I was up late on Saturday, due to my twenty-four-hour party people lifestyle (3pm-9pm: check emails, play Tetris; 9-9.30: panic, do some work; 9.30-5am: eat Bombay mix, play more Tetris) and found myself listening to 5 Live’s discussion on David Cameron’s use of Tourette Syndrome (TS) as a simile for how annoying he finds Ed Balls.
Naturally, while explaining that TS is not all that funny, the disability rights campaigner on the radio inadvertently emitted that high-pitched political-correctness-gone-mad alarm that only Philip Davies MP can hear (it’s also set off by wheelchair ramps, breastfeeding and the BBC Asian Network): scrambling for his phone, he spluttered down the line that he couldn’t see how anyone could have found the Prime Minister’s little joke offensive. The Prime Minister’s sniggering ‘apology’ on Marr the next morning likewise stated that he hadn’t meant to ‘offend’.
There’s something wrong with the language here, and like every feminist lefty I believe the solution is to BAN THIS FILTH…the filth I’m referring to, in this case, being the word ‘offence’. Also ‘offend’, ‘offensive’ and, above all else, the phrase ‘no offence’.
Here’s what happens. Someone – it could be Ricky Gervais, it could just as easily be the Prime Minister, but for the sake of both comedy and plausibility let’s say it’s Philip Davies – says something that is nasty, harmful or just plain stupid. “Why do women ming so much more than they used to?” he might muse, or “What’s wrong with blacking up, anyway?”, or “Why do disabled people get minimum wage?” (For legal reasons I should point out that Philip Davies MP has only said two of those things.)
Now, in America Philip Davies would become a frontrunner for GOP presidential candidate, but what happens in the UK is this: Twitter will read what he has said, and we’ll all get pissed off, and then Political Scrapbook will cover it by saying that Philip Davies has, once again, said something offensive. And after repeated calls to his office, they will extract from Philip Davies a bewildered half-apology, in which he will say that he never intended any offence, and then all the tweeting Tories and worse will say it’s political correctness gone mad, and that you can’t say anything any more without someone taking offence, and the whole thing will miss the bloody point.
The problem with the whole offend-offence-offensive shizzle (or ‘paradigm’, if you prefer, but I hope you don’t) is that it’s subjective. Many things offend me – Iron Lady posters on the sides of buses, Cher Lloyd, grown women who say “holibobs” – but I’m unlikely to suggest that anyone apologise for them. (Well. Maybe Cher Lloyd. Someone needs to apologise to the nation for Cher Lloyd.)
The reason Cameron needed to apologise is not because everyone on Twitter threw their hands up in horror and fainted when they saw the word ‘Tourette’ in the Telegraph, like Mary Whitehouse seeing a nipple – I don’t believe anyone did that. It is because, as countless people, including many with TS, have pointed out: having TS sucks. It’s a distressing disability which is tricky to manage, and it can attract a lot of abuse, especially at school. The bullying of some people with TS is fed by the misconceptions that 1. Tourettes means you swear all the time, 2. people with Tourettes are annoying, and 3. Tourettes is hilarious.
Taking these things into account – along with the fact that the Government is under a growing and fully justified attack over its treatment of disabled people – a number of adjectives could describe the Prime Minister’s off-the-cuff decision to use a disability as a punchline. Inappropriate, for starters. Insensitive? Definitely. Contributory to a culture that is harmful? Is that an adjective? Probably not. But it’s still better than wussing out with ‘offensive’.
By saying that we’ve ‘taken offence’ we prompt the non-apology: “I didn’t intend to cause offence.” When Cameron/Davies/whoever said that nasty, harmful or stupid thing, you see, their intention was not for people on Twitter to throw their hands up in horror and faint like Lady Sybil encountering Lady Gaga. So that’s all right! It’s not their fault they don’t have access to the Dictionary of Offence that we get in our humourless lefty induction pack (along with the houmous and a copy of ‘Chavs’). They know the word ‘black’ is in there (because everyone knows you can’t sing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ anymore. But why isn’t ‘white’ in there? Eh? That’s what they’d like to know), and ‘homosexuality’ is in there too, and apparently there’s a picture of a golliwog, but besides that, how are they meant to keep up?
I feel the bewilderment, I really do – I genuinely believe that David Cameron doesn’t understand why he should be held to a different standard of discourse than Little Britain, and that Philip Davies doesn’t realise society has changed since Tintin In The Congo came out. And I want to help.
I like Caitlin Moran’s suggestion that we replace all the supposedly complicated rules of ‘political correctness’ with ‘BE POLITE’, but, well, it’s just not going to work in politics, is it? Even I wouldn’t suggest David Cameron tries to be polite to Ed Balls: if he was doing the flatliney hand dance at me every week I wouldn’t be polite to him either.
What I would suggest is this: before you form words, on your Twitter client or on your tongue, think about the effect they could have. This is something politicians are meant to be good at. Forget ‘offence’ – think about the actual, practical effect of your words. And then ask yourself: as Prime Minister, do I want to risk contributing to the stigma surrounding a disability? Or: as one of the very few prominent black women in British politics, do I want to say anything that risks allowing a person with little sense of historical context to call me racist? Or: as Ed Miliband (or a member of Ed Miliband’s staff), do I want to risk Luke Bozier having something else to whinge on about?
No? Then pick a different simile; have your conversation over DM or not at all; and check your vowels. It’s so easy, even David Cameron should be able to manage it. No offence.