In my university the sign above the entrance would read: ‘Taking offence is nugatory’

A principle is at stake: offence, however deep the cut, does not sanction silencing

Howard Jacobson
Friday 18 December 2015 18:54
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Benedict Cumberbatch in Zoolander 2
Benedict Cumberbatch in Zoolander 2

Anybody know what’s happened to the petition to boycott the film Zoolander 2 prior to its release on account of Benedict Cumberbatch’s role in it as “the biggest androgynous supermodel in the world”? I went away, a few weeks ago, just as the petition was gathering traction, and now I’m back the tumult seems to have subsided.

That’s not a complaint. I wish neither Cumberbatch nor the film ill. I just don’t like not being up to speed in these matters. If something or someone is being banned, I want to be among the first to know about it.

The newspapers could be of more assistance in keeping us abreast of the progress of those witch-hunts which have become the defining characteristic of our age. Do you remember The Times when it was the organ of the establishment and so big you could read it naked in your club and not upset whoever was breakfasting at the next table? Somewhere very prominent – I might be wrong in imagining it was the front page – it used to carry a Court Circular which informed you not just of the comings and goings of royal personages and their footmen, but the visits of unsuitable foreign dignitaries and the wild doings of debutantes. Now it’s tucked away where you can’t find it. So much for the age we live in.

Well, what I propose is a version of the Court Circular, prominently positioned as in the good old days, listing the latest bans and boycotts: who is snubbing whom and why, the day’s petitions to expel a politician from office, remove a boxer from contention as sports personality of the year, whatever a sports personality is, keep an American presidential hopeful out, stop the showing of a film because Benedict Cumberbatch disrespects a transgender supermodel in it and therefore, by illegitimate implication, disrespects all transgender supermodels.

A sort of rolling trolling diary is what I envisage, detailing every person currently suffering harassment and abuse for entertaining views contrary to whatever they shouldn’t be contrary to. That way we would know at a glance who the nation’s villains are without having to go hunting for their names. And then, maybe a list of the people doing the harrying so we would know at a glance who the nation’s fools are.

Cumberbatch must be pondering the fickle nature of reputation. Only a few weeks ago, just moments after flights of angels had sung his Hamlet to his final sleep, he was haranguing audiences about Syrian refugees. “Fuck the politicians,” he had declared, to rapturous applause.

Theatre audiences love it when you throw them a fuck out of character. Throw a good cause after it and they are yours for ever. And in the spring he had been a petitioner himself, calling to overturn verdicts of gross indecency passed on homosexual men in those dark days when all human sexuality but the boring sort was illegal. Another unimpeachably good cause. And yet within a year, let me not think on’t. Hero to zero within a little year.

If I say I hope the petition against Zoolander 2 has run out of steam, it isn’t because I am unsympathetic to the concerns of the androgyne/trans/non-binary individuals who were originally offended by it, albeit on the strength of a trailer and a publicity handout. But there’s a principle at stake: offence, however deep the cut, does not sanction silencing.

That should be the first sentence anyone enrolling at a university hears. Good morning, students. Welcome to a liberal education where you will encounter, if we are doing our job right, much that will distress and infuriate you. The indignation you have been expressing on your first morning here, voting for the banning of all jokes and the removal from office of every lecturer with whose views you suspect you will soon be disagreeing, does you credit, but adds nothing to the sum of human reason. So you are offended by Zoolander 2. Who isn’t? Of course a satire which is directed against you hurts; that is precisely its point. Would you live in a world that has none? No ridicule because you are its object? No mockery, though mockery is the breath of life? Punch the following into your phones – giving offence is sacred, taking offence is nugatory. That’s n...u...g... Oh, and try to remember how much you liked Benedict the day before yesterday.

But two days are a long time in the politics of pain. And those who should be counselling against the fashion for fraught nerves are shamefully surrendering to it. Not long ago, an eccentric Nobel prize-winner with profuse nostril hair – I mention this only to highlight his carelessness as to effect – was relieved of his duties for making a joke which, inter alia, had women as its object. An element of the joke was that women cry easily, whereupon a number of them did precisely that and there was his career sunk. The world waited for the academic institution that employed him to come to its senses, but it didn’t. For universities go in fear now of the massed neuroses of their students or junior staff and, rather than risk a confrontation, capitulate to them.

The latest sacrifice on the altar of the thin-skinned is David Starkey, also once the nation’s darling, but now banned from appearing in a Cambridge University promo because of his racist, classist and no doubt anti-androgyne/trans/non-binary views. Since Starkey chose to play the jester on television it has become more and more difficult to be certain what his views are. Only a blockhead would assume he believes what he says, since part of his comic shtick is to offend the faint of heart and bemuse the literal of mind. That doesn’t make him the nicest of company, but Cambridge University isn’t a kindergarten. We entertain a diversity of opinions and ways of expressing them here – somebody should be saying – not all of them sympathetic. This is a place of learning, not a sanatorium. If you can’t handle contrariety, you shouldn’t be here.

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