There really isn't any harm in causing offence - just ask Mel Brooks

You cannot be a champion of free speech when you like what's being spoken and a gagger of it when you don't

Share
Related Topics

Don't know about yours, but ever since George Bush's re-election my mind has been a pendulum. No sooner did I write last week of being desolated by his victory, than I regretted it. What had become of me? I was sounding like the liberals with whom I inadvertently, as an unfortunate consequence of my profession, mix. It's what comes of going out too much. Go out and you meet people; meet people and you end up sounding like them. People are viral. They rub off on you. The only sensible precaution is to stay in or wear a surgical mask whenever you leave the house.

Don't know about yours, but ever since George Bush's re-election my mind has been a pendulum. No sooner did I write last week of being desolated by his victory, than I regretted it. What had become of me? I was sounding like the liberals with whom I inadvertently, as an unfortunate consequence of my profession, mix. It's what comes of going out too much. Go out and you meet people; meet people and you end up sounding like them. People are viral. They rub off on you. The only sensible precaution is to stay in or wear a surgical mask whenever you leave the house.

So some Christians won an election - what's so desolating about that? So they voted by a narrow majority for the country bumpkin they knew instead of the city slicker they didn't. So they were jumpy and picked someone they thought might protect them. So they craved quiet. So they wanted to keep marriage with all its pains as a preserve of heterosexuals, leaving gays with only fashion, art, the theatre, literature, interior design, show business and the Catholic Church. So they wanted surplus foetuses to be got rid of early rather than late. So fucking what? So they wanted pinko liberals like me to swear less. I don't blame them.

I'm off liberalism. Or at least on this swing of the pendulum I am. I might even be going off liberalism as understood by John Stuart Mill, who was probably the last intelligent liberal there was. It's always been a stand-by of mine, Mill's distinction between harm and offence. Offence being what we are within our rights to cause - what in some cases we positively should cause, in order to keep thought fresh and action bold - harm on the other hand being something for which we are entitled to seek redress. The common mind confuses the two, thinking that if it feels aggrieved in what it believes it has been harmed. Bollocks, says John Stuart Mill. And bollocks have always said I.

This was a central plank of a five-part series about comedy I made for Channel 4 some years ago. The comedian was at liberty, I argued, to cause all the offence he wanted to cause. Indeed his immemorial role in society had been to offend at random and at will. As contemporary examples of which function I cited Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown. I never said I was a particular fan of either, but we inhabit a simple moral universe in which you cannot cite without its being supposed that you approve. All I approved was the function. Standard liberalism, you would have thought. Defending the right to free speech, the more especially when the discourse is comedically disgusting, at once provocative and uncomfortable. But the contemporary liberal has turned liberalism on its head, believing that offence is a good thing only so long as the person offended isn't him. I got slated for giving succour to racists and sexists and no one has asked me to make a five-part series on comedy since. But I know what I know - which is that you cannot be a liberal in bits, a champion of free speech when you like what's being spoken, a gagger of it when you don't.

Come the swing of the pendulum, and I am wondering whether we shouldn't give the whole game away and shut everybody up. What if the bourgeois we've been disconcerting for a century has a right to be protected from our antics after all? What if the distinction between offence and harm is illusory, because offence is harm? Suddenly I recall being on a crowded vaporetto in Venice and having to witness two lesbians making love to each other at about the same distance from my nose as this newspaper is from yours. I don't use the phrase "making love" lightly. The dark one had her tongue so far down the fair one's throat she was in danger of being swallowed whole, a feat of acrobatic extension matched only by the disappearance of the fair one's hand inside - but I prefer to call a halt to the recollection there.

The scene disconcerted me. That it made me wish I were a lesbian goes without saying. Even without external stimulus I often wish I were a lesbian. But it also made me wish I were somewhere else. How it was for people on the vaporetto less sympathetic to acts of overt carnality than I was, less travelled in the imagination, more conventional in upbringing and religion, I can only guess. But they could have fairly claimed an intrusion into their feelings little short of harassment and insult. Some of the things that we are free to do we are not free to rub in someone else's face.

If you don't want fanatics to shoot you in the street, or Christians to vote for Christians, consider their feelings before you speak or act. Leave their faith alone, whatever your private view of it. Leave everybody's faith alone. Go dig your garden. Go offend yourself.

But you know what pendulums do. Having formulated for myself both the political wisdom and the humanity of not causing offence, I take my seat at Mel Brooks's The Producers and am immediately won back to the joys of making fun of absolutely everything. And if "Springtime for Hitler" were to upset some upright German burgher, if the goose-stepping dancers in swastika formation, and the semi-naked showgirls with Bavarian sausages on their heads and baskets of pretzels on their master-race-bearing hips, were to hurt him where his heimat is - what then? I would remind him that the Third Reich was itself a choreographed musical festival of high-kicking kitsch, and then I would apprise him of John Stuart Mill's distinction. It's just offence - deal with it. Heil Hitler.

I am still not returned to liberalism. The Producers is too anarchic in its beneficence to be called liberal. It is unfettered, it is gluttonously profane, it unleashes the power of laughter, and liberals hate all that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of waste ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Representative

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To promote and sell the Company...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Civil Engineering

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Business: This company is going thro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
John Rentoul outside the Houses of Parliament  

If I were Prime Minister...I would be like a free-market version of Natalie Bennett

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea