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Wednesday, February 27, 2013 

The great giving and taking offence stakes.

Over the last couple of months, it's been difficult not to notice a rise in the number of people either taking great offence at a perceived slur (see the ridiculous claims of transphobia against Suzanne Moore, followed by the genuine transphobia of Julie Burchill), those pretending to be outraged about something someone wrote 15 years ago (David Cameron and various Tories attacking John O'Farrell over his memoir, in which he described how as a callow young activist he'd wished Margaret Thatcher had died in the Brighton bombing), or, most seriously, representatives of a state actively trying to silence criticism through accusations of racism (the Israeli ambassador denouncing Gerald Scarfe's depiction of Benjamin Netanyahu). This culture of condemning and taking offence on behalf of others may well be as old as village gossips, yet in the last few years it seems to have been supercharged by the social networks and 24-hour news, where something that happened an hour ago is already regarded as old hat. It's also not always relatively harmless: those who've admittedly overstepped the line in their comments online, such as Azhar Ahmed or Matthew Woods, haven't just been convicted of sending "grossly offensive" messages, they've been threatened with violence and worse.

Last week we had the passing frenzy over Hilary Mantel's supposedly "venomous" remarks about the People's Kate, for which she was taken to task by both leaders of our main political parties, neither of whom could possibly have read her speech.  Mantel was big enough to ignore the entire silliness, leaving it to her agent to suggest her almost 6,000 word speech should be read in context rather than as a headline on the front of the Daily Wail.  This week we've had twins, so to speak, both gestated thanks to the Oscars. First there's Seth MacFarlane's entire performance as host, and then we also had the sheer horror of a tweet from The Onion, which read "[E]veryone else seems afraid to say it but that Quvenzhan Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?"

Dealing with the latter first, the main objection seems to be that anyone would ever refer to a 9-year-old girl as a cunt, even as a joke or satirical point.   Apparently "cunt" in American is even more offensive than it is in English, as while we often use it as term of endearment or in every other sentence when it comes to discussing football players, there it "has a particularly sexualised intent that makes it even more horrific when applied to a child", according to Sarah Ditum.  Fair enough, but can I suggest the usually excellent Ditum was perhaps a little slow on the uptake in this instance, it taking her a while to realise the Onion was mocking the modern tendency of some on social networks to criticise famous people in the most brutal terms, not just the snarkiest of gossip hacks. It also seems to be a dig at how child stars are often treated as not just precocious but simply smaller versions of their older contemporaries, regardless of the reality.  That the Onion decided to apologise is a shame, not least because as the Thick of It showed, inadvertently calling children cunts is really funny.

As for Seth MacFarlane, you really do wonder what people were expecting him to do as host.  Family Guy hasn't been funny in years (some would say ever), and while American Dad can be great, it's enjoyable precisely because it doesn't go off on the tangents Family Guy does, as well as having characters that may have started off as stereotypes but have since grown beyond that.  Singing about seeing the boobs of female nominees might be crass, and as has been pointed out, when the actors in question were portraying rape victims it was in even more dubious taste, but it's not misogyny.  The same goes for the gags about Jews and Wallis being too young even for George Clooney; they might not have been funny but getting worked up about them is just daft.  Far more questionable in my view was having Michelle Obama present the Best Picture award, which not only falls straight into the right-wing trap of Hollywood being Democrat to the core, it's that Argo, a film with a grip on reality almost as slight as that of Zero Dark Thirty was the winner, something seemingly designed to cause consternation in Iran.

My own view as to why there seems to have been so much of this nonsense of late isn't just that it's all down to Twitter or tabloid newspapers ever more desperate to stir the pot, it's that we also seem to be ever more intolerant of opinions different to our own, whether you're broadly on the left or the right. Any advantage that can be seized on will be, regardless of whether it can be ultimately stood up or not. There are some ideas, values or institutions which some regard as so sacrosanct that they can never be questioned, whether it be the monarchy, the military or the NHS.

When it comes to where comedy fits into this, with complaints recently about Jack Whitehall, and two new BBC Three alleged sitcoms, the real issue is that so much of it over the past few years has been ghastly, and not just on TV. The problem isn't that Ricky Gervais thinks there's some point to be made by playing someone who's simple, it's that he keeps getting away with writing the same show over and over, and where he is always the main character even if he doesn't play him. The Office was brilliant, but it's been downhill ever since.  On the big screen, the way Movie 43 has flopped despite its stellar cast hopefully suggests we've moved past the point at which a film gets a pass simply because it is so supposedly outrageous that it has to be seen to be believed.  South Park worked for so long (it has sadly declined markedly in recent years) because it had plenty of pathos to go along with the more outrĂ© material.  If nothing else, the Liberal Democrats wouldn't be in so much trouble now if Lord Rennard had heeded Sexual Harassment Panda's advice (allegedly).

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