Shut up and be offended

The next glib comment or unfortunate slip of the tongue will no doubt be uttered by someone without the star power of the BBC’s prized presenter. And when it is we need to remember it is our right to be offended but that not everybody shares our objections

Jeremy Clarkson: the overreaction has finally ceased
Lewis James Brown
On 22 February 2012 10:39

This week’s ruling by Ofcom that Jeremy Clarkson’s infamous November 2011 appearance on the BBC’s One Show did not breach their guidelines should be seen as a victory for common sense.

I don’t watch Top Gear and have always been indifferent towards Mr. Clarkson – a small escalation in my opinion of him upon hearing he had slugged Piers Morgan aside – but I cannot help feel that there is something distinctly un-British about our country’s modern-day penchant for needing action – the “something must be done” mentality.

Worldwide we have long been known for the Great British Sense of Humour™ - a bawdy, sleazy, innuendo-filled mixture of slapstick and wit that has seen us export such greats as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Benny Hill and The Office around the globe. Furthermore, the British are often caricatured as those of the stiff upper lip, the blitz spirit, the ability to get on with things and never complain.

Put these two admirable qualities together and it may somewhat surprise any outside observer that we have become a nation addicted to complaint and outrage on what we see on our television screens.

Whether it’s comments from a pundit or guest, complaints over a scene in Eastenders, an outrageous new comedy or an opinionated stand-up comedian, complaining is becoming a national pastime for some.

This is not, by any means, an alien phenomenon of the new Millennium. For as long as there has been public entertainment there have been those who have desired to control what others see and hear. You might be forgiven in thinking we sent our Puritans packing to the Colonies after the Restoration, but whether it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the persecution of Oz magazine or The Life of Brian, Britain has always had those for whom bad taste is not to be ignored but made a crusade. 

As a child, I can remember watching the interminable Points of View and being mystified as to why the respondents had sat in front of their television watching something that offended them so – why had they not changed the channel (and this was in the days of four television stations, not four hundred!). I would complain loudly to myself for around thirty seconds before realising the hypocrisy of my ways and that I could vote my dissatisfaction using my remote control.

My own attitude to taking offence had been formed at an early age while catching a late-night broadcast of the Jerry Sadowitz Show on the brilliant Paramount Comedy Channel (how I lament the years since which has seen it become Comedy Central). Sadowitz analogised the issue when, in the midst of one of his typically outrageous performances, he said “You should consider the jokes that offend you tax for all the many thousands of jokes you do enjoy”. 

Many years later, the Australian comedian Steve Hughes summed up this point even more perfectly on the Comedy Roadshow with his ‘be-offended’ bit.

What is sad about the offence taken to incidents today is that it is often used as part of a vendetta against the subject of the complaint. The outrage of the modern political left over Clarkson’s satirically provocative comments was typical of what we would expect from a grouping that sometimes seems to have had a collective sense-of-humour bypass (see UNISON’s threat of legal action in particular), but the right cannot claim itself innocent either. Endless complaints about the make-up of the Mock the Week panel or BBC’s Thought for the Day are alien to me. On social media, some of the calls for Diane Abbott to be sacked in the wake of her Twitter race-row went far beyond a proportionate response.

And that is the key to remember when we have been offended: a proportionate response. Both Clarkson and Abbott’s comments made them look fools. The stupidity of what they had said was there for all to see. Abbott, a Shadow Minister, was rightly made to apologise – but the calls for her head should have ended with her career-saving mea culpa. Clarkson, who bears no such responsibility for decorum to an electorate (indeed he is employed precisely because the public love his knack for crossing the line) offered the weakest of compulsory apologies, but that should be enough.

Another great disappointment is that large sections of the British public in general seem to have become their own puritanical guard, not in favour of a religion or a political movement, but in an X-Factor-esque participatory reality show.

Whether it’s the witch hunts around the current racism row in football, outrageous comments on a television show, numerous complaints over advertising or the latest celebrity scandal; members of the public seem to crave acting like their own versions of a Roman emperor, ready to give not the thumbs down but the dialling index finger of doom.

Complaints are made not by those involved in incidents but those sitting in their living rooms at home, too idle to have any better hobby than waiting to be offended by the next public outrage they are told about (and subsequently seek out on YouTube).

This is why I welcome Mr. Clarkson’s reprieve at the hands of Ofcom, if just to send out the message that if you were offended – that’s your problem. If there is something causing you offense, you have the right to be offended. You don’t have the right to subject your offence onto everyone else and tell us how we should feel. The way to register your complaint is to switch over from whatever is causing you to feel like this and ignore it, not try and eradicate programming because of your fear that someone else might actually enjoy it.

Millions will undoubtedly vote to support Mr. Clarkson when they tune in to the latest episode of Top Gear with no complaint – and it is these voices that are ignored against a few thousand objectors.  

But there is also a note of caution; Mr. Clarkson earned his reprieve because of his status as a ‘national offender’. Quite why Clarkson gets this treatment and Frankie Boyle, another whose career thrives on causing offence (albeit much deeper), doesn’t is mystifying. 

The next glib comment or unfortunate slip of the tongue will no doubt be uttered by someone without the star power of the BBC’s prized presenter. And when it is we need to remember it is our right to be offended but that not everybody shares our objections; we should keep our outrage to ourselves and let others enjoy the offence

Lewis James Brown is Online Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies. He tweets as @LewisCPS

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