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Culture shield

Last month, I wrote about the “increasingly frequent attempts to turn political correctness into a bloodsport” – the key characteristics of which I said were as follows:

“Firstly, anger is directed not at institutions or society as a whole, but at named individuals. Secondly, the worst possible interpretation is placed on the offending words, with no allowance made for context, carelessness or ignorance. Thirdly, the accusers call for the maximum available penalty – ideally, loss of livelihood and permanent professional exile.”

Today, I was going to feature two case studies as examples of what I’d previously condemned. But then, on closer examination, I found myself changing my mind. In pushing back against the kind of outrage that’s orchestrated with the purpose of shouting people down, it’s important that we don’t go too far in the other direction. The right to free speech must include the right to complain about what others have said, the right not to listen to them and, with important qualifications, the right of individuals and organisations not to provide them with a platform.

Consider the following example (from a BBC News report):

“A new Banksy mural showing a group of pigeons holding anti-immigration banners has been destroyed following a complaint the work was ‘racist’.

“The mural in Clacton-on-Sea – where a by-election is due to take place following the local MP’s defection to UKIP – appeared this week.

“It showed four pigeons holding signs including ‘Go Back to Africa’, while a more exotic-looking bird looked on.

“The local council, which removed it, said it did not know it was by Banksy.”

The mural was clearly not intended to be racist. Though banal and patronising, it was meant to make a serious point about attitudes to immigration. So does that mean that the council should be condemned for its failure to grasp the concept of irony, the thoughtless destruction of an artwork and the curtailment of free expression?

The answer is no, no and no again. Why should anyone have to ‘get’ irony? What is playful or clever to one kind of audience will be downright offensive to another. Too bad, you might think – no one is making them read / watch / look at it. Except that in the case of Banksy’s mural, which was spray-painted on a seafront building, the artist has imposed his work on the ‘venue’ – the owners of which have every right to get rid of it. (Obviously, it would have been better if they’d removed the mural intact and flogged it off to a collector – but that is an offence against the taxpayer, not free speech).

The second case study is drawn from an article by Ian Dunt for politics.co.uk. It concerns a controversial piece of performance art called Exhibit B:

“The black performers in Exhibit B stand perfectly still, in chains, in a reference to the ‘human zoos’ of the Nineteenth Century. There are also exhibits featuring modern-day asylum seekers, with accompanying text describing them as ‘found objects’.”

Again, the intent was to make an anti-racist statement. However, other anti-racism campaigners thought that the exhibit was itself racist – and, following protests, the host venue (the Barbican) decided to close it down.

Ian Dunt sees the closure as a “significant moment in the rise of censorship in Britain”:

“We have now become so sensitive, so uninterested in the purpose of a work of art, that we are closing down exhibits intended to support our own politics. We are censoring ourselves…”

“One wonders how else we are supposed to dramatise racism without featuring images of it? Should 12 Years a Slave have been banned too?”

Has political correctness gone mad to the point of eating itself?

That was my initial reaction, but, on reflection, I think that the protesters did have genuine cause for complaint. The actors in12 Years a Slave weren’t actual slaves, they didn’t suffer any of the abuses that were inflicted on the historical characters they portrayed. However, the fact is that the performers in Exhibit B were being displayed before a live audience – which, despite the very different purpose, is arguably too close for comfort to what went on in the human zoos of the past.

No one has a right not to be offended, but they still have a right to be offended – and, as long as they do it peacefully, a right to demonstrate their feelings. Furthermore, within the terms of any contractual agreement, private venues have the right to choose which artists they provide a platform for.

Of course, a publicly-funded venue (or broadcaster) has a duty to reflect a broad range of public opinion, rather than privileging the preferences or sensitivities of favoured groups. In this respect, it is the abject failure of the cultural establishment to reach out beyond the confines of the liberal left that is a more serious insult to free expression.

35 comments for: The right to free speech includes the right to complain about what other people do with it

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