Howard Jacobson: This won't stop half the world thinking it can imprison people who 'offend' them

It is foolhardy to be unaware that a foreign country is a foreign country: they do things differently there
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The Independent Online

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." That sentence was meant to serve as a warning. Beware nostalgia. Be careful where you tread. What's assumed is that while we might not know our way around the past, we don't need reminding to be careful in a foreign country. Except that it would seem we do.

I am thinking, of course, of Gillian Gibbons just back from Sudan. She had gone, in her own words, "to have a bit of an adventure", but got, still in her own words, "a bit more than I had bargained for". A prison sentence, 40 lashes (nearly), a mob baying for her execution. That sort of a bit more than she had bargained for.

I am in two minds about Gillian Gibbons. No, I am in 20 minds about Gillian Gibbons. A bit undecided, as she might have put it.

Writing in the Telegraph, Max Davidson pays warm and funny tribute to her spirit, placing her in the great tradition of British understatement, comparing her to Captain Oates leaving his tent in an Antarctic blizzard with the words, "I am just going outside and may be some time". I share Max Davidson's respect for British imperturbability. It is emotional good manners to make less rather than more of a thing. And in a crying age only witness the celebrity-blubbing in the Australian bush over recent weeks, a mere television lens away from a seven-star hotel reticence is a priceless virtue.

But there's a distinction to be made between Lawrence Oates's phlegmatic farewell and Gillian Gibbons's breezy return. Oates walked out of his tent knowing he would never return to it. Slowed down by frostbite and ill-health, he believed himself to be a hindrance to his surviving companions. What touches us about his final words is that they make nothing of an act of heroic and unbearably lonely self-sacrifice. What Gillian Gibbons has been making light of is plain foolhardiness.

Don't get me wrong. It doesn't concern me that her teaching methods risked an international incident and caused a pair of peers of the realm to stir themselves on her behalf. We like a fuss in this column. And we're all for politicians of whatever chamber or complexion running around the world helping British citizens in distress. We have a better understanding of what they're for when they do that.

Nor, when I accuse Gillian Gibbons of foolhardiness, is it because I want her to have counted the cost of her mistake in the hours of inconvenience she has caused others (which I suppose should include the time the armed Sudanese mob had to take off work). It is foolhardiness, pure and simple, to be as blithe as Gillian Gibbons about zooming off and having a bit of an adventure wherever the fancy takes you and there happens to be a vacancy for an English infant teacher.

It is foolhardy in general to be unaware that a foreign country is a foreign country: that they do things differently there. And it is foolhardy in particular not to know that Islamic countries are in ferment at the moment Sudan more than most and that, as an English person not least, you run the risk of getting yourself into trouble whatever you say. Myself, I have difficulty understanding why, just for the fun of it, any Westerner would venture into that part of the world right now.

There is, it seems to me, a sort of impertinence in it. I accept that it has its lovable, Don Quixote-like aspect, blundering into you don't know where with the best of intentions and in a kind of inane conceit that you can do some good; but it is irresponsible, so many years after Don Quixote messed up everything he touched, and when there is no shortage of international report, to be quite so determinedly unaware of where you are and what you're doing and what the consequences might be. And that irresponsibility is compounded when you come home having narrowly escaped a lashing or worse, tell everyone what a great time you had and how lovely the people are, and express the hope that what happened to you won't put anybody else off going.

If Gillian Gibbons had no idea what she was letting herself in for when she went an ignorance she is pleased to own up to, as though she considers it a winning foible in herself she appears to have no more idea what happened to her once she got there. As for her refusal to be judgemental about it: at best it is a worthless show of magnanimity if she hasn't a clue what the furore was about or how it relates to the treatment of other women or dissenters in that country, at worst it smacks of Stockholm Syndrome that masochistic compulsion (especially incident to lovers of the simplicities of the Third World) to fall in love with your captors and torturers.

It behoves you if you insist on travelling against my advice that you stay resolutely at home at least to notice where you are. And to bring back a better report from what might be a very intriguing place to mooch around, but must be an ideological hell to live in, than how nice everybody was to you.

The upshot of the whole affair though happy in that Gillian Gibbons has been returned to her family (for the time being, dear God) is a clouding of the issue of free speech. Where we now are is that she made a bit of mistake, that it was a case of cultural misunderstanding, no more, for which she is sincerely sorry. Next time she'll know not to call a teddy bear Mohammed. But all the apology does is make an exception that grants the rule.

With her release it's business as before: half the world can go on thinking it has a right to imprison and execute whenever it considers its feelings hurt. So tell me what, now the dust has settled, is cultural "understanding". Accepting the inhumanity of whatever society one finds oneself in? Acknowledging the primacy of local sensibilities, however closed-minded, however uneducated and raw, however severe the penalties for outraging them?

By virtue of the absurdity of the charge against her, Gillian Gibbon's plight has allowed everyone to paper over the cracks. No Danish cartoon affair, this. Even the most vehemently touchy parties could agree it was an innocent mistake. No harm done because no hurt intended. But where does that leave us if we believe we should be able to give a teddy bear any name we like?

At home, presumably. Until our own hurt-feelings police come knocking.