It's PC gone mad! How did taking offence become a national obsession?

Michael Bywater
Thursday 12 February 2009 01:00

I'm sorry. I'm very sorry, but I don't accept those bankers' apologies. I found them offensive. A preening pack of middle-aged white men in suits, parroting the instructions of their PR advisers. Utterly insincere. An apology was not enough. A heart attack would have been better. One each. Or a stroke, just like the new NHS advertisements: face droops, arms fall limply by the side, meaningless drivel issues from the mouth, and their head catches fire.

I'm sorry if that offends any middle-aged white men. I apologise if my remarks have been misconstrued to cause offence to people in suits, or to the suit-making industry, which is struggling in these difficult times, and about time, too; frankly I wouldn't care if they all went belly-up and the bankers had to walk around naked with their shrivelled privates dangling beneath their smug little white paunches. I apologise for saying I wouldn't care if they all went belly-up. I also apologise for any offence I may have given to people with shrivelled privates. I am sorry if my remarks have offended heart-attack or stroke victims. I apologise to anyone whose head has caught fire, and I am sorry I said "victims" when the correct phrase is "persons of heart attack" or "cerebrally vascular-accidented individuals". I also apologise to anyone who may have found my finding the bankers' apologies offensive, offensive.

On the other hand, I do wonder what the hell is going on and why everyone has become such milquetoasts, so sensitive and quick to be affronted and just so generally bloody wet.

I apologise to everyone for calling them affronted, sensitive, wet bloody milquetoasts.

I find this constant clamour for apology offensive. I demand a full apology.

I am a man of the Zeitgeist. The cringe has become the posture du jour. (I apologise for the use of the phrase "du jour" which may cause offence as being élitist and hurtful to non-francophones.) (I apologise for putting the accent on "elitist".)

But it has gone on long enough. We are tired of it, and if you don't agree, be quiet. Your opinion is worthless and all your friends make hand gestures behind your back when you go to the loo. Some even follow you in and make hand gestures outside the cubicle. You didn't know that, did you? You thought it was cruising homosexuals, overcome by desire but they couldn't pick the cubicle lock because security staff had taken away their Leatherman tools. I apologise for the implication that homosexuals "cruise" in "loos". I apologise for the possibly offensively homophobic use of the word "Leatherman" when I could have said "Gerber" or "Victorinox", but I just couldn't resist a cheap gag. Fortunately, I have been able to resist the cheap gag about the phrase "cheap gag" or I would have to top myself.

I apologise to friends and families of suicide victims for saying "top myself". I apologise, though I am not sure to whom, for wondering whether there might not be something logically iffy about the phrase "suicide victims". Let's not go there.

I apologise if that last remark offends anyone who has gone there, particularly against their will. Slaves. Descendants of slaves. Soldiers. GI brides. Travelling salesmen. People who thought the satnav knew what the hell it was talking about. Everyone. We've all been there. Sorry. OK? Sorry.

Enough of this offended lark and apology twazzocks. We've flogged it to death, and I am damned if I will apologise for my use of "flogged" which may offend victims of flogging. (I apologise for my use of the word "damned" as I now realise it may cause of offence to the differently afterlifed.)

Twenty years since Salman Rushdie got into trouble for saying – and I will not be gagged here – "Mmmph mm mmph mmmphmm mmph" and still on it goes. Rushdie offended an entire religion of several, disparate oral theologies, most of whom thought, "Bit tasteless," and a small minority of whom thought "Let's whack the bugger." The ensuing brouhaha and consequent expense proved conclusively that the sword is actually much mightier than the pen.

But Rushdie is a man of letters, and a subtle one. I remember going round to supper at Terry Jones's house. The former Python's wife rang me that lunchtime to check I was coming, which was unusual. I arrived with a large, clanking bag full of none of your business. "What's that?" she said. "The usual," I said, "bombs, daggers, grenades, ninja throwing-stars." The following conversation then took place:

Her: Ha ha ha!

Me: Ha ha ha!

Armed policeman, appearing from front room: Er, have you got any vinegar, Mrs Jones, just that my wife's given me beetroot sandwiches and they need a bit more vinegar.

Her: Right ho.

Armed policeman disappears back into front room.

Me: Who was that?

Her: One of Salman's bodyguards.

Me: Oh.

Her: Salman's come to supper.

Me: But what about all that stuff I said? About bombs and daggers?

Her: They probably thought you were joking.

But Salman had clearly refined his insulting methodologies since The Satanic Verses. Over supper it came out that I was off to Australia the following day to do some research for a book.

"Going to Alice Springs?" said Salman.

"Should think so," I said.

"Read Bruce's book about the songlines?" he said. "It's called The Songlines."

"Yes," I said.

