Balancing act: Free speech, pride, offence, dehumanisation

I am sometimes wary of weighing in with a contrary opinion on highly charged issues, if only because I am not sure whether I have really understood enough about the question to give an informed and coherent statement about it. The Charlie Hebdo murders yesterday are certainly producing highly charged emotions and responses.

There have been words written that suggest that in any way to describe the cartoons as wrong is to excuse the act of ostentatious murder and violence – ostentatious because it is designed to be seen, and to impress: to terrorise others into submission to the gunmen’s will. So I will say right now that the act of violence is out of all proportion to the claimed provocation; and that each is responsible for their actions and cannot blame or excuse it on the cartoons.

Others have talked about the claim, “You do not have the right to not be offended”, or, “Freedom of speech and thought is paramount”, “you have the right to be offensive”, and so on.

There is a thread running from these arguments, that passes through the phenomenon that is Top Gear, in which three middle-aged, middle-class, white male buffoons typically act in a boorish fashion and make prats of themselves in various offensive ways in various situations. Over the Christmas break, I had the opportunity to watch the Argentina Special. Some readers may recall that earlier in 2014 there had been something of a hoo-hah about their trip, and their reception after sporting a number plate that (coincidentally or otherwise) seemed to have a more than passing resemblance, and reference, to a war between the UK and Argentina.

In the programme, it was set up that the boorish buffoons would set off from Butch Cassidy’s former home in northern Argentina and make their way to a point at the southern tip: a region in which there are long and bitter memories of the conflict. One might suspect from this that it was not (as claimed) an accident that such a number plate turned up. The TV crew and presenters were met with a hostile, even violent, reaction and were shown fleeing to the relative safety of Chile.

I recalled a previous Top Gear Special, set in the US Deep South. I forget which state they were driving across, but it was described as one of the most religious-right, Republican-voting, gun-wielding states. “Let’s have the presenters paint each others cars with atheist, Democrat, liberal slogans and call it, ‘try to get each other killed!'” went the build-up to this episode.

Halfway through this part of their trip, they stopped for fuel. And a middle-aged woman running the fuel station started yelling at them, calling them “college students” who thought it was a laugh to “try and get themselves killed”. Needless to say, it made no difference what anyone said to calm her down. The reason being, she was exactly right, and she was very angry about it. While she went to call her family, the crew and presenters fled, just as they would later end up doing from Argentina.

Thinking about these episodes of Top Gear, in the context of the debate about “right to cause offence” and “freedom of speech”, it occurred to me that there are people who do not understand proud communities. The people who most often tend to not understand are those with privilege and security. They are people, in general, who have the apparatus and institutions of “law and order” on their side. I don’t know nearly enough sociology or anthropology to suggest whether the opposite is true of proud communities. But the obvious observation is that, for whatever reason, these communities feel strongly that they have to protect that in which they have pride. Being proud, it is possible to wound that pride, and it is possible for that wound to be felt as if it is a physical assault.

Political Correctness

Another canard I have seen repeated in the wake of the attack is the idea that “political correctness would stop us saying anything offensive at all.” Anyone who has suggested that maybe the cartoons were in poor taste has been met with the accusation of promoting censorship, of “political correctness gone mad”.

I don’t know enough to comment about whether it is strictly relevant in this case, but I want to make a general point about PC and offence.

There is a distinction between causing offence, and dehumanising someone or making that person fearful for their existence or way of life. The ‘N’ word is not “offensive”. It dehumanises. By dehumanising, it makes a person a more acceptable target for violence. This can produce fear for one’s existence. In this way, the language, and thought processes, we use, matter.

Cartoons have regularly been used as weapons to dehumanise those thought of as lesser by the ruling bodies. We don’t need to go all Godwin’s Law and refer to the Nazi propaganda cartoons for this; tabloids of the 1980s were notorious for it, and today’s tabloids are probably little different.

In a Western nation, there is a category difference in terms of likely effect, between a cartoon lampooning some article of Christian faith, and a cartoon that laughs at an article of Muslim (or Hindu, or Sikh, or Jewish) faith. This is because in these countries, Christianity has a position of security. Muslims, however, have reason to feel insecure and defensive of their existence and right to exist as they choose.

Political correctness isn’t about censorship. It’s about having basic regard for other people’s humanity. Yes, you have the right to cause offence. Sometimes it is necessary to offend, particularly those with power and privilege, and security. Puncturing their shell is necessary to promote the humanity of people outside of that shell. You even have the right to cause gratuitous offence, for no other reason than you want to, or think it’s funny. But you do not have the right to do so without others making judgements about you, and taking actions to avoid benefiting you.

People do not have the right to murder in response, not even if they feel as though they are physically wounded by your art (whether music, visual or verbal). Violence, or the threat of violence, as a means of control (even the violence/threats displayed in the Top Gear programmes against the crew and presenters) has to be totally unacceptable (although how can we prevent it except by using violence to control the would-be perpetrators? qui custodiet and all that).

But defending people’s right not to get murdered, and even their right to cause gratuitous offence, does not mean we have to say that their exercise of that right was in any way noble or laudable. It was, in fact, quite tawdry and reprehensible. Freedom of speech means we get to say that and try to persuade others of it.

* * *

PS. I would love to see the Top Gear special where everyone just refuses to do business with the presenters, leaving them stranded. You know, because freedom of speech and so on.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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2 Responses to Balancing act: Free speech, pride, offence, dehumanisation

  1. Re: PS:
    It has happened, but I’m afraid you won’t see it. If people encountered in the course of shooting Top Gear decline to participate (or to sign releases), it is edited out of the finished program. Shows with improvised dialogue still follow a storyboard.

  2. Pingback: Clarkson is not Top Gear’s Compo | Valery North - Writer

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