Tiffany Jenkins: War on words keeps prejudice in the closet
HATE speech and nasty ideas should be subjected to open argument, not hastily shushed.
‘You can’t say that” is the mantra of our age. Every month, if not more often, someone cries “offence” in public – on Twitter, in the newspapers or on TV, and a fury of condemnation is released before whoever transgressed has to apologise for something they said.
Last week, to no-one’s surprise, comic Frankie Boyle targeted the Paralympics with his intentionally nasty humour. He typed predictable jibes about the athletes into Twitter, which acts like a megaphone, and lo and behold, charities complained, disabled pundits were found who would object, and Channel 4 distanced itself from the comic.
This incident may seem trivial, but it joins a long list of spats over words that are united by an outraged response, that are followed by an apology, or more severely – a sacking or a fine, and which silences discussion. Ricky Gervais was recently slapped down after using the word “mong”. In April, it was the turn of Alan Davis, a gentle comedian, when he complained about Liverpool’s refusal to play games on 15 April (in memory of the 96 Liverpool supporters who were crushed to death at Hillsborough), and had a dressing-down that forced him to say sorry and make a donation to the Hillsborough campaign as penance.
Even Jeremy Clarkson has to watch what he says after various gaffs, including a silly joke about shooting workers who strike, which led to trade union leaders joining the Twitterati to demand he be sacked.
Today, saying anything at all that might be misinterpreted on issues to do with race has major ramifications. Carol Thatcher wasn’t as lucky as Clarkson when, not so long ago, she referred – in private – to a French-Congolese tennis player as a “golliwog” and was reported by someone who overheard to the BBC, which sacked her, despite her public grovelling. Just last month, footballer Rio Ferdinand was fined £45,000 by the Football Association for using the phrase “choc ice” on Twitter. He was charged with making improper comments that included a reference to ethnic origin.
I don’t find Thatcher, Clarkson or Jervais that funny; or at all funny, as it happens. I do not follow footballers’ tweets; but something is serious wrong when a joke or a jibe, or an attempt to articulate a point of view that goes against the grain, is rapidly and rabidly silenced.
For the list goes on. A couple of weeks back, a tirade was unleashed against men talking about rape. In the dock was George Galloway, for his defence of Julian Assange’s alleged behaviour in Sweden – which he suggested was “bad sexual etiquette”, not rape, before the hysterical response forced him to “clarify” his position. Bearing the brunt alongside him was US congressman Todd Akin, for saying that a woman’s body prevents itself from becoming pregnant through “legitimate” rape. Last year, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke tried to discuss the definition of rape, and was pretty much told to shut up.
What Galloway, Akin and Clarke said, it was suggested by countless critics, was outrageous and beyond the pale. Their words, it was claimed, would silence women, preventing them from reporting the crime. Only the female sex is permitted to comment, it would seem, on such matters.
I shouldn’t have to clarify my position here, but I know I have to, such is the desire to take offence and the minefield it creates. I don’t agree with the old boys, although rape is far from as clear-cut as the frenzied response suggested. But the consequences of the reaction to what was said will mean that it is much more difficult to talk about it. People – men especially – now know that they have to tip-toe around the issue, for fear of upsetting someone, or saying the wrong thing. And that is far from healthy.
We have created a climate that considers words more important than deeds. The sensible, conventional idea that speech is “only words”, and that actions speaker louder, has been turned upside down. We now examine less what is done, and what should be done, and far more what is said, and even how it could be interpreted – taking words out of their context.
We have created a situation where every single world is regulated and policed with such distorting severity that conversation is curtailed and even our thoughts are targeted. This destroys the possibility of rational discourse. The inevitable outcome is a neutering, chilling effect, making many people cautious and further restricting conversation to a few muttered objections in private.
The refrain of “you can’t say that” is often rolled out the name of protecting minorities, but this needs questioning. The war on words appears to suggest that we – especially those considered “vulnerable”: women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, and on – are just too fragile to hear a joke or a strong opinion, and not wilt or faint in response. The idea that we need to be shielded from language is a Victorian view of women, which has become mainstream to include many others. But we are all much stronger than that.
As for hate speech and nasty ideas, people’s prejudices are better out than in, so that they can be discussed and critiqued. Besides, it is not the case that any of these issues is black and white. To work out any complex issue, we have to talk, argue and offend. We need to be able to get it wrong, and work out why, without being shushed. Open, no-holds-barred argument is the only way to test out and clarify ideas and opinion.
Of course, another outcome is that these circumstances create people like Boyle, who make the most of this climate. It is quite clear that he sets out to offend, such is the roar of publicity it brings. Turn down the outraged response and maybe, hopefully, we will hear less from Frankie Boyle.
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