Posts Tagged ‘offence’

A couple of things following on from yesterday’s post:

Alan Henness noticed an interesting shifting quality of the police reporting on the poppy-burning incident. Essentially, there’s a certain amount of confusion over whether the offense in question was mostly concerned with the arson itself, or the accompanying abusive caption which allegedly accompanied the picture.

According to some reports, the phrase “How about that you squadey cunts” was attached to the photo, and it may have been this which attracted the complaint(s) and gave ground for the arrest. I had read about this yesterday, but decided not to make it a significant point. As far as I can tell, it’s just more discussion about the rape victim’s attire. Yes, it’s a rude and insulting thing to say. I don’t doubt it would cause someone somewhere offence to read those words, and my first thought would be that anyone capable of uttering a phrase like that is likely an obnoxious twat. None of which makes a blind bit of difference to the lunacy of his being arrested over it.

Anyway, a little later Andy linked to another infuriating story about the white poppy. I mentioned the white poppy symbol briefly in my last post. It’s been around almost as long as its red counterpart, and was intended to have a more pacifist emphasis. With the red, some people in this country think it places too much emphasis on British soldiers, to the exclusion of combatants from other countries, and tacitly supports a militaristic mindset. If you want to remember everyone who’s died in war, with the intent of reinforcing ideas such as “Wow, let’s never do any of that again for any reason”, then maybe the white poppy’s for you.

It’s a low-key thing, offered as an alternative or complement to the ubiquitous popular choice. And, according to a candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner in Luton, it’s offensive and it desecrates the past.

Seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about yesterday when I mentioned the social compulsion that sometimes exists around the red poppy. In some people’s eyes, if you don’t do things our way, then you’re wrong, an outsider, and your actions are deplorable. If you dare to remember the past and honour the fallen in an unapproved fashion, then you deserve to be harangued and have any public expression of your feelings restricted.

The man who’d been laying a white wreath every Remembrance Day for 24 years, Marc Scheimann, had one English grandfather and one German – they both died in World War II, each with opposite allegiances. Their children, presumably, later married, in a rather glorious example of humanity’s ability to overcome tribal allegiances and hatred, and find common ground and solidarity.

Kevin Carroll didn’t seem interested in any of that. According to Mr Scheimann’s report:

He called me a scumbag and said when he was police commissioner he would make sure I went to jail for this.

This isn’t quite how Kevin Carroll remembers it. In his own words:

It will cause massive offence if Mr Scheimann is not prevented from laying his wreath of white poppies as they symbolise cowardice.

But he was allowed to lay it and then a drunk woman tried to remove it.

Remembrance is to pay honour but he was just there to desecrate it.

Which, frankly, doesn’t make him sound like any less of a dick.

If you’re so uninterested in the sometimes tricky details of reality, that the moment someone deviates from your accepted way of doing things even a little – even so far as to pick a different colour flower by which to remember the past with a slightly different attitude toward foreign affairs – you start to see them as an offensive and dangerous menace whose actions and words need to be suppressed…

…then, well, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence about you. But, wow. You suck.

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Someone took some of their own property, defaced it in a perfectly safe and easily avoidable manner, posted a picture of it online, and spent last night in a jail cell.

You’ve probably already heard about this, and no, I can’t make any more sense of it than you can.

The red poppy dates back to 1920 as a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who’ve died in war, and in Britain they can be seen being worn by pretty much everyone for, it seems, the several weeks surrounding November 11th, the day which saw the end of World War I.

It’s turned into something odd since then. The harmless artificial flower has started to become a focus point for an inexplicably intense sense of righteousness, indignation, and nationalism. Beyond simply something people do as a personal gesture of remembrance, it’s been turning into something you must do, and must do publicly enough that we all know you’re doing it, if you don’t want people to conclude that you hate Britain, or hate dead soldiers, or don’t care about the heroic sacrifice of something-or-other.

Those who most ardently claim to support the wearing of the poppy are also those most vocally encouraging this shift in attitudes, even though it goes against their purported interests. If it’s important to be able to wear a poppy to demonstrate your respect for the deceased, why would you work to make yourself indistinguishable from crowds of others, who bear the same emblem but don’t share your feelings – who wear the poppy more out of fear that they’d be branded “disrespectful” if they failed to do so, than from any sincere appreciation of the bravery of past generations? It seems counter-productive.

Similarly, show me an American who developed a greater respect for his country as a result of its coercive measures that prevent him from burning a flag. You can’t force people to feel the same way you do, and making them put on a show while hiding their true feelings serves no purpose except to help you live in a fantasy world, at the expense of others’ autonomy.

