Trump and Brexit – in defence of offensiveness

I am not making this up.

“The University of Reading’s students’ union voted not to take part in future episodes of the BBC2 quiz show after the presenter made an off-the-cuff remark about a team mascot during a break in recording.

Jeremy Paxman said: ‘There was a technical fault which meant we had to interrupt the recording, leaving all of us sitting at our desks in the studio while the problem was sorted out in the control gallery. To fill the void in a brightly lit studio, in front of all eight contestants, a full studio crew and an audience of several hundred spectators, I asked the Reading team about the mascot sitting on their desk. One of them said it was a hand-knitted Jeremy Paxman doll. Across the several yards separating the chairman’s desk from the teams, I asked the whole team whether they took it to bed with them.’

Samantha Buzzard, the Reading captain and a PhD student working on mathematical modelling of the surface melt of Antarctic ice shelves, was the team’s only woman and took offence. Writing in a blog, Niall Hamilton, education officer at Reading students’ union, said: ‘Misogyny and sexism are not about ‘offending’ contestants but undermining and oppressing individuals due to their gender. In such a historical and respected institution as University Challenge, these forms of oppression should not be taken lightly.'”

Yes, I know this is startlingly silly, a self-parody of a world where ‘safe spaces’ are created at universities – universities! – to protect the educated elite from the slightest risk of offence from opinions they don’t like; where the Leader of the Green party wants any government adviser who dares to challenge the majority view on climate change to be sacked; where cruel parody of some Christians for say being uncomfortable about same-sex marriage is almost required behaviour; where Benedict Cumberbatch, hardly the heir of Bernard Manning, arguing for more ethnic minority representation in the performing arts, gets slated for referring to ‘coloured people’ instead of ‘people of colour’.

But it is not so funny really. The metropolitan elite – I speak as a fully paid-up card-carrying member – has so persuaded itself of the moral superiority of its position on – well, on everything really – that the bigotry associated with claiming that the Trump-voting, Brexit-supporting majority in our two countries are ‘information-light’ (code for stupid), racist, xenophobic and so on has become invisible. Let’s remember what Hillary Clinton told us a couple of months ago: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Somehow the ‘liberal’ (by which I suspect I mean dictatorial) left fails to see that demonising a quarter of the US voting public in this way is every bit as offensive as some of the language used by the genuine racists, sexists and homophobes.

So if the bar for acceptable behaviour is not making a throwaway joke about a rag doll, we should not be surprised if those who don’t exhibit the childish self-righteous egotism of the Reading Students’ Union start to feel what the heck. If we’re going to be accused of misogyny almost whatever we do maybe we shouldn’t worry about going the whole hog and electing a genuine sexist – at least we won’t feel constantly looked down on and scorned.

This is a difficult point in time for me. Carlos and I are maybe going to get married this coming year. We might not bother as the civil partnership gives us everything we need in legal terms but it is nice to have the option, to feel fully part of the bourgeois norm. Yet clearly this issue is one that causes considerable discomfort to many in society. It is dawning on me that the interests of ‘people like me’ have ruled the roost for a long time. Feminist bloggers like Amy Glass can post articles entitled ‘I Look Down On Young Women With Husbands And Kids And I’m Not Sorry‘. Those women who actually rather like the traditional family pattern of the man going out to work and the woman as ‘the angel of the house’ are simply getting it wrong and their choice should not be tolerated. “Do people really think that a stay at home mom is really on equal footing with a woman who works and takes care of herself?” Well, the answer is yes, many people do think exactly that and may be more inclined to support an unsavoury candidate who does not denigrate them so roundly than yet another patronising self-styled intellectual.

If we are going to heal the almost exactly half-and-half split between (simplifying it a bit) urban and rural Britain (maybe I mean England), or its equivalent in the USA, we may need to start to be rather more accepting that other world-views are valid, while at the same time standing up against the genuine racism and sexism which seems to have been emboldened a little by Brexit and Trump victories. At the moment our right not be offended is being exercised in such a way as to maximise offence to those with a different approach to life. I have been pretty offended (British understatement) by a lot of what I have heard from the Farage/Trump worldview; but I can see why the Corbyn/Clinton alternative, with its disdain for the concerns of so many people outside our conurbations, must be equally offensive to those people.

So – can we call a truce? Can we recognise that the metropolitan elite has a point when it comes to unreconstructed sexist and racist behaviour but that it has massively exaggerated the issue to the point where so many of our fellow countrymen feel unvalued? Can we row back on nonsense like that of Reading Students’ Union or Amy Glass and recognise that one can abuse free speech just as much from the liberal left as one can from the unkind right? I have no idea how this would work in practice but constantly crying wolf – there is still a Facebook page entitle ‘Mitt Romney is a racist’ – always has a predictable outcome when a real wolf comes along. If it means people like me get a fairer share of being offended, well, that’s not too high a price to pay.

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