One of the sillier laws to enter the statute books has finally been changed. No longer will it be possible to fine someone for saying “woof” to a Labrador in front of police officers, as happened to Kyle Little five years ago. The decision to fine him was later overturned, but – ridiculously – the law remained intact. Insulting language could be punishable by law, even if the language didn’t seem insulting to anyone remotely rational.
“Woof” is surely an attempt to communicate with a dog, rather than an attempt to injure its doggy feelings. Juvenile, but not insulting. Little was 16 at the time; if the young aren’t allowed to be juvenile, who is? The definition of “insulting” is almost infinitely flexible, but “woof” seems pretty benign, particularly when directed at a dog.
A year earlier, the police had tried to prosecute a student, Sam Brown, after he asked a mounted officer whether he realised his horse was gay. Even if you consider the word “gay” to be insulting (which clearly depends on both context and intent), it’s hard to imagine that the horse felt upset. Nonetheless, Brown was arrested under Section 5 of the Public Order Act: his language, the police felt, was insulting because they deemed it homophobic.
And that is, in essence, what is wrong with trying to legislate against insults. The word “gay” isn’t insulting unless it’s meant to be. Gay people refer to themselves as gay, their straight friends refer to them as gay, and no one is offended. But if the same word is spat at you by a psycho beating you up in the street, then it’s insulting and frightening. The word has the same meaning each time – in every case, the word “gay” is referring to a person’s sexuality – but it isn’t always, or even usually, an insult.
The law can’t be framed to recognise that an insult is dependent on the intent of the speaker, as well as the perception of the insulted. Comedians have always known this, which is why Rowan Atkinson has campaigned for this amendment: to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5. Anyone who’s ever misjudged a heckler putdown, or made jokes on a taboo subject, understands the fluidity of offence.
Our skins are never thinner than when we feel insulted, and never more like rhino hide than when we insult someone, either accidentally or on purpose. And while it is horrible to feel that someone has insulted you and got away with it – cackling into their gin as you weep into yours – the alternative is that none of us ever speaks again. So let’s treat insults like Kingsley Amis treated bad reviews: let them spoil your breakfast, but not your lunch.
Can’t we take politicians seriously?
Yes, Prime Minister returned to our screens last night. Or it did if you could find GOLD, the channel showing the new version after the BBC missed out on it.
I don’t usually buy the idea of a national character, but Britain is undeniably less able to take politicians seriously than other nations. This week saw Argo (a US political drama) rewarded at the Golden Globes. Meanwhile, the second series of Borgen – a drama about the Danish prime minister, left – is the high point of my viewing week. Now I’m pondering re-watching The West Wing.
Danish and American TV writers respect the political process, even as they reveal its grimy underbelly. Their fictional politicians are invested with dignity. And we watch these imported dramas happily. But when it’s a series about British politics, we’d rather ditch the heart-warming zeal and mock the ineptitude instead.