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When did the left become so Victorian?
On 19 November, it was announced that the BBC had solved its annual conundrum of what to do about the lyrics of ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues. As readers will probably be aware, ‘Fairytale of New York’ – which has frequently been voted the UK’s favourite Christmas song – happens to contain some profanity. One line goes, “You're a bum, you're a punk, you're an old slut on junk”. And another goes, “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot”.
What has been decided is that Radio 1 will play an expurgated version in which the words ‘slut’ and ‘faggot’ do not appear, whereas Radio 2 will play the original version in which those words do appear. (And on Radio 6, DJs will be able to choose which version to play). The reason Radio 1 opted for the expurgated version, we are told, is that the station caters to younger listeners who are “particularly sensitive to derogatory terms for gender and sexuality”, and who might therefore “find some of the words stark and not in line with what they would expect to hear on air”.
At least one commentator has heavily criticised this decision on the grounds that the “young are already too mollycoddled” (an observation with which it is hard to disagree). To me, however, what the BBC has decided seems like a reasonable compromise. After all, most songs containing expletives are already censored on mainstream radio stations, so the expurgation of ‘Fairytale of New York’ on one particular station does not represent any significant new threat to artistic expression.
What is more interesting about this incident (aside from the fact that many British people still listen to the radio) is that the decision to censor has been mainly supported by the left and criticised by the right. Right-leaning publications – such as The Spectator, The Telegraph and the Daily Express – have all run pieces that could be described as “anti-expurgatory”, whereas The Guardian has run pieces expressing distinctly “pro-expurgatory” sentiments. (The Telegraph did also find space for a piece describing ‘Fairytale of New York’ as a “faux-Irish travesty”.)
In addition, the BBC’s decision was criticised in a recent letter to Boris Johnson signed by more than 25 Conservative MPs. They referred to the organisation’s “bizarre decision to censor a well-known Christmas song”, which they took as evidence of its “undoubted liberal bias”.
And indeed, this state of affairs – with the left being for expurgation of artistic works and the right being against – represents a new normal in Britain and America. (Which is not to say, incidentally, that the right is squeaky clean when it comes to protecting freedom of speech.) Over the last few months, TV shows that everyone considered funny just a few years ago have been sedulously purged of scenes or episodes now deemed “problematic” by the left (mainly those involving blackface).
The only exception is Borat, where the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen dresses up in “Kazakhface”. But this has been allowed because Baron Cohen’s brand of ethnically insensitive comedy is done for a higher purpose, namely making fun of Republicans.
However, things haven’t always been this way. Back in 1960, it was quite the reverse. That was the year of ‘Regina v Penguin Books Ltd’, in which Penguin Books was prosecuted under the ‘Obscene Publications Act 1959’ for publishing the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence's novel ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’. The book tells the story of an upper-class woman’s affair with her gamekeeper, and contains scenes of a sexual nature, as well as copious “four letter Anglo-Saxon words”.
The case was prosecuted by a gentleman named John Mervyn Guthrie Griffith-Jones, who attended both Eton and Cambridge, and whose father had been a barrister before him. He was, in other words, a paragon of the British establishment. Though it should be noted that his opponent, Gerald Gardiner, was a lawyer of similar provenance – a graduate of Harrow and Oxford, as it happens. Importantly, however, Gardiner was a Labour man who fought for causes like women’s rights and the abolition of capital punishment.
Under the 1959 Act, a work was considered obscene if it was likely to “deprave and corrupt” persons who saw, read or heard it. Griffith-Jones argued that this was true of ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’. He maintained that the book “sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse”, and that it “encourages and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity”. He also specified the exact number of times various expletives (such as ‘balls’) appeared, and provoked laughter by asking members of the jury, “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
Griffith-Jones ultimately lost the argument in court. This represented a defeat for the old-fangled British establishment (D. H. Lawrence once described his critics as “the grey elderly ones”) and heralded the liberalisation of publishing in Britain.
