Back in the 1970s, comedian Lenny
Bruce used to finish his stage act by addressing the audience with a question:
“Before I go, is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”
Demographically, it must be
assumed that the offended were substantial in number, but almost invariably the
response would be laughter, and for an obvious reason: the audience had paid
good money to chortle at the insults, which meant that Bruce enjoyed a
virtually unrestricted license to dispense them.
Bruce and his ilk were, of course,
occasionally booed from the stage, and frequently attacked in the media, for crossing
that elusive line between questionable taste and bad taste. And often they deserved to be.
But today – and if not today,
then perhaps some time soon – there is a looming danger that the laughter will
be replaced by protest. And such a protest
might well be taken further. A performer
like Bruce might not just be hounded from his profession, but face criminal
charges under the ever-widening spectrum of Human Rights laws. In what must still be regarded as an extreme
case, he might even face death threats – as in the fatwahs imposed on the
novelist Salman Rushdie, for daring to write a book critical of certain aspects
of Islam, and the Danish newspaper editor for publishing cartoons that
committed a similar perceived ‘crime’.
Protestors, whether representing
ethnic, religious or special interest groups, have every right to object to
being insulted but the objection can never – or hardly ever – be taken beyond protest
as an expression of opinion. The obvious
– actually not always so obvious – exception would be an insult likely to bring
personal harm to an individual, or one calculated to cause civil disorder. Adherence to the principle of free speech, as
everyone knows, still proscribes yelling “Fire!” in a crowded cinema.
The point of the Bruce analogy is
that the line between good taste and bad lacks definition, and moreover can’t
be defined because no one is qualified or entitled to say when that line has
been crossed. Not even the most learned of
judges. In another context – though
perhaps not as different as may appear – one such judge was asked for a ruling
that defined pornography. His response
became a famous epithet: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”.
So it is with questionable taste.
Society can usually reach a
consensus on what constitutes the outer extremities of poor taste – none except
the insane or perverted will argue, for example, that it is decent to joke
about the Holocaust – and agree on suitable consequences. But those consequences must almost invariably fall
short of criminal prosecution.
I should get to the point.
The above musings were brought
about by the very minor and quite absurd storm that has engulfed Roy Hodgson,
the manager of the England
football team. At half time in a recent international
match, Hodgson decided that a certain player was being starved of the
ball. He illustrated his point with an
old joke, which I relate in full.
NASA, having sent only monkeys
into space, decides it’s time to send a man up, and a capsule is launched
containing a man and a monkey. The first
instruction is to the monkey: “Fire the retros”. Soon afterwards, another instruction is
issued: “Monkey, check the solid fuel
supply.” And later still a third:
“Monkey, check the man’s life support systems.”
At this point, the astronaut, deeply upset, says to ground control:
“When do I get to do something?” They
reply: “In 15 minutes, feed the monkey.”
You can guess the outcome. Hodgson’s anecdote went public, apparently
released anonymously by one of the black players present, who considered the
story racist in tone. The press picked
up the report and Hodgson, though exonerated publicly by all the players, has since
spent two days defending himself against the imputation of racism.
Now, you may consider Hodgson’s dressing-room
story a poor choice, given the association of the words ‘monkey’ and ‘black’ –
an association, incidentally, based largely on the chants of racist louts at
football grounds – and the more so given the number of black players in the
team. But there all judgement should
end. Hodgson is palpably not a racist,
and there is not a scintilla of evidence in his rather feeble joke to suggest
I sometimes think we’re going
mad. We’re being driven mad by those who
readily exploit the understandable sensitivities of those minorities that have
suffered from persecution or prejudice.
They may do so with honest intent but in many cases it seems they are
doing it as much for their own ends.
One Peter Herbert, president of
the Society of Black Lawyers is a man who never neglects the flimsiest opportunity
to lecture us about our manners and obligations. The Football Association, he ventured
yesterday, should “educate” Hodgson about racially sensitive language to help
him avoid repeating the offence. I’d
like to educate Herbert on how the cause of multi-cultural harmony is not served
by having an association whose membership is confined to black lawyers. Is it an antidote to an association of white
lawyers? Of Asian lawyers? Of blind, one-legged lawyers? Just to ask the question is asking for
To proceed further across thin
ice, I see Herbert as part of the problem, not the solution. Instead of courting publicity by dabbling in confected
social engineering he should stick to practising the law, a law that is
supposed to be colour-blind. Perhaps
he’s seeking to find a client willing to sue the hapless Hodgson for depriving
black footballers of their civil rights.
He doesn’t have to actually do it; he can just say he’s thinking about
it, and the ensuing publicity would take care of itself.
And as for the player who
“shopped” his manager on such specious grounds, he should hang his head in
That way at least we’d find out
who he is.