I’ve got a little distracted here by my opposition to certain zealously patriotic organisations and Facebook groups. What sparked my interest, though, was this 19-year-old guy being arrested and thrown in jail over an image of a poppy being set alight.

In every comment on this story, it seems obligatory to mention the nature of the sacrifice that the poppy represents, and bring to mind those who gave their lives fighting to defend the very freedoms which some people now use to defile a revered symbol.

The irony may be of some interest, but it’s irrelevant to the important point. Even if the concept of freedom had never had anybody die in an effort to defend it, locking people in a cage for burning a poppy in an act of disrespect is an insane way for any civilised country to behave.

And something else that should be irrelevant to how we respond to tyranny is the arsonist’s intentions, or how public he made his display, or how provocative he was attempting to be. A few weeks ago, when Islamic extremists were losing their shit over a blasphemous YouTube video, Penn Jillette was discussing it (I forget where) and said something like: “I wish we could all stop talking about what the rape victim was wearing”. A lot of people prefaced their condemnation of that religious violence by vociferously deploring any insult against Islam. It was an appalling, abusive, low-quality, tenth-rate film, we were told. This didn’t excuse the violence of the response, of course, but

Leave aside how apt a rape comparison is for something about poppies. It’s an analogy of principle; the details and the scale of it aren’t supposed to carry across. The point is, there’s really no good reason to give the tiniest fleck of a shred of an iota of a toss whether this guy’s a total ass, or how obnoxious a sentiment he may have been expressing in the caption to the image. What matters is that the police came and took him away from his home and forced him into a cell, because some people thought he was acting offensively by posting a picture of a burning flower online.

Our law is set up such that it’s entirely possible he’ll end up being charged with a serious crime, a conviction for which could land him in prison for a number of months, as well as branding him as a criminal for the rest of his life.

If you’re going to allow that, why not cram people into a cage against their will because they used swear words on a website that children might potentially visit? Or because they jumped into a river and got in some posh people’s way? Or because they commented that the Queen looks a bit bloody miserable in any given public appearance?

If that sounds ridiculous, it should. If it sounds like it could never happen… Don’t get complacent.

As an incidental postscript, white poppies are for peace.

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And this is totally how grown-ups behave.

He’s finally noticed that in 1987 there was this award-winning photograph called Piss Christ. Don’t ask me why. I don’t understand art, and I don’t understand this.

He’s offended by it, which is not remotely surprising, but also not entirely unreasonable. It’s a symbol of Jesus on the cross submerged entirely in urine. Even if most Christians have more sense than to get particularly riled over it, it’s pretty offensive.

But Bill Donohue’s reaction to it is very confused. First of all, he wants those people who spoke out against that YouTube film which offended Muslims recently to mount a similar defense of Christians:

Where are they when Christians are being offended? We are offended over and over again, through the artistic community, on radio and television, in the movies. Where have these people been? Why don’t they ever speak out against anti-Christian fare?

I suspect the answer is partly to do with the dearth of Christian extremists bombing embassies who officials feel they should mollify, and partly because the overwhelming majority of the USA are still Christians, are in no way a persecuted minority, and are in no actual danger of suffering any serious detriment to their lives because of a few jibes about their belief system.

He then adopted a completely different set of principles, and presented a piece of art of his own creation, in which a doll of Obama is mounted in some fake shit.

It’s not a subtle or complex piece. (Or maybe I still just don’t get art.) But I suspect it honestly expresses the artist’s feelings, in a way likely to offend many people. In this way, perhaps it’s doing exactly what art should do. But the target of the work is in such a position of power or authority that their autonomy and dignity is not remotely threatened by something so weakly subversive.

Bill Donohue has, in fact, chosen to closely emulate the creator of Piss Christ.

You know what? This part kinda doesn’t bother me. Because, in his blindly petulant lashing-out, in his latest childish tantrum against some irrelevancy he’s picked on and inflated to a major injustice against the centre of his own personal universe, he’s actually managed to stumble quite by accident across the right answer.

The solution to bad speech is more speech.

If someone creates something which denigrates you or your ideas, then assuming those ideas have any merit, the only way for you to really lose that fight is to try and forcibly shut them up.

Make some art of your own. Add to the conversation. Don’t try to hush it up.

Bill Donohue’s part of the way there. He knows he ought to have the right to insult Obama and his supporters. He gets why free speech is important when it supports his cause, even if you can just hear him squawking:

“Hey, if you get to do that, I get to do this! Yeah, Obama’s covered in shit! See? Not so fun, is it? How d’ya like your precious free speech now, huh?”