Now the situation is reversed. Those calling for the removal of profanity from artistic works are not stuffy old conservatives, but earnest young left-wingers. In a recent YouGov poll, 64% of over 65s said that censoring ‘Fairytale of New York’ was the wrong decision, compared to only 43% of 18-24 year-olds.
Of course, people who support the BBC’s decision might argue that the profanity in ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ is different from the profanity in ‘Fairytale of New York’: prurient depictions of adultery and words like ‘balls’ are not slurs directed at particular groups, so they are much less objectionable than ‘slut’ and ‘faggot’. Though one might counter that persons who have been the victim of adultery could plausibly be upset by the content of Lawrence’s book.
And I can still see an underlying similarity between the criticisms of ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ and the criticisms of ‘Fairytale of New York’. In both cases, it seems, there is a concern on the part of critics that failure to expurgate the work could lead some readers or listeners to engage in disreputable behaviour (marital infidelity in the former case and homophobia or misogyny in the latter). Referring to ‘Fairytale of New York’, the modern-day counterpart of Griffith-Jones might ask, “Is it a song that you would even wish your Brexit-supporting grandfather to hear?”
So why has the left become so conservative? One theory says that, as people with left-wing views came to dominate social and cultural institutions, they naturally went from being opposed to being in favour of censorship. Another theory says that the left actually changed, i.e., a movement based on broad class interests was supplanted by one based on narrow identity-group interests, and one of the aims it adopted was preventing offence to members of those identity-groups.
Whatever its explanation, the left’s shift from irreverent to priggish is certainly difficult to ignore.
Image: Sir George Hayter, The Coronation of Queen Victoria, 1842
Banning ‘black’ is the new black
On 28 November, The Telegraph reported that students at the University of Manchester have called for terms such as ‘black sheep’, ‘blackmail’ and ‘black market’ to be banned. According to the activists, ‘black’ is “linguistically and metaphorically associated with negative situations”, and this association is “situated in colonial history”.
But there are at least three words in which ‘white’ has negative connotations: ‘whitewash’, ‘whiteout’ and ‘whitehead’. On the other hand, ‘Whitehead’ with a capital ‘W’ could be said to have positive connotations, given the many notable people with that surname. (The one that first came to mind, incidentally, was Alfred North Whitehead, the famous philosopher and co-author of Bertrand Russell.)
And what about those of us who belong to the male gender? There are very many words in which ‘man’ has negative connotations: ‘manhandle’, ‘manhole’, ‘manhunt’, ‘manslaughter’, ‘manure’, ‘mangy’, ‘manic’, ‘mangled’, ‘maniacal’, ‘manipulative’. Oh and ‘management consultant’. I will send the full list to the University of Manchester for expurgation.
Stephen Fry on ‘respect’
It may have come to your attention that an educational establishment in East Anglia, where I was formerly employed, is in the news again for reasons related to free speech. In particular, the University’s executive body has proposed to update its ‘Statement on Freedom of Speech’, but not everyone is happy with the proposed changes.
One sentence in the updated version says that members of the university should feel able to express their opinions “without fear of disrespect”. And another says that members should “be respectful of the diverse identities of others”. However, some academics have pointed out that not all views, or indeed all “identities”, are equally deserving of respect. (For example, why would you respect someone who identified with the work of Damien Hirst?)
These dissenters have tabled an amendment, which proposes to replace the term ‘respect’ with the far more appropriate term ‘tolerate’. (The Students’ Union has expressed its opposition to this amendment, which means you can be confident the amendment is worth backing.) One notable alumnus in whom the dissenters have an ally is the comedian Stephen Fry. He has written an excellent piece for The Times criticising the University’s use of ‘respect’. It begins:
A demand for respect is like a demand for a laugh, or demands for love, loyalty and allegiance. They cannot be given if not felt.
And if you enjoyed that piece, you will also enjoy this old clip of him discussing ‘offence’ with the late Christopher Hitchens.
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