When I explain to people about having been subjected to casual, and not so casual, racist abuse in the street, most people are shocked that it happens at all, and especially to me. I could be wrong but perhaps the subtext is,
“Oh, that sort of thing belongs on rundown estates where poor people live. It can’t possibly happen where nice people like us live. And to someone like you. I mean, you’re almost the same as us“
Is that a little brutal? Maybe, but I’ve witnessed this sort of stuff almost as many times as I’ve had insults hurled at me in my adult life. I grew up brutalised by constant racist abuse at school – it was called teasing in those days – and that was a grammar school in a nice suburban area too. Children have to be taught this stuff by someone.
Of course the abusers were only exercising their freedom of speech, something we in democratic, “civilised” countries quite rightly hold dear. But was it right for them to exercise that freedom in a way that brutalised and humiliated me? Or was I simply oversensitive and silly to take offence?
You know, of course, why I ask this.
The awful and appalling events in Paris yesterday horrified me just as they appalled all right-thinking people. No-one deserves to die for pointing out hypocrisy or inconsistency or muddle-headed medieval thinking. No-one. I am sure the icons of Islam or Christianity or Judaism or any other religion or atheism should be sufficiently robust to withstand valid criticism.
I am disgusted at how the justified outrage against journalists and cartoonists pointing out inconsistency and injustice has led to murder but I am also disturbed at how much this has descended into an excuse for yet more Us and Them Islamophobia.
This tweet changed my view on #JeSuisCharlie today. It made me see things from a different perspective. It seems to be that we are not qualified to tell other people what they should and should not find offensive.
Surely it is not beyond people’s imagination to realise that different people have different levels of sense of humour failure? And that people cowed for years by the attitudes of those who have all the power sometimes become tired of being insulted? It’s all very well for us sophisticated liberal elite to laugh at what we perceive are sillinesses, but when we do we are actually laughing at what makes people who they are, which is the case for people who adhere strongly to a faith or value their culture. Plenty of Jews don’t think Jewish humour is funny. Lots of Christians object to people mentioning misogyny or hypocrisy in their own institutions.
And how far should satire go? Some people liked Little Britain a lot, for example. I thought it was too often cruel. My late mother-in-law thought some of the gentler satirical programmes on Radio 4 went too far. If we are polite, we understand other peoples’ limits and stop before we upset them deeply. Extending that sort of courtesy is how we get along with each other but some might call it “Political Correctness gone mad.”
Yes, it is true that Western society can withstand satire, but there must be all sorts of instances when Western politicians, celebrities, sports starts have had serious sense of humour failures. Only in those cases they turn to legal injunctions to stop people saying things about them that they don’t like. I think we all have different levels of tolerance to being mocked and ridiculed but most of us have no option but either to shrug it off or to let it gnaw at our self-confidence.
I don’t have any solutions, of course I don’t but I’m increasingly cross at the bombast, the defensiveness, the raised tensions on all sides. If only debate were always as polite as this little Twitter exchange this morning:
Evelyne Beatrice Hall wrote of Voltaire’s beliefs:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
Well sometimes it’s wiser, kinder, nicer to exercise one’s right to keep one’s mouth shut.