Here’s some thinking which is sure to be unpopular: the right to not to be offended doesn’t exist.
Specifically, this came into my mind last week, when Jeremy Clarkson was lambasted for his comments regarding the public service strikes on Nov 30th. Unison wanted him sacked, and were considering referring the matter to the police (under what law?!) while GMB are still planning to “organise a picket” against him.
Here’s the full transcript of what was said during his interview on BBC’s The One Show:
Matt Baker [presenter]: Well Jeremy, schools, hospitals, airports, even driving tests, have all been affected. Do you think the strikes have been a good idea?
Jeremy Clarkson: I think they have been fantastic. Absolutely. London today has just been empty. Everybody stayed at home, you can whizz about, restaurants are empty.
Alex Jones [presenter]: The traffic, actually, has been very good today.
Clarkson: Airports, people streaming through with no problems at all. And it’s also like being back in the 70s. It makes me feel at home somehow.
MB: Do you know anyone who has been on strike today?
Clarkson: Of course I don’t, no. What, somebody public service? No, I don’t. No, absolutely. But we have to balance this though, because this is the BBC.
MB: Yes, exactly.
Clarkson: Frankly, I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?
MB: Well, on that note of balancing an opinion, of course those are Jeremy’s views.
AJ: Only Jeremy’s views.
Clarkson: They’re not. I’ve just given two views for you.
It’s pretty clear from the context – as Clarkson himself said in his apology – that the comments were said in jest, that they were not to be taken seriously. Indeed, his point – though made in a ham-fisted way – is that he’s appearing on the BBC, so he can’t have an opinion, because they’ve got to be neutral and unbiased. But that seems to have been missed under the avalanche of offence taken at the “Frankly, I’d have them all shot” comment. 21,000 people made a complaint. This is a blog post, and we have to have balance – so is that 21,000 people who were offended, or 21,000 people who don’t have a sense of humour? Hell, I better not make that joke, or you’ll be picketing my house…
I’ll say again – the right not to be offended doesn’t exist. If it did, the BBC wouldn’t be able to produce anything worth watching. We’d be stuck watching Last of the Summer Wine and Dad’s Army. And even then, they’d probably offend some people, so we’d have to take them off air. Humour is inherently offensive to someone – that’s part of it’s attraction. Think of someone like Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle. Did they get to where they are by being nice to kittens? And do note that when they have DVDs to sell, the controversy is ratcheted up – just as Clarkson did on the BBC.
Incidentally, Radio 4 did a good piece on the whole issue, which I broadly agree with, in which they describe the whole thing as a “perfect storm” and it is worth listening to.
The bottom line for me though, is that this is a free speech issue. That Clarkson gave an opinion (and, as he made clear, an opinion which he doesn’t even hold!) is the only way to make sure that I can give an opinion, and that those who are inclined to do so can go on strike. For me, those who are “offended” by his comments aren’t really. They are simply holding up Clarkson as a caricature of views which they don’t like, seeing him as a political opponent. And while that’s fine – by all means disagree with your political opponents – don’t make it into something it isn’t.
Addendum: Have just read Clarkson column on suicide. Though I find his views incredibly disrespectful and lacking in humanity – and I wouldn’t for a second defend the comments themselves – he still has the right to hold and express those views. That’s what liberal democracy is about. If he wants to have controversial views, it’s up to him. You don’t have to buy the newspapers he writes in or the DVDs he sells, or watch the television programmes he appears on.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it best when, paraphrasing Voltaire, she said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Quite.