Sliding down the scale of seriousness, there’s been a drunken student photographed urinating on a memorial to war dead; a stand-up comedian cracking tasteless jokes about soldiers who had lost limbs in conflict; the leader of the BNP igniting vicarious outrage simply by getting himself invited onto a mainstream TV political discussion show; the unintentional hurt (cynically fanned by a daily newspaper) inflicted on a grieving mother by the Prime Minister’s clarity-challenged calligraphy; and let’s not forget the affair of the ‘chocolate hobnob and custard cream’ that mobilised the BBC’s newly adopted culture of compliance to remove an entire helping of the trivial politifications of Andrew Neal, Diane Abbot and Michael Portillo from its output.
But before you praise the Corporation for respecting viewers’ sensitivities, you might reflect on how it went on to score an own goal by brazenly defending a series of crass comic invectives at the expense of Her Majesty and family. There now exists a veritable league table of offence, a marketplace in which ‘my feelings are more offended than yours’ is traded in vengeful currency. What’s more, there is a thriving industry seeking to identify offence where none exists.
There’s no question that sloppy descriptions of individuals – even friends, particularly when there’s a patronising nationality element involved – are unacceptable. The spat over the ‘P word’ on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ generated a predictable chorus of protest, and may have served to concentrate minds about the sheer silliness of such language. It was left to the veteran Brucie to speak out against the mountain created by moles.
There is no defence for deliberate insult, but it’s hard not to wonder whether we have created a raft of professional offence sufferers – the equivalent of hypochondriacs – waiting with pens poised for the slur to drop.
So much depends on culture and sensitivity. Often offence can be caused by ignorance of background or culture – a marketing ploy seized upon by the makers of the TV adverts for HSBC. So the action of an Iraqi journalist tossing his shoes at George Bush, while risible to western eyes, was indeed serious, designed to cause maximum offence.
History also plays a significant role, as place-names, icons or advertising slogans acceptable to one generation sink rapidly into disrepute when they take on negative associations for their successors. Contemporary references now considered offensive would have carried no such original connotations.
In fact, often we get hung up on trivia, such as renaming streets in order to expunge historical slurs, when really it’s the daily prejudice and meanness practised by individuals or states which humiliates and depersonalises, so robbing ordinary folk of their dignity, independence and feeling of being worthwhile; that is more deeply offensive, covert and widespread.
While it is easy to identify the shabby, drunken name- callers in the street, it is far more difficult to combat institutional prying and humiliation. Take, for instance, the branding of good-willed upstanding volunteers as unworthy – or worse, potentially criminally dangerous – if they fail to submit themselves to vetting before having anything remotely to do with children.
There is no question that vulnerable sectors of the population should be shielded from the sort of vicious offence that plays on misfortune, disability, gender or race from prejudice, envy or spite, but the over-indulgent way it is tackled can ultimately lead to the cause being mired in derision. Vying for first prize has to be the ludicrous zealotry of Citizens Advice which substituted ‘blocklisted’ for ‘blacklisted’ in its literature ‘in line with the aims and principles of the Citizens Advice service’. Ah, so that’s OK, then.
But now we are institutionally falling over ourselves to avoid causing offence. According to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, which one has to say does have a vested interest, the ill-conceived Equality Bill, blundering towards the UK statute book with Harriet Harman’s boot firmly wedged on the accelerator pedal, could very well destroy traditional Christmas with its focus on clamping down on traditional celebrations in order not to offend other cultures. In the crusade to impose equality and eradicate offensiveness, more is created.
I read last week that the Advertising Standards Authority had received a fistful of complaints about the latest Marks and Spencer Christmas TV commercial on the grounds that it offends women because actor Gene Hunt is seen to express his ‘blokish’ approval of Noemie Lenoir in her role as lingerie model. At least a subsequent high street straw poll restored some faith in the general public’s appreciation of a seasonal joke. But over time, there have been attempts to ban or amend Biggles, Billy Bunter, the Teletubbies and Enid Blyton’s Noddy to rid them of ‘offending’ overtones.
Even the police are now apparently discouraged to bid a traditional ‘Evening, all’ in case it offends anyone unable to understand the concept of evening!
Don’t tell me we’re losing our sense of humour along with the enforced nannyism imposed in the name of neutered non-offence. Children do like ham toppings on pizzas, playing with rag dolls of whatever colour cloth, while members of our diverse rainbow society aren’t automatically offended by individuals celebrating Christmas, Ramadan, Diwali or Hanukkah. Mercifully, the days of biblically excising offending limbs are long past, or there’d be little chance of extending a hand of greeting or friendship across the very cultural lines the offence police would strive to fortify.