into symbolic terms. Imagine if I did a joke along the lines of...
"The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren't even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids."
Not my finest work, but it doesn't matter because if it started a shitstorm, the joke itself wouldn't be printed. I would be in trouble because I'd joked about abused children or made a sick joke about a dead pensioner. The joke itself would be translated into these terms so as to maximise offence and minimise its message. I would be adjudged to have transgressed on a symbolic level, like some gibbering 13th Century Heretic.
Also, a lot of people would form an opinion about the joke without having heard it. It's a feature of late capitalism that we get a lot of information thrown at us, and we have to make snap decisions and form strong opinions without really knowing anything. Sure, if our football club buys a new centre half we might do a bit of research. But often we're just being asked if we should bomb Syria or not, and we're busy, and we just have to say fuck it, yeah, my mate Gavin's in the army, so yeah.
It's important not to confuse social progress with increasing homogenisation. What appalls me is not teenagers trolling celebrities. Going on Twitter and telling Danny Dyer you think he's a cunt seems fine to me. Even — to be completely honest — even drunkenly tweeting him you're going to run over his legs with a truck — is actually what I see as the sort of thing a normal, healthy teenager might be up to. It's the ones who have gravitated towards accepting our increasingly formal culture that I worry about.
Teenagers were allowed to vote at 16 in the Independence Referendum. They did a kind of Question Time at the Glasgow Hydro and the kids all turned up looking smart and asked Nicola Sturgeon and George Galloway some interesting questions. I was disgusted. If you're 16 you shouldn't be asking George Galloway a polite question about currency union, you should be at home writing a song about how you want to take a shit in George Galloway's mouth.
Anyone offended by that should note that even on a good day I only really half agree with myself. So why did I write it, if it might offend you? Because it's worth saying, even though it's not entirely correct, and I don't really give a fuck about you, someone who might find a group of words in the wrong order too much to bear.
The sheer range of opinion on this planet means you can't be inoffensive. It's something that can only really be aspired to within homogeneous groups or authoritarian societies. What would a completely inoffensive cartoon look like? Those little cartoons you used to see in Punch or Private Eye in a doctor's waiting room maybe? Always set in a doctor's office? Or showing two castaways on a desert island, or two eskimos by an igloo ice-fishing?
I can't ever remember seeing a cartoon doctor who was black, or female. Even though the actual doctor I was there to see was both. You didn't even get black people as castaways on what were obviously Caribbean islands. And of course to, say, a Canadian, a joke about two eskimos (they don't like being called that by the way) sitting by an igloo would set you apart as a bitterly committed racist with a hard-on of hate for indigenous people.
I'm not saying those old cartoons were ok: I'm saying we don't always recognise our own prejudices. Our individual maps of what is offensive and what is worthwhile are often determined by social class. There was a piece in the New Statesman recently about Tim Minchin, breathlessly titled “The Satirist Who Ran Out of Upwards To Punch”.
Now I love Tim's shows, but he'll probably have been surprised to find that he's the apotheosis of political comedy because “he wrote “The Pope Song”, which called the pontiff a motherf***er more than 40 times ” (their asterisks) and delivers “ ... a nine-minute beat poem called “Storm”, featuring a narrator at a north London dinner party getting increasingly angry with a tattooed hippie ... he berates her for her credulousness. The rant takes in psychics, homoeopathy, auras, star signs, spiritual healers and religious prophets.”
You might have imagined that routines “punching up” against the big targets of the day would have to involve the international banking system; the arms industry; or even just the fact that the entire world is about to disappear screaming under boiling waves. To the well trained ear of the English middle-classes, an authentic target is more likely to be something like “star signs”.
Something that you literally find on the same page of a newspaper as the cartoons. Perhaps the journalist actually understands better than me that real targets are off-limits, and is simply happy to see a routine socking it to the true enemy of The New Statesman reader, “the tattooed hippie”.
To be fair, that article was simply guilty of the Endtimes hubris that affects us all: we have started to attribute to our personal tastes and preferences a kind of moral force. We all live in a war economy, that launders criminal money and sells arms. Are some of us really morally superior because we don't like Top Gear? If you're an activist trying to do something important, I salute you. Most of us just give ourselves ethical brownie points for watching Channel 2 instead of Channel 3, like characters in a broad dystopian satire.
Perhaps we're encouraged to see ourselves as embattled pockets of morality because that's how our country sees itself in the world. Rather than, say, a nuclear armed, money-laundering pirate ship, where all the ship's officers have been sent away from their families at a young age and deliberately driven insane through the medium of sodomy.
We hear a lot these days about jokes needing to have the right targets. I find it frankly suspicious that things like jokes, tweets and cartoons are asked to be increasingly socially responsible in societies that just happen to be run by controlling people who don't like to be laughed at. Naturally, the idea that corporate journalism should have the right targets is so laughably unachievable that it's rarely mentioned anywhere...
I'm actually all for political correctness. If you want to work to change the usage of a word that's discriminatory then fine, I'm behind you. But that's a conversation that needs to be had in the culture. You can't just decide that commonly used parts of a language are evil and that the people who didn't get the memo must be bad people.
Awkwardly, the areas of culture which would be most useful in updating how people perceive language are the very ones that are most censored. I tried to do a routine about why I thought we should be worried about Britain's “rape culture” on Live at The Apollo recently (and I do feel we're reaching a crisis point where some people view rape as mere bad sexual etiquette, like patting your cock dry on a tea towel or paying in loose change), only to be told that while the sentiments of the routine were acceptable I just couldn't say the word rape.
If you're any kind of writer these days the culture seems to be saying “Please challenge and provoke me, redefine how I see the world, while I scream my head off every time I hear something I don't like.”
So now a lot of challenging stuff just doesn't get made. Good stuff that does get made is weaker because it has to contain the seeds of its own defence. Because when the baleful burning eye of journalism turns upon you, you want to be able to say that it was all completely defensible.
Nobody wants to be stood on the doorstep in their dressing gown saying “Well, actually it was supposed to be thorny and ambiguous and disturbing. I know it didn't please people, but actually I was trying not to please them.” to a bored reporter from the Daily Mail who in their head is already translating your play about right to die legislation into a call for disabled death camps.
In the future we will all be famous for 15 minutes. It will be on a daytime magazine programme and we will each wear a tasteful shirt and slacks combination. We'll be interviewed by a soothing voice under a clock that's permanently set to 4pm. We will talk about the weather. We will record for months to get 15 minutes they can use in the edit. We will think that we recognise a faint, familiar smell from childhood, but it will turn out to be hand sanitizer. We will feel like saying something we shouldn't, something that will send them all scurrying about the studio floor screaming at each other like a besieged rat colony. We will stay on our best behaviour and feel relieved when it's over.
We don't live in a shared reality, we each live in a reality of our own, and causing upset is often the price of trying to reach each other. It's always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time consuming process of understanding them. We have given taking offence a social status it doesn't deserve: it's not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.
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