"There's a chap in Alice Springs. An Aboriginal bloke," said Salman.

He explained how I could locate this man. "Ask him about Bruce," he said. "Just say to him, 'What did you make of Bruce Chatwin?'"

"Why?" I said. "What about Chatwin?"

"No no no," said Salman, wagging an admonitory finger. "No; I don't want to poison your mind against Bruce."

It was masterly, way beyond calling Gordon Brown a one-eyed Scottish idiot. The effect was permanent, and even a professional affrontee, a bought-and-paid-for mollycoddler, a single-issue, moist-eyed taker-of-offence with all the intellectual and moral qualities of a toothless hag crying stinking fish on the Piraeus dockside... even such a one as that could not have found anything to rail against or to demand an apology for.

Sir Salman eventually did apologise for the "offence" he gave to Muslims, which must have been a bit offensive to those Muslims who didn't think their God or their Prophet needed defending against something a fictional character said in a novel which had been made up (by a chap who went to Oundle); equally offensive to those Muslims who are just Muslims in the way so many Englishmen are C of E: because of an accident of birth and an affable inclination to go with the flow. And where does that leave all those other religions that believe Islam is mistaken and that Mohammed (peace be upon him, no more nor less than any other man) (or, of course, woman) may have been a very interesting chap but was not a prophet, including the subset that believes that God/Allah is altogether nonsensical and that the Creator of the Universe lives in a hole in a tree, look, that tree, no, the one next to it, see? Would they not find Sir Salman's apology offensive? Would it not have been logical to demand he therefore apologise for the apology?

Didn't think of that, did they? They would now.

The apology has become the defining gesture of the age. Russell Brand had to apologise for making off-colour remarks. Jeremy Clarkson – a man who would eat his own testicles rather than petition for an apology, even though he'd have to remove them from his own personal brain where they've been living for all these years – had to apologise for making a startlingly fine joke about lorry drivers, and, subsequently for calling Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" at a press conference in Australia. His calling Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" would probably have escaped much attention had it not been for the BBC – powerfully complicit in driving the Apology Culture – publishing on its website a video of Clarkson calling Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" accompanied by a story saying that Clarkson's calling Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot" had "provoked anger in Scotland".

We might find some comfort across the Atlantic, where the Apology Culture has become even tackier and more insane than here. President Obama apologised for the sins of his cabinet appointees, on five different TV networks in seven different ways. This wasn't for something he had done. It wasn't for something other people had done who had falsely got into positions of power. Obama was apologising for something two other people had done who hadn't got into positions of power because what they'd done had been found out. So what (we might ask) was President Obama actually apologising for?

Modern life has become a blizzard of breast-beating and self-excoriation. Carol Thatcher will have to apologise for not apologising unreservedly for saying in a private conversation that a tennis player reminded her of a golliwog. Whether her apology for not apologising unreservedly will have to be an unreserved apology, or just an ordinary one, remains to be seen. Certainly, the "private occasion" defence no longer works: in the surveillance age, no communication or action is private once it has been made public.

We have had apologies for drug use (Alex Rodriguez, a baseball player), for drug abuse (Michael Phelps, a man who won more medals than most countries, but who took a hit at a bong), for holocaust denial (Bishop Richard Williamson), for not knowing about Bishop Williamson's holocaust denial (the Pope), for hugging a classmate (a five-year-old girl in Massachusetts), for 700 years of persecution (the Pope, to the Knights Templar: petition made but not yet granted) and for misinterpreting the phrase "be careful" (the TV programme American Idol, which one of the show's judges thought was a threat but which was in fact a well-known version of "goodbye" in the South). A Selby councillor had to apologise to her colleagues for forwarding an email allegedly drawing attention to abuses of human rights under Sharia law but which was really drawing attention to the fact that it was a hoax. And in all this, we're left wondering what the offence was, and what the apology was intended to deliver.

Take the Clarkson insult, which "provoked anger in Scotland". Never mind the anger; that's the default "ON" position in the red-top universe. We go straight from a supine apathy to anger. Nothing in between; and since supine apathy never sold papers, the base-line posture is inarticulate rage.

This kind of rage is what you might call a "hubry", a word I just made up and which derives from the Greek, hubris. A hubry is a symbol or a behaviour supposed to indicate the empowered status of the individual concerned, but in fact indicates the exact opposite. Driving aggressively in your company Mondeo is a hubry: it's supposed to say you're potent and like mega-alpha, right? But actually it says your a twat. BlackBerrying on holiday: another hubry, saying not that you're a hot shot, but a minion, not allowed to be out of touch ever. And anger, affrontedness and the taking of offence are military-grade hubries, revealing, not superhuman sensitivity but a petty, snivelling, clerkish powerlessness. If sentimentality is addressing the unaddressable, anger is sentimentality with an ape-scowl, and the apology is its obverse. So much for anger, but what of the anger Clarkson supposedly "provoked"?

