The offence epidemic

03 Nov 2009 0

Never mind swine flu, it seems to me that the major public health threat of the day is an epidemic of taking – or claiming to take – ‘offence’ at things we see and hear in the media. Mass offence has been triggered in recent months by the writings, utterances and actions of Russell Brand, Carol Thatcher, Jan Moir, Anton du Beke, Jimmy Carr, AA Gill and many more.

But what does it really mean when people claim to be offended by a TV programme, a newspaper article, or (in the cases of du Beke, Thatcher and others) a personal comment to which they weren’t privy?

The first thing to understand is that a lot of people love taking offence. There are people who want to be offended and want to be seen to be offended. They want to stand proudly on the moral high ground breathing in the air. Charlie Brooker offers a lovely portrait of these people here. They tend to read the Daily Mail – but not always – sometimes the Mail is the object of their outrage.

Tim Black of Spiked called the recent explosion of offence taking over Jan Moir’s Mail article on the death of Steven Gately “a spectacle of feelings, a seething mass of self-affirming emotional incontinence, a carnival of first person pronouns and expressions of hurt and proxy offence”.

The next thing to understand is that, as Black highlights with the term ‘proxy offence’, much of the supposed offence claimed is on behalf of others, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. The language of offence hints at this: things can be described as ‘offensive’ even when no-one has said that they themselves were ‘offended’ by them. We’re all walking on eggshells trying not to hurt the feelings of a super-sensitive someone who may or may not exist.

Then there’s the media’s role. They fan the flames, of course, but often they get the fire going in the first place as well. Take the case of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s treatment of Andrew Sachs on Radio 2 last year. I agree that their behaviour was wrong, I’m not surprised Sachs was upset, and he deserved the apology he got. But of the 38,000 people who complained to the BBC, how many could honestly say they themselves were ‘offended’ by the broadcast? In the week after the show was broadcast to 400,000 people, the total number of complaints received was two. It was only after the Mail on Sunday reported the prank that a further 37,998 people decided they too had been offended.

If people haven’t been paying sufficient attention to be offended first time around, journalists are more than happy to reproduce the offending material to give them another chance. The papers feign outrage and position themselves as the defenders of morality, but their real role is often to deliver the outrageous material to us, and then loudly denounce it. They are at once the offender and the offended. This dual role seems to come naturally to the Mail, but was turned back on it recently by Twitterers who forwarded the link to Jan Moir’s homophobic piece on Steven Gately – simultaneously distributing the article and calling for it to be removed. That’s just daft.

Comedian Jimmy Carr also felt the wrath of Twitter-fuelled offence-by-proxy when he told a joke about injured servicemen. Anyone who’s familiar with Jimmy Carr won’t be surprised by this – he tiptoes the boundaries of taste, and is very popular for it. The joke in question wasn’t noticeably more distasteful than other things he and his peers have said. Some of the reports say the gag met with stunned silence. Others say people laughed. Almost all of them reprint the joke in full. Very soon the stupid snowball of proxy offence got rolling, the joke was repeated more than Carr could ever have hoped or feared, and now all sorts of important people who weren’t there have claimed they were offended by it. Carr tried in vain to point out that he has demonstrated support for injured servicemen in the past, and to argue that maybe an edgy joke highlighting the horror of war might not be such a bad thing. But eventually he apologised and dropped the joke from his routine. I don’t blame him for doing so, but I do think it’s a shame.

Another example came when Strictly Come Dancing star Anton du Beke called co-contestant Laila Rouass a ‘Paki’ in an off-air exchange that (are you seeing the pattern yet?) was later picked up by the press. Clearly a racist comment, clearly not acceptable. Rouass had the right to be seriously offended. But was I offended? No, because I wasn’t there. Frankly it’s a matter for Rouass and du Beke, who, let’s not forget, are both grown-ups. None of this stopped thousands of people claiming ‘offence’ – once the News of the World told them about it.

Everyone has the right to take offence from time to time, but we also have the right to give it. Anything might cause offence, and if we went through life trying to second guess other people’s feelings all the time, we’d be much poorer for it.

All this matters because ‘offence’, sometimes first-hand, sometimes second-hand, is becoming such a powerful force in society. It fills newspaper pages, fills heads, fills afternoons, derails careers, shatters reputations, distorts public discourse, forces insincere apologies from people who shouldn’t have to give them, and stifles public expression by indulging a childish view that we have a right not to hear things we don’t like. The offended people get on their high horses, make a terrible racket, define the media coverage and shape the debate. And often they end up getting appeased: Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, Jimmy Carr and Anton du Beke all apologised, Carol Thatcher got sacked, and in the case of Jan Moir, the PCC was so overwhelmed with emails that it had to break with its usual policy of only dealing with complaints from people ‘directly affected’ by an article. This is all very bad for our democracy, in which we’re supposed to be able to say what we want, and not worry too much if people don’t like it.

So I’m afraid it comes down to this: If you’re easily offended, you can kiss my arse.

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