I'm sorry, but we take offence too easily

Britain is becoming ever more rude and violent, and yet is developing a hypersensitivity to words and images
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The Independent Online

I was meant to go on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House yesterday, but had to withdraw for unavoidable reasons and I am truly sorry, both because I let down the programme producers and because they were debating a seriously important subject - causing offence. Britain is becoming ever more raucous, rude, quarrelsome, inconsiderate and violent, and yet at the same time it is also developing a collegiate hypersensitivity to words and images. Baffling, that. We are becoming an offence-averse population, walking down the same road that has led to our culture becoming risk averse, so citizens feel they have an inalienable right to good fortune and an ever longer life with no pain, no accidents, even no discomfort.

I was meant to go on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House yesterday, but had to withdraw for unavoidable reasons and I am truly sorry, both because I let down the programme producers and because they were debating a seriously important subject - causing offence. Britain is becoming ever more raucous, rude, quarrelsome, inconsiderate and violent, and yet at the same time it is also developing a collegiate hypersensitivity to words and images. Baffling, that. We are becoming an offence-averse population, walking down the same road that has led to our culture becoming risk averse, so citizens feel they have an inalienable right to good fortune and an ever longer life with no pain, no accidents, even no discomfort.

And now there is a growing demand that we must not be offended - that groups, nationalities, political parties and individuals must never find themselves rocked by criticisms, satire, verbal attacks, art, or the probability that some of the people around them don't like their sort.

I have misgivings as this trend accelerates, and I say so as someone who has never believed that we should be free to speak, whatever the cost. I think words can destroy people, peace and possibilities and that nobody would be happy living in a wild-scape with no social constraints. Only a tiny number of fundamentalist libertarians want such a place. Everybody else is struggling with where the lines should be drawn, and by whom, in this complex, multifarious, unequal, heterogeneous democracy. These limits are currently being tested to the full.

The Jewish Board of Deputies is not giving up the hunt for the scalp of Ken Livingstone, who crassly insulted a Jewish journalist from the London Evening Standard and has refused to apologise for likening him to a Nazi concentration camp guard. In his own defence, Livingstone has wheeled out his own victim credentials, alleging that the Standard and its sister newspaper, the Daily Mail, have hounded him and his family for decades. Maybe, but if he was that appalled, why did he write for the Standard and invite the editor out to lunch?

Then Boris Johnson threw in his own bit of mischief, defending Ken and complaining bitterly about a mania for apologies stalking this once quiet land. We know why. He is feeling offended that he had to apologise to Liverpool for his low, heartless verbal assault on the city and its propensity for displays of public grief. Liverpudlians were mightily offended by Johnson. Meanwhile, sectors of the public are outraged that "the Jewish lobby" is trying to bring down their Ken, the king of political correctness when it comes to gays, minorities and women.

And while this row burns, another one is set alight. The British Council (which is respected around the world, even after our recent foreign policy disasters) has caused offence to the right-wing press. The pack has torn into the council, accusing it of giving a negative image of this country, by mounting a remarkable touring photographic exhibition, called Common Ground. In it, eight photographers have captured the diversity, the joy and the challenges of British Muslim life. There are young women in hijab and others sporting the Union Jack. I wrote the text, and have been denounced for saying there are young Muslim men who are emotionally homeless - racism makes them feel they cannot belong here and their own parents tell them they belong to the countries they left behind. Should I have lied then? Pretended that there is no racism in Britain so Johnny Foreigner out there can still believe in the myth of supreme British toleration?

Not since the Satanic Verses have we seen such relentless conflagrations over the freedom to speak and the clamour not to be offended. Then, I took the view that the fatwa was wholly wrong, but that so was the demonisation of all Muslims, at the time a powerless group. But times have changed. Today, Muslims have real influence and have even got the promise of a new law to protect citizens against religious incitement. But this has only made them more dogmatic and solipsistic.

Muslim cultural soldiers are always out seeking out miscreants and finding ways of silencing them. And others are joining the competition of the misrepresented. Recently, Behzti, the controversial play by the young Sikh woman playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, was forced off the stage by some enraged Sikh warriors defending the reputation of their faith, and the BBC was stormed by Christian protesters objecting to the decision to broadcast the musical, Jerry Springer - The Opera. Earlier, Catholics had managed to get a cartoon series off the air which they claimed was offensive. You are not permitted to question Fathers 4 Justice; you cannot blame the black street culture for social problems; you cannot claim that British racism has new friends among anti-immigration liberals; you cannot talk about the savagery of forced marriages; you cannot accuse the two major parties of inviting hatred against the most voiceless. If you do, molten odium flows into your life.

These forces are creeping into education too. Criminally narrow-minded white parents object to their children being taught about Diwali (shock, horror) and disgracefully bigoted Muslims parents reject the nativity play. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, was absolutely right when he warned last week that we should worry so many children are being denied access to classic writers because they are thought inappropriate, perhaps offensive. Why shouldn't a black student be taught Flaubert? And do they read Benjamin Zephaniah at Eton? In her tender book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi describes how great literature liberated her female students and deepened their thinking.

Individuals, too, are becoming excessively thin skinned. Columnists couldn't do their jobs if they let themselves feel too offended too often. I write back to BNP supporters if I think they want to engage in real arguments and to Asian and black Britons who object to any criticisms on the grounds that, as oppressed people, they must be protected from penetrating scrutiny. I even forced myself to reply to two readers who want to kill me - one an American and the other an Arab Muslim.

The disease of over-sensitivity is spreading fast and to people who don't know they are carriers. A friend accused me of upsetting her because I often criticise drunken behaviour.

While it is essential to keep constraints on free speech (otherwise we would have to accept extreme xenophobic language, anti-Semitic sentiments and gratuitous verbal abuse), we have got to move in the direction of greater interactive liberalisation, to become more robust, to learn endurance and honest exchange.

Countries - including ours and the United States - are using more official censorship and sliding into an acceptance of speech and thought control. Community leaders are pushing for an indemnity from censure. Artists and entertainers already feel they have to keep away from dangerous waters in order to get grants and an outlet for their work. The media is both a censor and victim of increasing restraints. In this perilous landscape, it is an unforgivable indulgence to cry offence as much and as often as we do.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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