Are you comfortably numb?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Editorial Issue 1306 - No offence, but...

First, thanks to Ruth for a fantastic editorial last week. I was away in Israel for 5 days on a press trip (all expenses paid thank you very much). An article will follow; for now, suffice it to say it was an unforgettable experience that opened my mind to what is an infinitely complicated and tragic situation.

It’s struck me recently just how easily people get offended these days, especially our generation. We’ve come a long way from a time when people could call a TV dog ‘Nigger’ and get away with it because back then “racism wasn’t offensive” (according to David Brent). Nowadays, unless our dialogue is confined to a small selection of inoffensive, and thus dull, topics, we run the risk of putting a conversational foot decidedly awry and plunging it squarely into a sticky pot of conversational taboos.

I’m not saying that we should hark back to a time when most of the population was oblivious to anyone whose name wasn’t George or Bartholomew, but do we really need to get so uptight? People over here huffily pronounced Borat “anti-Semitic”, whereas it was a huge success in Israel. One asks: do people actually find this stuff upsetting, or do they convince themselves it is by climbing determinedly up to the moral high ground? Do people just think they’re supposed to get offended and quickly oblige in order to feed a moral superiority complex?

It’s got so extreme now that people pretend we are all the same in order not to get anyone’s back up. My mum, who is visibly not English, was barely asked about her ethnicity during 11 years spent in our charming white middle England commuter town. Contrast this to Brazil, a country relatively comfortable with its diverse ethnicity, where people will frankly say: “Your skin’s darker. Where are you from?” If you said that here, you’d probably get nail-bombed by the Racial Equality Commission for being discriminatory. Meanwhile, my 6th form History teacher referred fondly to my brother and I as ‘half-breeds’ because of our ethnicity. Offensive? No, just funny. He was joking, not waving a copy of the BNP manifesto. Remember joking? Didn’t think so. Do you really want to live in a society where Rory Bremner’s impression of David Blunkett is a criminal offence?

I understand that the issues of racism and multi-culturalism are far broader than any one article could cover. And there are deeply offensive attitudes out there that come from dangerously prejudiced mindsets - I am not trivialising these. But how are we ever going to be truly multi-cultural if we don’t accept that yes, we’re all different, yes, we should talk about it, and yes, we should celebrate it. Pretending that we are all the same will not work. And actually, refusing to be interested in someone’s roots can be offensively isolating. 

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