Monday, 7 February 2011

Better left unsaid

As children, we're taught the playground rhyme about sticks and stones, to help us deal with the ever-present threat of bullying. But anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of unkind words, knows that they can actually leave much deeper scars than a good kicking.

The recent furore caused by Richard Keys and Andy Gray's comments has opened up in interesting debate about the power of words. To be honest, no-one was particularly surprised that professional football is filled with boorish assholes, who think the only role a woman should play inside a stadium is frying off the hotdog sausages. But the reverberations currently being felt throughout the media world are more concerned with freedom of speech, and the invisible line that separates what's acceptable from what's not.

Those defending Keys and Gray argue that people say sexist, racist and homophobic things all the time, and that the two football pundits have been used as sacrificial lambs on the altar of political correctness. Jeremy Clarkson, the corduroy-clad presenter of Top Gear, has been particularly vocal about his fears of the 'thought police' threatening to clamp down on free speech.

Last month, at the National Television Awards, he spoke about about the risks of TV personalities being punished for thinking out loud. He claims that "We've arrived at a stage where you actually can be busted for heresy by thought, which is a terrifying place to live. While we try very hard on Top Gear not to be sexist, if a man wants to think that, that's fine. You should be allowed to think what you think."

The problem is, in aggressively pursuing their own freedom to think, he and his conservative cohorts are going out of their way to establish their right to be offensive. They even managed to trigger an international incident by making a series of racist claims about Mexican automotive workers, calling them "'lazy, feckless and flatulent".

But it's OK, because they're just saying what everyone else is thinking. So what's the harm? As Steve Coogan pointed out, they're not standing up for free speech and daring to vocalise what the majority is thinking. They're ignorant school-yard bullies who egg each other on to say something shocking and cruel.

With comedians regularly coming under fire for their 'offensive' material, isn't it a little hypocritical for someone like Coogan to condemn others for making jokes at someone else's expense? Not necessarily, as he makes quite clear in his article for The Observer, good comedy is about taking a pop at pomposity, rather than picking on the weak.

Political correctness is often name-checked as a one-size-fits-all bogeyman; a terrifying liberal mindset designed to squash freedom of speech in order to spare the feelings of hyper-sensitive minorities. In fact, the version of political correctness often touted by bigots like Jeremy Clarkson, doesn't really exist. It's an invented construct used as a handy justification whenever we feel the need to say something indefensible - using "I'm refreshingly politically incorrect" as a badge of honour.

There's also a flipside to all this, as we saw on ITV's 'Dancing on Ice' last night. The show itself is the usual parade of desperate z-grade celebrities, striving for 15 minutes of pop-cultural relevance by dressing in sequined outfits and pair of ice-skates. But this year, there's one notable difference.

In amongst the celebrity offspring, soap opera stars and Vanilla Ice, there's Lance Corporal Johnson Gideon Beharry VC. Johnson was awarded the Victoria Cross following service in Iraq, where he sustained severe head injuries whilst saving members of his unit from two separate ambushes.

Whilst no-one can criticise Johnson's bravery, commitment or determination, the fact remains that he's not a dancer, a performer, or even a celebrity. And the less said about his skating, the better. Like Heather Mills, who gamely turned up every week last year, despite only having one leg, Johnson's performances may well serve to inspire other people with injuries or disabilities to think "I can do that". No argument here.

However, last night's show descended into a rather embarrassing catfight, as judge Jason Gardiner critiqued Johnson's mediocre performance. Head Coach Karen Barber leapt to the military man's defence, accusing Jason of being rude and offensive. According to Karen, Johnson has to try harder, due to the head injuries he sustained in battle, and struggles with the choreography; she felt he deserved higher marks than the judges were willing to give him.

Although she was quick to label Gardiner's comments as offensive, Karen perhaps missed the point about when it's appropriate to say something. Despite her empathetic tears and staunch advocacy of Beharry, she revealed that, in her mind at least, Johnson deserves a free pass because of his struggles. The moment concessions are made, or scores manipulated due to an overabundance of sympathy, equality skates shakily out the door.

The truth is sometimes hard to hear. We might not always like it, but we owe it to ourselves to listen. As long as the comments are based on understanding and equality, rather than condescension or ignorance, we have nothing to worry about. Then again, perhaps it's not so surprising that Karen lost her temper at Jason, after all, she is just a woman...

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