Driving along in the car, listening to the radio news, the boyfriend turned to me and said he thought the Michael Fabricant row a very strange one. Fabricant was being pilloried for having tweeted that he could never go on television with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown because he might ‘end up punching her in the throat’, but my man said he didn’t see what the fuss was about. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘I feel like punching you about 50 times a day.’
Reader, be assured, he was joking. Victims’ groups, hold your horses while I explain. My beloved was pretending to have punching urges for the purposes of humour. Do you see? It was irony. I-r-o… Do I need to spell it out?
The builder boyfriend (as readers of my column will know) is the least likely person on the planet ever to harm me. I would estimate that the chances of him punching me are even more slim than the chances of Michael Fabricant punching Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. But perhaps I should have telephoned the domestic violence helpline and reported an incidence of aggravated verbal assault. I am sure they would have taken me seriously.
If the fallout from the Fabricant virtual punch row has taught us anything, it is that large numbers of us have had a total irony bypass and now interpret literally that which was only ever meant to be taken figuratively, regardless of whether or not it could be described as genuinely amusing. Very soon, uttering the words ‘I could murder a pint’ will trigger a full-blown police inquiry because one has admitted to having what Ms Alibhai-Brown calls ‘violent urges’. ‘It was not a joke, but a violent urge,’ she complained.
Lawks a mercy! Hold onto your poke bonnets! Gloria De Piero, shadow women’s minister, said the punching comment was ‘utterly appalling’. I call ‘utterly appalling’ something like actually punching someone, or genocide, but clearly I’ve got some catching up to do. A quick glance at the foremost media rows of the past few months gives an insight into the po-faced state we’re in. The amount of time and energy we are putting into doing our best impressions of Mary Whitehouse is quite amazing.
There was a terrible to-do a few weeks ago, for example, when the actress Jennifer Lawrence was overheard telling ‘a rape joke’ to a guest at a Vanity Fair party in Cannes. Dare we repeat it? Are we brave enough? Right, I’m going in. It involved her joking that she once told someone she admired that she liked them so much that… ready for this… deep breaths… ‘I broke out my rape scream for you.’ Heavens to Betsy!
Are you still there, reader? Can you get someone to bring you a glass of water and put your head between your knees? Because there’s more.
A few days before that, Austin Mitchell MP tried to have a standard socialist go at the pharmaceutical industry by calling US drugs corporation Pfizer ‘rapists’ for attempting to take over the British firm AstraZeneca. Female Conservative MPs fell about fainting with shock and then, presumably after a snort at the smelling salts, pulled themselves together and lined up to call on Ed Miliband to deliver the head of Mr Mitchell, who looked thoroughly bewildered.
Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, pompously announced that it was ‘never acceptable to use rape as a corporate analogy’. Why? Who said? Mr Mitchell obviously felt that the smaller, less powerful company was being plundered by the bigger one. He used an interpretation of the R word entirely supported by the Oxford English Dictionary.But according to Ms Perry — yes, that’s the same Ms Perry who once joked about giving the Speaker of the Commons a blowjob — it has been decided by some unseen righteous indignation committee in the sky that the R word is exclusively owned by women who have been sexually assaulted and that all other uses of the word, including metaphorical, are prohibited.
Presumably, the same committee decided it was fine for a female MP to use a blowjob analogy. This is politically scurrilous, grammatically incorrect and morally absurd, of course. But what I really want to know is, when did we all become so hypersensitive? It’s like there is a new version of eggshell skull, only now the fragility is inside our heads.
What’s more, people no longer simply take offence in passing, by accident. They go adventurously out of their way to find offence. Hence the alarming practice of leaking private offensive comments to create shock and awe where there ought to have been none.
The sexist emails of Richard Scudamore sparked a full-on indignation orgy but nobody seemed to question who was more morally questionable: a man who engages in sexist banter in private emails to someone who is happy with his comments, or a temporary secretary who breaks into his emails, scours hundreds, out of which only a handful are at all risqué, and then hawks those to the tabloids in order to generate offence where none should have been caused.