We like it just fine, Bill.

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In a dishearteningly short time, a couple of stories appear to which my new catchphrase could be applied.

A man put a sign up in his home, visible from outside, reading “Religions are fairy stories for adults“.

This, obviously, is something some people will disagree with. I’ve often seen things people have put on display on their own property, expressing their own views, with which I’ve disagreed: sentiments such as “JESUS SAVES” typify the sort of thing I mean. They’re wrong, but that’s fine. It’s no bother to me, and no business of mine.

Police have told this man that he’ll have to take his sign down if anyone complains that they’re offended by it, or else he’ll be arrested.

Now, that’s importantly different from having the authorities simply swoop in and order him to remove the sign straight away or face a prison sentence. Nobody’s complained about it yet. But they could. Anyone walking past his house has the legal ability to lodge a complaint, and make it illegal for that sign to remain up in the man’s own home. That’s still pretty scary and surreal.

The Public Order Act is the law in question, which is supposed to protect us all from “distress” caused by other people’s “threatening, abusive or insulting” actions. It’s hard to imagine how complaining to the police, and having them threaten a pensioner with forced imprisonment, is a more effective or humane way of saving anyone from distress than by simply choosing not to look at that particular square foot of some other guy’s house.

Ken at Popehat asks:

What is the character of a person who sees a sign like that in a pensioner’s window, and runs to the police to complain?

He may find at least a partial answer to that question in the form of Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who both complains about members of his own religion being charged with crimes under this law and simultaneously mocks the idea that an atheist being so censored has any legitimate complaint. He throws in a dozen or so misunderstandings of evolution toward the end, too, for no reason except to hurl misguided abuse.


Putting up a piece of paper, with some writing expressing their disagreement with others’ opinions, in the window of their own house?

Or, for that matter, cheering at their daughter’s graduation ceremony at a point of the process during which they’ve been asked to keep quiet?

Strange reasons to think you’re entitled to lock someone in a cage.

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I’m not sure how noticeable it’s been, but I’ve felt a shift in my own attitude in recent months, toward activism and online debate and whatnot. More and more, I’m steering away from using sarcasm and mockery as a first resort, and trying to find a way to sympathise and connect with people I find myself in disagreement with.

Sometimes it’s really, really hard. And it’s not always the best way to go. I’m not wading into the whole Don’t Be A Dick clusterfuffle again here, so don’t take this as a statement on how other people should be interacting. Taking the piss out of dangerous idiots absolutely has its place. I’ve just been trying to be a little softer in my own approach.

Maybe learning about rationality has helped with that, as I’ve figured out more about the ways people can be wrong, and how human it is for us to attach ourselves deeply to mistaken and illogical ideas. It doesn’t make the ideas themselves less deplorable, and it’s still important to combat ignorance and bigotry wherever we can. But even when people exhibit traits that sicken you, and act in ways that make you ashamed to be a part of their species, they’re still people. They got to where they are through entirely human processes of personal development, and even if we condemn everything they stand for, they deserve a sincere attempt to be respected.

Having said all that, some people just need to get the fuck over themselves.

After joking about the kinds of insipidly bland billboards that atheists might have to come up with to avoid pissing off any over-sensitive Christians with a persecution complex, the organisation American Atheists submitted an ad for which they wanted to buy space on the sides of some buses. The ad featured the name and website of American Atheists and the NEPA Freethought Society, and the slogan:


Yes, that’s it. It’s one word, it’s a description of a group of people, it just names an idea, it doesn’t say anything about anything, it is a joke how innocuous and inoffensive it’s possible to make a slogan.

And the transport authority rejected it.

Apparently mentioning atheists in a single word on the side of a bus is against their policy, on the grounds that it “could be deemed controversial or otherwise spark public debate”.

…Yeah. And refusing to permit the word even be seen publicly does neither of those things.

Firstly, these buses already run ads saying “God Bless America”. If you don’t think that is something which could “spark public debate”, if you think that is so uncontroversial it couldn’t possibly even provoke any sort of spirited discussion among anyone anywhere, then holy crap your Christian privilege is visible from Betelgeuse.

Second, if you think mentioning atheists in a public space – nothing more than acknowledging the existence of a group of people who have a different opinion from you – is so controversial, so frightening, so potentially damaging and traumatising to your nation’s poor children that you cannot morally endorse such a thing: Fuck you. Just fuck you.

American Atheists want this resolved without having to sue. They’ve requested the matter be corrected, without calling anyone a deranged, prejudiced fuckwit. They’re better at this sort of thing than I am.

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Only joking

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.

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