There’s been a rather wonderful debate bubbling along at the Guardian, about the French minister Pierre Lellouche’s use of the word ‘autistic’ to describe the English Tories. Well, in fact that’s not quite what the debate has been about; everyone is agreed that Lellouche is beyond the pale. The debate has been about whether or not the Guardian was right to report what was said by the chap in a headline. Quite a lot of readers thought that it wasn’t. Elsa and John Wingad, for example, wrote: ‘We know that the use of “autistic” in your headline was a quote, however by choosing to repeat it in such prominence [sic] reinforces negative attitudes towards autism.’ Do you know Elsa and John Wingad? I think that if you have any space in your Christmas diary, you should invite them over for a knees-up: I imagine they are quite the most marvellous fun. Another reader, unnamed, complained because her own son was autistic and he wouldn’t have liked to have read the term used in a pejorative manner.
I suppose you might argue that this doesn’t matter because it’s the Guardian and a fairly large proportion of its readers are mentally unhinged, especially John and Elsa. Maybe autism is pushing it a bit, but you might argue that some of them behave as if they have a touch of the old Asperger’s. Or worse than this, work in the mental health industry lecturing people about why they shouldn’t use the word ‘mad’ or ‘doolally’ or ‘psychotic’ or ‘crazier than a shit-house rat’ because it — what was that phrase — reinforces negative attitudes towards mental illness. (Incidentally, isn’t it right that we should have a fairly negative attitude toward the neurological condition of autism? I mean, it’s not a good thing, in itself, is it? We would rather it did not exist. Parents do not hold parties for the neighbourhood when their child is so diagnosed, do they?)
But this isn’t a Guardian thing — and, to be fair, the newspaper stood by its headline — this is, if you like, the leitmotif of 21st-century Britain. The avid and relentless determination of a large number of us to be mortally offended as often as is humanly possible. And then, having been so offended, to demand redress. Not simply an apology — that won’t do. These days we want a pint of blood too. If our sensibilities have been trampled upon — meaning that someone has said something which we find annoying or offensive or just wrong — then we want immediate redress and the punishment of the offender, through the offices of any one of countless quangos set up to provide such redress.
Pretty much every day in your morning newspapers you will find somebody, somewhere, calling for a public apology and a sacking and preferably a prosecution for the crime of having said something which the complainant did not agree with, or failed to find funny (there are a lot of people who find nothing whatsoever funny), or which hit some sort of nerve which made him or her take offence. The ability to shrug off stuff we find offensive and move on has apparently deserted us; we have become preternaturally sensitive to almost everything. And it diminishes the freedom of speech and thought.
I suppose some might argue that we were always like this and that it is only the internet which has changed things; we now have an immediate channel through which to whip up fury and obtain recompense. It’s a sort of democratisation of our lives: we all have feelings and we all have rights not to have them trampled upon. Well, maybe, but I think there is more to it than that.
Let’s look at a few recent demands for apology/sacking/prosecution etc. There’s Jeremy Clarkson, with the satirical wit for which he is renowned, calling the Prime Minister a one-eyed Scottish idiot. Most of us would shrug and move on; but the disability lobby — the most voluble of all the minority groups — immediately screamed at him for having used the term ‘one-eyed’ pejoratively. And then the Scots got in on the act, claiming that Clarkson’s use of the word ‘Scottish’ was pejorative.
In the last couple of weeks we have had the comedian Frankie Boyle pilloried for having described the Olympic champion swimmer Rebecca Adlington as resembling someone looking at themselves in a spoon. It was not enough that the ludicrous BBC Trust decided that he had gone too far: Adlington, or her agent, wanted more, wanted blood.
Another comedian, Jimmy Carr, should have been sacked, apparently, for having suggested that Britain’s future paralympic team would be boosted by maimed soldiers returning from Afghanistan. As the furore raged, Carr rather bravely resisted the defence of black satire and said he was only trying to make people laugh. Is that not enough?
There is an element of it too in the vilification of Gordon Brown for his well-meant, hand-written letter to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan — it contained decent sentiments but also had a crossing out and a couple of spelling mistakes. You understand the mother’s despair, and her anguish — but is there not something deeply demeaning in the political odium heaped upon Brown as a consequence? A spelling mistake does not imply that we are wrong to be fighting in Afghanistan, or that Brown’s sentiments were not heartfelt. And for every mother of a slain soldier who complains that we should not be there, there are ten more grieving mothers who will attest that their sons believed in what they were doing and were proud to have fought. But we don’t hear about them so much.
Today, every grievance must be given weight, no matter how deranged the complainant. And I wonder if this may be a consequence of continual legislation to protect the sensibilities of some of our more touchy and vulnerable communities. If, for example, we enact legislation that makes it a crime to disrespect Islam (and without wishing to provoke, I do disrespect Islam), then we are opening up the door to people who will seek legal redress when their ludicrous beliefs are disrespected, when the things which they hold dear are made fun of. And the courts seem to agree with this fragile sensibility; last week a judge decided that one man’s belief in global warming was akin to a religious conviction and that his views were to be respected no matter how ludicrous they might be.
And so the rest of us follow suit, determined that our beliefs are sacrosanct and must not be gainsaid. And in the case of the Guardian readers, demanding that even a mention of those who gainsay them must be outlawed.