Offend the indefensible

Recently there’s been what I believe is called a furore over comments made by Jeremy Clarkson about striking public service workers, see, if you’ve lived under rock, here

This split viewers and commentators alike in to 3 broad camps; those that hated it and felt he should be admonished, those that disliked it, but felt he had every right to say it, and those that felt it was funny and/or spot on.

On Twitter, a number of people, including Dave Gorman and Jemima Khan have postulated that “you have to defend the jokes you don’t like as well as the jokes you do”, and that offense-led censorship would a bad thing.

The issue of offense and being offended has become both a sensible retort to those that want to defend freedom of expression and free speech and also a means by which others defend their right not to be offended. The comedian Steve Hughes makes a clever and humorous point about that here, which in my view sums up this particular Clarkson ‘incident’.

But where is the truth in this, is this denial that ‘offense’ has any greater effect right? Where does the reasonable point that someone being offended by something is so subjective to individuals and different groups of people that it would be impossible, and indeed wrong, to police it without denying someone else their right to free speech, end, and the prevention of actual damage to another person or group begin?

Words do have power, certain comedians, broadcasters, journalists and even bloggers do have influence. With that influence should come a responsibility and an understanding that what was a joke for them becomes a truth for someone else, and what was a quip devoid of hateful meaning by them becomes a means of mocking and victimising for others.

Recently there have been many examples of jokes, not with, but at the expense of people with disabilities and also people with mental health conditions. When challenged, some will accept and apologise, others will use a similar point as made by Hughes, and some will deny all awareness of the negative aspect of it and carry on regardless.

However it is a truth that both groups of people suffer greatly from victimisation, hatred and being mocked. That someone famous and with influence will, while not necessarily implanting those negative thoughts in others, provide a punchline and legitimacy to what others already think, adds to a real and significant problem.

The kind of humour that promotes racial hatred and abuse, has been almost completely driven from popular mainstream culture, that it remains in regards of other groups in society, should not be seen as a victory for free speech and a prevention of censorship, but instead a lack of awareness  of the reality of other people’s lives.

The words “I am offended” are banded around too easily these days, and it’s true that most times people should defend the joke they don’t like for a greater principle. But there is a line where offense becomes hatred and prejudice and as a civilised society we need to be sure that we get the right balance between freedom and protection. We have got it mainly right in turns of race; we need to do better in other areas.


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