There really should be a single word to describe people who are volubly outraged on behalf of someone they have never met. There is, I suppose, the term "busybodies", but that doesn't quite capture the noise they make.
This week's target for vicarious outrage is the comedian Jimmy Carr. He had made the following remark in last Friday night's show at the Manchester Apollo theatre: "Say what you like about servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a f-----g good Paralympic team in 2012."
If you believe the suspiciously identical reports in various different newspapers, the 2,500-strong audience were "stunned" and "gasped with shock". I'm more inclined to trust the reader who emailed one such paper to say, "I was at the Manchester Apollo that Friday and the audience was not 'stunned into silence'. The place erupted in laughter."
The reason the newspapers described the audience as reacting like dowager virgins at a strip-joint was of course to encourage their readers to be appropriately outraged. A typical headline was the Sunday Express's "Fans stunned as Jimmy Carr insults our Afghan heroes" – presumably relying on their readers not to point out that whatever Carr was trying to say, it was not an insult.
Naturally the MPs were quick to join in the confection of fury – can it ever be a mistake for a politician to rush to the defence of "our boys", even when not invited to do so? According to the Daily Mail, the defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, let it be known that he was "furious" with the comedian, declaring that "our armed forces put their lives on the line and deserve the utmost respect". His Tory Shadow, Liam Fox, said that Carr had "gone beyond the pale". The Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, chairman of the Commons Terrorism sub-committee went further: "It's not funny and this man's career should end right now...it's too late for an apology."
People seldom seem more pointlessly pompous than when they declare a joke to be "not funny"; and as for Carr's career being at an end, I suspect he will still be doing successful stand-up long after everyone has forgotten who Patrick Mercer is – assuming that they knew in the first place.
Above all, I am certain that Jimmy Carr will be much more popular with the squaddies out in Iraq and Afghanistan than any of the politicians who sent them out there into harm's way. This is not least because Carr, unlike Ainsworth apparently, has been a regular visitor to the Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and the neighbouring rehabilitation unit Headley Court, where maimed British soldiers – hundreds each year – are treated within the NHS. He will have witnessed for himself the amazing moral and physical strength required to recover from appalling injuries and trauma – and also the remarkable skills of the medical teams giving the hope of some sort of tolerable life to men who in previous wars would have had little possibility even of survival.
What Carr will also have picked up from his visits to Selly Oak is that those injured soldiers have the blackest of banter, which absolutely does not exclude jokes about their own terrible injuries and those of their colleagues. A friend of mine, whose son is now serving in Afghanistan, tells me that the black humour starts when the injured soldier is being pulled from the wreckage of some bomb blast and his rescuer says, "Can I have your watch, mate?".
Now it is certainly true that what is absolutely acceptable banter between an injured soldier and a colleague who is saving his life would not seem so amusing when uttered by someone who is not part of the regiment. The relationships forged in a regiment during battle are as close as any family tie – in many ways closer – and we all know how family members can make jokes about each other which would be regarded as abhorrent if made by outsiders.
So what do the troops think about Carr's one-liner about their injured colleagues' paralympic potential? The place to look is the Army Rumour Service, known as Arse, the website most used by squaddies to converse with each other online. When I looked yesterday there were 12 pages of comments on Carr's remark and the controversy surrounding it – and I found it very difficult to find a single one which had taken real offence.
Here is a representative cross-section: "I thought it was a cracking comment, much better than his usual 'jokes'"... "The outrage from politicians is a cynical move. Resist it."... "If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have signed up"... "Laughing at life's pain is better than the self-pity that passes for normality these days"... "I had already heard the joke from one of the guys at the Headley Centre who left bits of his body behind in Afghanistan. Typical comedian stealing someone else's joke"... "Just told one of our lads the gag (he lost his leg in Afghan) and he thought it was funny as f---. That will do for me."
That will do for me, too. Perhaps Bob Ainsworth, who still seems rather out of his depth as Defence Secretary, should visit this website – although I fear he will also come across remarks about his Government's handling of the campaign in Afghanistan which will not make it a very enjoyable reading experience.
As I noted at the outset, Jimmy Carr is only the latest to fall foul of those who want to be outraged on behalf of the very people who fail to see what the fuss is all about. Two weeks ago their hate-figure was the X-Factor judge Dannii Minogue. When a male performer, Darryl Johnson, changed the text of a song to make it appear that he was singing a love song to a woman, Minogue remarked, " If we are to believe everything we read in the paper maybe you didn't need to change the gender reference in that song". This was apparently a reference to stories that Mr Johnson is bisexual.
Whoosh! Within days the media watchdog Ofcom had received close to 4,000 complaints on Mr Johnson's behalf. Ms Minogue duly offered a series of grovelling apologies; but the alleged victim of her supposedly deeply hurtful remarks insisted that "I was not at all offended by Dannii's comment. We're completely cool about it and chatted after the show". And again, if you look at the comments on the Pink News website, you will discover that gay readers are much less scandalised than the mainstream tabloid press want them to be.
It is not only the press that is guilty of this misplaced vicarious outrage. It is increasingly the mission of the police to bring the full force of the law against those who might possibly have offended someone, somewhere. For example, it was reported yesterday that a 67-year-old evangelical Christian, Pauline Howe, had been visited and questioned by two police officers, on the grounds that she might have committed a "hate crime".
This was their response to a letter she had written to Norwich City Council, objecting to a local gay pride march, on the admittedly odd grounds that "gay sex is a major cause of sexually transmitted infections". The Norfolk constabulary continued to intone self-righteously that "We will investigate all alleged hate incidents", even after the chief of the gay pressure group Stonewall, Ben Summerskill, had described their knock-on-the-door response to Mrs Howe's letter as "disproportionate."
I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to find the behaviour of those always finding reasons to be outraged on behalf of others to be offensive in itself. It is they who should be made to apologise – for the great crime of pointlessness.
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