Jeremy Clarkson annoyed the entire world recently.
And then he went on The One Show and talked about the public sector strike.
Although it’s hardly news for someone like Clarkson to say something contentiously coarse, one particular comment he made last week has caused more of a kerfuffle than most. Public sector workers had been striking over government plans to cut pay and pensions, and Clarkson, when asked his opinion, said this:
Frankly, I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean, how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living?
A lot of people involved in the strike or sympathetic to those involved with it weren’t happy with this. It sounds like a deplorably unkind thing to suggest. The trade union Unison suggested that the BBC should sack him. He’s apologised, but thinks it should be clear when taken in context that his remarks weren’t meant seriously. Those calling for recriminations are dismissive of the idea that anything as appalling as a demand for summary executions of teachers and nurses can be made acceptable by declaring it “just a joke”.
The thing is, it was taken out of context. This context here.
Let’s consider some ground rules for a moment. If you’re going to claim that a quote has been taken out of context, it’s up to you to explain why the quote alone does not give an accurate impression of its intended meaning, and how the interpretation was altered by a lack of context. It’s not enough to simply say “you’ve taken that out of context” and excuse yourself from ever being accused of having said something offensive.
But it seems clear that anything could, potentially, be taken out of context, however straight-forwardly offensive and objectionable it might seem. If it turns out that the words, when originally uttered, where preceded by the phrase “Some people might say,” and followed by “…but I would totally disagree with that,” then this is always important to know if you want an accurate understanding of what somebody was saying.
So what was Clarkson’s context? His actual, initial answer to the question about the strikes went like this:
I think they have been fantastic. Absolutely. London today has just been empty. Everybody stayed at home, you can whizz about, restaurants are empty… Airports, people streaming through with no problems at all. And it’s also like being back in the 70s. It makes me feel at home somehow.
This might not seem the noblest motivation for supporting workers’ attempts to defend their rights from employers, but at least he’s nominally on side. Then, a little bit later, and immediately before his homicidal tirade, he adds:
But we have to balance this though, because this is the BBC.
He’s referring to a tendency some have noticed in the BBC’s news reporting to give false balance, and insist on treating two sides of any discussion with scrupulous equality, regardless of either side’s true merits. Whether or not the BBC is actually guilty of this has no bearing on the fact that this was Clarkson’s basis for making his next comment.
His line about executing public sector workers was a joke. But the interesting question isn’t whether or not it’s a joke, but what joke it is that he was telling.
One possibility: although he wouldn’t really shoot them, it’s funny to think about shooting them. He was providing a comedic exaggeration of his genuine feelings, namely that the strikers are deserving of contempt.
Alternatively: he’s got no time for the way the BBC needs to “balance” every debate for the sake of impartiality, and he’s lampooning this idea by offering a contorted, extreme vision of what a “balanced” response might look like in the case of his support for the strike.
In either case, he could rightly claim that his remarks weren’t taken seriously. But in the second instance – which I think is evidently what Clarkson intended – there’s no real grounds to be offended on behalf of the strikers. They’re not the victims of the joke. The BBC are the victims; the utter inanity of making such outrageous statements about the strikers was exactly the point he was making.
The hosts of the show seem not to have been quite sure what to make of his comment, and sought to distance the BBC itself from any such provocative opinions, reminding viewers that these were “only Jeremy’s views”. His own immediate response was: “They’re not.” It’s not hard to see what he was doing.
Apparently, during the same show, Clarkson also made a comment about people committing suicide by jumping in front of trains, which also attracted complaints. The details aren’t in the above transcript, so I can’t be sure of the context, or even what was said. But there’s a good chance it provides a much better reason to maintain your opinion that Clarkson’s an obnoxious twerp than anything he’s said about the public sector lately.