Don’t let thought police curtail our free speech
Published 24/01/2013 | 08:00
What do transsexuals, loyalists and the Tweenies have in common? This is not some kind of sick joke, though I admit it's crying out for an ingenious punchline, possibly involving an outsize Union flag bra. Answers on a postcard please.
No, the common issue is the taking, and giving, of offence. Certain British transgender groups have gone bucko in recent days — first over a comment made by the writer Suzanne Moore, who said that women were angry because they were expected to have idealised bodies like a “Brazilian transsexual”.
The outpouring of rage and disgust at Moore's words — which, for the record, seemed fair enough to me — was redoubled when Julie Burchill fired off an enjoyably vitriolic response to Moore's oppressors in last Sunday's Observer.
She said that “a gaggle of transsexuals telling Suzanne Moore how to write looks a lot like how I’d imagine the Black & White Minstrels telling Usain Bolt how to run would look.” And that was one of her politer remarks.
For once, the staid old Observer was worth the cover price again, for that dazzling display of inspired spleen.
Then, amid wild accusations of bullying and transphobia, a Government minister, Lynne Featherstone, popped up, describing Burchill's words as “bigoted vomit” — elegantly put, Lynne — and demanding that Burchill and the editor of the Observer should both be sacked.
Soon afterwards, the article itself disappeared from the Observer's website, amid much grovelling and self-flagellation from editors at having the temerity to publish the filthy thing in the first place.
Offence of a different kind ensued when it emerged that the BBC had accidentally broadcast an old episode of the children's television programme, Tweenies, featuring a character dressed up as Britain's most notorious deceased paedophile, Jimmy Savile.
From the horrified reaction, you'd think that the mere sight of a bad blond wig, or the utterance of Savile's vapid catchphrase — “Now then, guys and gals” — was enough to corrupt every single little kid who watched the show.
As for the loyalists, we know all too well about how offended they are by the partial removal of the Union flag from the City Hall.
We've got that message loud and clear, as we sit in traffic jams and empty restaurants, or as we watch the petrol bombs rain down on police lines. Yes. Youse are offended. We get it.
Taking offence is both pleasurable and addictive. That feeling of righteous indignation surging through your veins, especially if you are sharing the rage with a whole band of other, equally incensed people, is incredibly exhilarating.
But offence-addicts — whether they are hardline transsexuals, flag-maddened loyalists or sub-Stalinist Government ministers — are also driven by a need to be in control, to dictate both the terms and language of the debate. Above all, they want to win — whatever the cost.
And, sadly, their tactics often work. Suzanne Moore was hounded from Twitter by a sanctimonious, hectoring cadre of militant transsexuals. Julie Burchill's editor weedily capitulated to the same, bullying intolerance.
There's just no pleasing some of these guys and gals. When I wrote a piece expressing my heartfelt support for members of Northern Ireland's largely hidden transgender community, I received a patronising letter from a London-based group called Trans Media Watch, in which I was taken to task for my “flawed” language and sent a style-sheet to improve myself in future.
I think I committed the cardinal error of using the word “transgendered”, rather than “transgender”. Or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, it's clear I'd better get my act together before the thought police come calling again.
Here's the thing: there are more important principles at stake here than your right not to be offended, hurt or disgusted.
I'm not saying that we should go out of our way to wind people up, or to gratuitously insult them. And, of course, outright hate-mongering, especially when it's directed at minority groups, is never acceptable. But that's not what we're talking about here.
It's vital that we protect people's right to speak their mind, to have their say, to mock and lampoon without fear of being bullied into silence by the self-appointed guardians of public and private morality. Such a right is paramount in a society that claims to value personal and political freedom.
Anything else is a fast-track to censorship and, beyond that, fascism.