But it’s worse than that. Not only does a man not have a right to say something stupid and offensive in private. He no longer has a right to almost say something stupid and offensive in private.
Jeremy Clarkson did not say the N word. I’ve watched the tape. He said ‘Eeny meeny miney moe, catch a nur-nur by his toe.’ He then claims that he viewed the tape and decided his nur-nur sounded a bit too like the N word, and so he requested that segment did not go out. And it didn’t. But that didn’t matter.
When the non-broadcast half-offensive version was leaked, deliberately, to cause offence, Aliya Mohammed, chief executive of Race Equality First (so not equal, actually, but first, you understand), took the bait and called for immediate action from the BBC. ‘I am appalled…’ she said. You can guess the rest of the quote.
I’m surprised Microsoft or Apple haven’t come up with a single command you can press on your computer to make an apology demand come out automatically.
Lawyers for the Indian-born actor Somi Guha, meanwhile, made a formal complaint to the BBC Trust, demanding an investigation into ‘how the offensive language had come to be edited out of the show’.
That’s right. I thought I had read that wrong at first, too. Not content with complaining about offensive material put into a performance, the outragees now want to complain about offensive material taken out.
These people won’t be happy until they can edit the inside of Jeremy Clarkson’s head. And if they had the technology, they would have all our brains thoroughly washed to scrub out anything non-PC we might be even inadvertently thinking. Fabricant would be lucky to get his head back after they had completely filleted it.
Personally, my preference would not have been for Clarkson to beg for forgiveness on YouTube. Watching a proud man grovel is deeply offensive to me. But then I don’t enjoy outrage porn. I think one is meant to get a frisson as the big guy pleads for clemency, but I just felt sick.
I didn’t mind too much about Fabricant being made to grovel, though.
He had it coming. His joke wasn’t even funny. That was the only truly unforgiveable thing about it. There was no clever wordplay or innuendo. It was just crass and stupid.
But feminists and victims’ groups are wrong to declare piously that ‘violence is never funny’. Of course it is. One of my favourite Blackadder lines is when Rowan Atkinson tells Baldrick that his latest cunning plan is useless: ‘However, I’m a busy man, and I can’t be bothered to punch you at the moment. Here is my fist. Kindly run towards it as fast as you can.’
Do I want to live in a world where a hapless Tory MP cannot make an unfunny joke, but then neither can Richard Curtis or Ben Elton make a brilliant one? Because I really do believe that creating a world free of bad, tasteless, cruel, unkind jokes and a world free of jokes will be one and the same thing, in the final analysis.
I find it genuinely terrifying that we treated Fabricant not as a bad comic but as a violent thug who had actually punched someone. And much as I wish he hadn’t done it, for all our sakes, because the resulting row is incredibly infuriating, I am concerned that if it is not all right for Michael Fabricant to joke about punching Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, then it might not be all right for me to joke about punching Michael Fabricant, which is a shame because I feel there’s got to be a riff involving his hair flying off…
But trying to be humorous will soon be a minefield that no one wants to negotiate. Those who make a joke out of life, in order to better bear it, are running out of material fast.
As the Fabricant row played out, we heard that Samantha, the fictitious scorekeeper on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, is at risk of being ruled inappropriate. Someone rang the BBC to complain that all that innuendo about her endowments is demeaning to women. Well, I suppose it is, if we’re honest. But what are you going to do? You’ve got to have a laugh at something. Once we’ve ruled out everything that’s ‘demeaning’, ‘offensive’, ‘outrageous’, ‘appalling’ and ‘not a fit subject for humour’ then we really will be up shit creek without a paddle.
For once it becomes a reality that we cannot joke about anything — and that day will come, if we go on like this — then the chances of people actually punching each other out of sheer frustration will go up, not down.