Wednesday, 17 October 2012

in The Catholic Herald, October 12, 2012

The British public is eager to be offended.
By Patrick West

There is something about "Muslim anger" that many in the West find difficult to comprehend. How can representations of Mohammed in a YouTube video, a film that barely anyone saw, or cartoons in French or Danish publications, which hardly anyone read, generate such a violent reaction? As Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad, wrote after the events: "The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed."

This perplexity, however, is often combined with a feeling of superiority. The ostensibly touchy and childish behaviour of some Muslims is depicted in contrast to our open, secular society, which is sufficiently mature to deal with offensive images and films. Many Christians, for instance, objected to
The Life of Brian, but the Monty Python team didn't go into hiding for two decades as a consequence. But such smugness is unwarranted, as we in the West have our own form of secular blasphemy. It¹s called "being offensive".

Last year two Christians in Brighton were arrested for displaying a giant banner of a 10-week-old aborted child outside an abortion clinic. After receiving complaints from the public, police asked the protesters to take down the "offensive" banner. They refused and late last month the pair were put on trial but cleared on the grounds of "lack of evidence".

You may disagree with the pair¹s actions. Such photographs could upset children or women about to undergo an abortion. On the other hand, graphic images on cigarette packets aren't very nice either. But society isn't in denial about smoking. The issue here is that (as I saw on the local news) one police officer had reportedly informed the couple: "I find these images offensive." It's not the job of the police to have opinions, of course, but it's not surprising that even they have become sensitive souls these days.

Consider the furore concerning the chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who allegedly called a police officer a "----ing pleb" after refusing to dismount his bicycle at the gates to Downing Street. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation responded that there was an "inbuilt dislike of the police service in general", while the Surrey Police Federation called
Mitchell "a bully". Some suggested that the police are trying to play the victim card in the wake of the Hillsborough report. And I imagine that policemen have been called worse names than "pleb".

Being "offensive" is increasingly a wider police matter. Earlier this year a Welsh student was imprisoned for two months for sending offensive messages on Twitter to a seriously ill footballer, while another "troll" was arrested in a dawn raid for typing nasty things about the diver Tom Daley. Twitter can certainly bring out the worst in people, leading them to hurl disgusting abuse from the safety of their keyboards, but it's concurrently an avenue to censor people who are "offensive". Last year a group of writers launched a campaign against "misogynistic trolling" on the internet, including everything from "threats of rape" to comments that are "strongly and
personally antagonistic towards feminism"  thereby conflating threats of violence with expressing a political opinion: two very different things.

The comedian Frankie Boyle landed himself in trouble last month for making jokes about the Paralympics on Twitter, provoking a Mencap spokesman to say it would be disappointing if Channel 4's coverage of the Paralympics was
"undermined by providing a comedian who has repeatedly caused profound offence to disabled people opportunities to do so again". A statement from the station replied: "Frankie Boyle was tweeting from his personal account and not on behalf of Channel 4. He is not under contract and there are no
shows planned with him."

Frankie Boyle isn't Alan Titchmarsh or Pam Ayres. You don't expect sweetness and light from him. Being offensive is what Frankie Boyle does. Still, members of the public are eager to be offended, because being offended permits one to be a victim, as victimhood bequeaths righteousness. The
emotive, subjective argument that used to be confined to traumatised guests on the Kilroy show years ago  "How would you like it if happened to you!?" has become the unspoken mantra for a society in which personal feeling counts for expertise.

Twitter is a perfect avenue for the lonely and unhappy to give meaning to their lives. It gives the powerless the illusion of power. This is what causes people to get "outraged" about silly articles in the Daily Mail they haven't read, Page 3 girls in a newspaper they never buy or pictures of topless royalty they haven't seen.

Recently Gerry Adams described as "deeply hurtful" allegations that he sanctioned the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, which I imagine is an invitation to "feel his pain". Back then in the 1970s football fans were caged behind perimeter fences to stop them misbehaving. Now they are micromanaged, facing arrest for swearing or "indecent chanting". Such is the insidious nature of our "You can't say that" culture.

It is often remarked that profanities and jokes are signifiers of society's taboos. You aren't going to cause a stir in polite society today if you take the Lord's name in vain, but you will if you use a coarse description of female genitalia. You will certainly get into trouble if you make the kind of jokes Bernard Manning did 40 years ago non-ironically. Andrew Mitchell's sin was not in using the F-word, but the P-word - pleb - as class snobbery is taboo but the usage of vulgar Anglo-Saxon isn't.

In our current climate of censoriousness and fear of causing offence, I bet The Satanic Versus wouldn't get published if it were written today - not for being blasphemous, but for "hurting people's feelings". This is to say, all societies have taboos and associated transgressions. Anyone who thinks a
nominally liberal and secular society is consequently free of intolerance must be joking. 

Patrick West is a columnist for

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