In the Best Possible Taste

Bruce Abrahams laments the current vogue for aggressive defensiveness

Recently, the stand-up comedian community has come under scrutiny for telling misogynist jokes about rape and domestic violence – so we are advised – notably by BBC’s Woman’s Hour of 30th January 2013 and passim. Even accepting the Martin Luther or Stuart Lee defence (committing extreme sin to show God’s and the audience’s forgiveness), there are possibly some subjects that are genuinely beyond humour. Stuff about the Holocaust is clearly one such as the Sunday Times and Gerald Scarfe found, following their publication of the great cartoonist’s comment on Israeli policy toward Palestinians; except that the editor’s apology was more about the timing of publication than the legitimacy of the sentiment expressed. His proprietor went a lot further in abasing himself before the altar of the god of the offended and their habitual conflation of hostility to Israeli government policy and anti-Semitism. Which is to suggest that whilst a civilised and liberal society should of course combine freedom of expression with respect for sensibility (bless you Jane Austen for keeping that word alive), its ideas of consensus and tolerance (always much tested) are notably strained here in the digital 21st Century in which the right to take offence seems to have overwhelmed the right to offend: or have a contradictory opinion as it may be called.

Much of the difficulty is due to the whole mass/social/digital/global/media-based nature of our public discourse and the instant exchange of opinions and responses. This enables any or all of the myriad pressure and politically aspirant groups which flourish under the sunlight of technological democracy to recruit their allies and mount their assaults on whatever oppressors they perceive as authors of their discontent, or enemies of their ideology, within minutes of their discovery of a trigger issue. This very much includes a visceral dislike of humour and its associated genre of satire.

Not that humanity has ever been slow to take offence at the introduction of new or counter-cultural ideas and in defence of sectional interests. This is demonstrated by our history of wars and the burnings of books and banning of so many scientific or social concepts and the individuals who created and wrote about them. But as our Western and, indeed, world society has become more techno-enabled we have become more prone to not so much understanding as to quarrelling over our shared condition. So the more extreme and schismatic disseminate propaganda and calumny concerning the objects of their hostility. Somehow, the social and political mainstream of our own and many other societies have found it difficult to curb breakaway groups. The phenomenon of fragmentation is the food of the media industry for which conflict is a continuing erotic stimulus to be indulged while it ascends to some cathartic orgasm in the storms of violent conflict. The petit mort of peace is only briefly celebrated until the absence of conflict becomes dull. The sexual metaphor is not misplaced. Sex, power and politics (the latter as the basis of all social transactions on whatever scale) are the stuff of human history.

George Orwell memorably envisaged the tension between the desire of the State and predominant cultures to control, and the disorderly nature of populations. His dystopian 1984 recognised that since sex was intrinsic to human relationship, the management of its expression (alongside the suppression of dissent) was a central part of the process of maintaining social submissiveness. Religions, of course, have long acted on this perception.

In demanding of a jury whether they would wish their wives or servants to read it, the prosecutors of Lady Chatterley’s Lover would, had they won, have become the inheritors of Room 101.  Decades later we swing from liberal to repressive and back to liberal in our attempts to manage the unmanageable tides of human sexuality as they surge on the shores of social convention, a feature of the growing schism in some of the major themes of world discourse.

Currently, the mood in the West is seemingly one of oxymoronic Orwellian liberalism in which incorrect thinking requires active suppression. Elsewhere, it appears to be more about a war between progress and totalitarian ignorance. The European version of thought control has the effect of stamping on dissent from whatever cause or moral stance the progressives espouse. The combative Julie Burchill found this out when she backed her friend Suzanne Moore in a weird spat about transsexuality and its fashion choices.

To judge from reports of the tweeting that resulted, the interim score was Trolls (or Outraged Transsexuals) 1 – Free Speech 0. Clearly, you can only make jokes about any sub-group (other than white, right-of-centre males) if you are one of them – and then only very carefully.

The trouble with most pressure groups and their belief systems is that they don’t know when to stop, and so get to be very irritating. Much the same could be said about any resistance to the status quo. When Henry Miller, James Joyce, D H Lawrence and Radclyffe Hall were writing they had something to say in the face of society’s prudishness. To-day the bookshelves and internet sites are full of the fruits of liberation and like children in a sweet shop we have to cope with an excess of choice over quality. This is not easy to accept for the bien pensant leaders of our infantilised, under-educated and media-dominated society where we are used to getting everything we desire and being fed whatever burgers we fancy.

What we don’t realise is that the real mad men and women are trying to take our freedoms away from us. Maybe there is something that extremists from all religious, social or pressure groups have in common. To force another person to have sex without their consent is rape. To force individuals and communities to subscribe to over-restrictive behaviours (apparel, genital mutilation), or deny expression of opinion and belief is totalitarian – a rape of the mind.

At the macro-level it’s a bit of a puzzle to resolve; which makes you worry about our politicians. That said, even if we are ambivalent about gay marriage and Brazilian transsexuals and their desperation for acceptance, we should all accept that jokes about any religious or racial group or gender are not always hostile: they are often derived from simple recognitions of humanity’s differences. If in doubt, it is worth watching Old Jews Telling Jokes on TV.  Or listen to old women talking about men in the launderette.