Belfast Telegraph

Tesco row shows ease with which we're outraged is quite outrageous

By Fionola Meredith

It's a disgrace! Totally sickened! Completely outraged! You can hardly move these days for people rushing to take offence. Tesco, in particular, has been in the line of fire recently. First, the supermarket was daft enough to sell a Halloween costume consisting of a Guantanamo-style jumpsuit, with the words Psycho Ward stamped on it.

Don't they know we now live in a politically correct utopia where such outrages are no longer permitted? Didn't they care that every single person with a mental health problem in the country was now feeling attacked, abused and utterly demeaned?

Now they've only gone and put our collective blood pressure through the roof again. This time, Tesco is in trouble for an image in its festive gift guide, which shows a child scampering past a blackboard, on which is written a childishly scrawled message: "All I want for Christmas is a puppy."

You see what they did there? They single-handedly condemned thousands of shiny-eyed puppies to a life of unremitting misery, bought as a Christmas present, then discarded like an unwanted toy.

Because, obviously, once something is suggested – however obliquely – in an advert, everyone rushes out and does exactly what they're told. Who made you do it? Tesco made me do it. Honestly, m'lud, I had no choice.

Hundreds of raging shoppers have insisted that they will permanently boycott the shop, at least until they need a new bumper-pack of toilet roll.

And, sure enough, here comes the good old Tesco apology again. Sorry, sorry, sorry, we didn't mean to suggest that kids should get dogs for Christmas.

The big retailer gives in because it's learned that the only way to placate the howlers is roll over, like a sweet submissive little puppy, and play dead. And, of course, they want people to keep buying their toilet roll.

It's no longer enough simply to express disagreement, or dissent, on an individual basis, if you come across something that offends your sensibilities.

Now the default option is crowd rage, usually via social media, which is a lot louder, nastier and more brutish than the individual variety and it doesn't stop until the object of the current outrage is shouted down and stamped into the ground. This – in our modern, caring, enlightened state – we call tolerance.

All right, so the Psycho Halloween gear was fairly tasteless and tacky. But did it warrant such an outpouring of condemnation? I refuse to believe anyone suffering from an anxiety disorder, for example – one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting millions – felt as though they had been personally traduced by the existence of the costume. I doubt they felt any more 'psycho' than they did before.

It's the same with the Christmas puppy row. The Dogs Trust was right to weigh in and highlight the time, money and commitment involved in owning a dog, certainly not something that should be undertaken lightly. But the sparkly picture in the catalogue was hardly some kind of canine hate-crime.

The fact that so many British people acted as though it was reflects an image, not of a compassionate, socially-responsible nation, but of a self-satisfied bunch of preachy control freaks, who enjoy nothing better than clamping down on anything outside the narrow remit of what they have deemed to be right and proper. A bit like here, really, only with less God.

This dangerous tendency was summed up, for me, in a recent radio discussion about whether it was wrong for two little girls from Co Down to dress up as the notorious 'Peru Two', caught smuggling drugs at Lima airport, for a fancy dress competition.

I thought it was hilarious, harmless and cleverly done. But one local commentator – I'll spare her blushes by not naming her – actually said that we "shouldn't be allowed to laugh" at such things.

This goes right to the repressive heart of the matter. Has it got to the stage when we are only "allowed to laugh" at whatever the self-appointed censors permit? If so, there won't be a lot of giggling going on.

We must protect our right to be outspoken, tasteless, provocative and, yes, even offensive. Within limits, of course – no-one is advocating outright abuse. But probing the limits of the sayable shows we are free and alive and human. Otherwise, we may as well time-travel back to 1970s East Berlin.

Come to think of it, I have a Stalin costume that would go down an absolute treat at the Stasi Halloween ball...

Belfast Telegraph


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