First of all, he didn't provoke it. He didn't sit there thinking: "I know: I'll make Scottish people angry." He sat there thinking: "Gordon Brown's a clod. What a bozo. The fellow's a complete dork. And I'm so going to say so." It was the people of Scotland (and how many people do you need to be angry before you can talk about "anger in Scotland"?) who made themselves angry because the media told them they should be. But why? Clarkson didn't say that all Scottish people are one-eyed. He didn't say that all one-eyed people are idiots. He didn't say that Scottish people are idiots. What he said was:

1) Gordon Brown is one-eyed.

2) Gordon Brown is Scottish.

3) Gordon Brown is an idiot.

So (we might ask) what the hell is it that those angry Scottish people were angry about? They can't be angry at the notion that a Scotchman can be an idiot, since the idiot is a staple of Scottish mythology; no other nation would take the majestically drunken Glasgow numpty to its heart with such joy. They can't be angry that Gordon Brown has one eye, since having one eye is (a) a mild misfortune and (b) considered raffish, piratical and sexy war-wound.

So the only thing left is that they are angry because Gordon Brown is Scottish. Which is not something Clarkson can apologise for.

But in the end it was the roll-over-and-whimper BBC that demanded the apology, bowing from pressure to the RNIB, which with startling illogicality announced that "any suggestion that equates disability with incompetence is totally unacceptable", despite the fact that Clarkson's comment was not an equation. An equation is something like 1 + 2 = 3; Clarkson's comment simply said "1, 2, 3" which is a different thing: a playground jibe battening on idiosyncracies, just as I was called "four-eyes" and a chap who wore a leg-brace was called "Twizzle", and another boy who had an odd tic he did with his jaw was called "Crick". We are designed to spot differences and I was no more excluded or disliked for being Four-Eyes than Crick was for clicking his jawbone in Geog (Mr Clarke) or Twizzle was for creaking.

I've dwelt on Clarkson's insult,not because it was egregious (though it was splendid, and will remain with Brown for ever) but because it's easy to analyse. And analysis – clear thinking – is something that's been overwhelmed by the knee-jerk, sound-bite hubriasts of the politically correct.

People like an apology. Something our mothers used to say went like this:

Mother: Apologise. Us, mumbling: Sorry.

Mother: Say it as if you mean it.

The truth behind this is the words "as if". No mother wants us to mean it because they know we don't. What they want is for us to fake it against our will. As William Miller points out in his book Faking It. "The fake apology," Miller observes, "is often better than the genuine, 'meant' one, because the obvious fake, issued through gritted teeth, has equally obviously cost the apologiser more effort to make, and thus includes penance as well as self-abasement."

That's partly why we felt dissatisfied with the Four Bankers on Tuesday. Coached by their PRs, they were too smooth, too comfortable with their dissimulation. We wanted to see them sweat, stare at the ground and finally apologise with absolute insincerity, through gritted teeth. (The other reason we were dissatisfied was because they may have gone through the motions of apology but we want them to lose all their money, just like they've lost all ours. Simply foregoing this year's bonus is not enough. We want to see them in council houses, on benefits, eating own-brand beans.)

We might wonder why there's so much emphasis on words. These aren't "performative" words like a judge declaring you bankrupt. These aren't words which change anything, neither, often, are they the original words or the words of apology. Perhaps we get so heated up about words because, whatever those who play at Security Theatre may want us to think (and they mostly want us to feel frightened), the modern world is a very safe place. Most of the time, the only thing we have to worry about is words, and it's notable that it is the affluent middle class who are insisting on the absolute blandness of public discourse, perhaps from a sort of valorising of feelings. When your survival is guaranteed, when you're warm and well-fed and sheltered and clean and free of disease, what else is there to worry about, to pick over and fiddle with and endlessly obsess over, than your feelings? And, by extension, everyone else's feelings, too.

Despite its best beliefs and its self-image as edgy, incisive, au courant, the BBC remains the great moral cathedral of the affluent middle class. It's no surprise that it has appointed itself the guardian of the Apology Culture; nor that its own website's Have Your Say section is populated by the most savage knuckleheaded bigotry and Little Englander protectionism anywhere in the British media. Readiness to be affronted and insistence on apology is not about equality or fairness, but about intolerance, of error and of mockery. It is a ludicrous hubry. Do we really want to be like that? And does anyone remember asking the BBC to appoint itself Enforcer-General?

What offends you? Carol Thatcher's attitude to multicultural Britain, Russell Brand's telephone manner? Or are you more offended by those who try to tell us what we can and cannot say? Join the debate at

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