Suppose you’d invited me round to dinner to celebrate my engagement to your daughter, which do you think would be more offensive? If a) I got violently drunk, threatened all the male guests, abused the women doing the catering, shoved my tongue in my hostess’s ear, hurled a bottle through the window, felt up all the bridesmaids under the table, then retreated to the jacuzzi to shag your daughter’s best friend? Or b) if I made a mildly tasteless quip about the Holocaust?
There’s only one correct answer and it is, of course, b). We know this thanks to the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother, whose makers have peremptorily evicted the former favourite contestant — panto dame, national treasure and now sainted martyr Christopher Biggins — because of an unconscionable thing he did to a house-mate who happened to be Jewish. He made a shower joke.
Meanwhile, another house-mate who has behaved at least as badly as the one in example a) continues to strut his repellant stuff unhindered. He is Stephen Bear, a rude, bullying, sexually voracious, two-timing, double-dealing, manipulative, cynical, ignorant lout so loathed by his fellow house-mates that they’ve voted to place him on a permanent evictions nomination list. Unfortunately the decision is not up to them but to the viewers, who may yet choose to keep Bear there, partly for the cruel laughs and partly because if they’re girls they’d like to sleep with him and if they’re boys they’d like to be him.
‘But why do you even care about this crap?’ people sometimes ask me. They’re the same sort of people who, were they living in Rome circa 476, would be congratulating themselves on how bloody marvellous aqueducts and hypocausts and testudo formations are. Yes indeed. But that was then and unfortunately we’re living in now. The barbarians are through the gates, imposing their weird, alien values, but the forces of civilisation are holding their noses and looking the other way because they find modern culture so vulgar, ugly and incomprehensible.
What I think should trouble us most about the Biggins eviction is the perverse moral inversion it represents. Instead of inhabiting a universe where sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us, we’ve been ushered into one where the language you use carries more weight than the way you behave. As a writer and English literature graduate I ought to be delighted by this — except that the new rule seems to have been invented by incredibly thick people with no sense of tone, nuance or context.
In this grisly new world there is really no difference between a cuddly old queen making an unmalicious but possibly ill-judged quip and a Nazi or an Islamist pouring forth vicious anti-Semitic bile. If it involves a Jew and the Holocaust, that’s it, you’re over the line with no defence. And the same applies if you’re talking about any other group that can conceivably claim to be an offendable minority, even — who knew, till Biggins was mildly disparaging about them? — bisexuals.
At the time of the Leveson inquiry, there were lots of wise, nicely turned, historically literate articles in civilised journals about the importance of free speech and how defending it must of necessity include protecting the right to offend. The problem is that the only people who read them were clever, sensible, well-balanced types like us. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones who make the rules.
Why do you think the Big Brother bosses axed Biggins? They’re rather less concerned about what Mick Hume, Claire Fox, Douglas Murray or Nick Cohen might write in an erudite essay on the significance of Areopagitica and the importance of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ than they are about what a noisy minority of pigshit-thick but Taleban-zealous social justice warriors might say on social media.
I noticed something similar going on with the recent defenestration of Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts. Did his bosses push him out because he’d said something genuinely offensive about women in the workplace? Not at all — just read for yourself the original Business Insider interview, where the poor chap treads on eggshells to make his perfectly reasonable point about the qualitative differences between male and female ambition.
No, Roberts was the victim of a lynch mob whipped up by the crusading feminist boss of a rival ad agency, who decided publicly to take offence on Twitter at his unexceptionable observations, inciting various of her fellow social justice warriors to do likewise. We can’t be talking here about much more than a few dozen embittered whingers and desperate virtue-signallers. (The same was true of last year’s hounding of the Nobel laureate scientist Sir Tim Hunt.) Yet on the basis of their confected outrage, a man’s career was carelessly tossed to the politically correct wolves.
How do we resist this loathsome trend? Well, the first step is to acknowledge that it’s happening; and the second is to create a stink. I’d highly recommend reading Vox Day’s SJWs Always Lie, which outlines how these activists operate (‘point and shriek’, ‘isolate and swarm’) and then describes how to defeat them. Absolutely key is refusing to let these malign professional grievance-mongers set the terms of the debate.
By this token, Christopher Biggins certainly shouldn’t have apologised for his non-crime, let alone promised to make an expiatory pilgrimage to Auschwitz. No reasonably minded person of whatever religion or background or sexual preference could possibly have taken offence at any of his remarks on Big Brother. And anyone who tries to do so should maybe get a sense of perspective. They could do worse than sit down for a few hours with Vasily Grossman’s account The Hell of Treblinka and acquaint themselves with what real suffering is like.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.