In Defence of Offence: Goodbye Stephen Fry
It’s a strange thing, offence. I’m Irish on my mother’s side and hold an Irish passport. One of the subjects I took at A-Level was History and one of the modules focused on the Troubles in Ireland, Anglo-Celtic relations, the Irish Potato Famine and the IRA. In a lesson towards the end of term our teacher asked us a series of questions designed to recap what we had learnt. She was one of those infuriating teachers that asked terrible open ended questions and after summing up an event (possibly Bloody Sunday) she asked “and what do the Irish always do?” The bloke next to me put his hand up and said “blow stuff up” and the class – including the teacher – erupted in laughter. In my next History class (a different module taught by a deputy head teacher) I retold this conversation with mock outrage and incredulity. This teacher laughed and said “we all know that’s not all they do – they also eat potatoes.”
It’s a strange thing, offence. I’m writing this because the online hotbed of the offended (Twitter) reached indignation overload at a joke made by Stephen Fry on the BAFTAs. The fallout rumbles on and one implication of the reaction was Stephen Fry leaving Twitter. What could he have said to cause such a backlash? Did he say something dreadfully racist or sexist or homophobic? Did he point and laugh at a wheelchair user? Or kick a vagrant in the head? Or reference the poorly hidden smack addiction of a fellow celebrity?
Well, no. Stephen Fry said Jenny Beavan was dressed as a “bag lady.” Jenny Beavan is a costume designer who was picking up an award for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road. And as mentioned Twitter went ballistic. How DARE Stephen Fry, in his role as comedic awards host, tell a joke? How could he insult a woman on national television? Well, as it turns out Stephen Fry is friends with Jenny Beavan (as he was at pains to point out on Twitter). This did little to dampen the ensuing vitriol and Stephen Fry took the decision to leave Twitter. So, a man who’s profession is nominally that of a comedian made a joke and was harangued to the point he had to leave social networking. That’s the world we live in now.
It’s a strange thing, offence. Just to make clear there are times when offence is justified. I’m not writing this as a critique of political correctness; political correctness is in place to protect groups of people from abusive and unsavoury language and general disadvantage that inhibits their lives. If you think that is a bad thing either you fundamentally misunderstand the term or you’re a pretty committed bigot (for further reading see Jerry Seinfeld’s attack on PC culture – he blames us for a poorly received joke instead of the diminishing returns of his comedy). So, political correctness is great and it protects people. It stops people hanging signs outside pubs saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.
It is, however, in danger of being misrepresented to the point of being devoid of any meaning apart from as a stick to beat its supporters with. People end up pleading the Clarkson, i.e. you can’t even spit on a homeless anymore without being called a bigot by some Communist. Back to Stephen Fry and his joke, it is not politically incorrect to call someone a ‘bag lady’. It’s not. Regarding accusations of misogyny and sexism, Fry didn’t mention her appearance because she’s a woman but because she’s “one of the great cinematic costume designers.”
The point I’m trying to make is shut up being offended on social media. You’re boring and you’re in real danger of undoing all the positive work political correctness has done for us. If you don’t like something then tough. We all sit there tweeting, happy in the false knowledge we’re the centre of the universe. Just because you have an outlet for your opinions doesn’t make them right and doesn’t give you the right to rise up in arms against everything you don’t like. The definition of offence is being reimagined as something totally different. Offence is a perceived attack or insult upon one’s self, that means it is subjective. If you don’t like the way the BAFTAs is hosted, @JunkBore92348, switch it off. Unless Stephen Fry turns to face the camera and says “you @JunkBore92348 are not only an idiot but an unfit parent” you can take offence. You can’t tweet that his use of the horrific, loaded term ‘bag lady’ towards his friend Jenny Beavan is spiteful and expect it to have any weight. So don’t tweet that you’re offended. We don’t care. The only person with a right to claim offence is the bag lady herself and she seems okay: “I am absolutely not upset, but I don’t want to talk any further because if I talk about it it will just create more fuss.“. I’ll leave the last word to Stephen Fry – “I’m offended by that. Well, so f**king what?” I’d rather have him on Twitter than you.