It is nice to see our various leaders and the commentators in our newspapers announcing that they are Charlie, but it is hard to believe that they are anything of the sort. Being Charlie after all asserts the troublesome right to mock people in their most cherished and sensitive beliefs. Personally I think that being mocked in your beliefs is a useful exercise and may kill or cure them, depending on whether they’re up to it.
(Jesus, incidentally, agreed. As the last of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:11) he is recorded as saying:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
He didn’t say: ‘Insults? Hand me that Kalashnikov. I’m going in.’
For Christians Jesus is the son of God and a prophet for Muslims, two groups currently displaying a marked disinclination – to the extent of demanding that the state do something about it – to be insulted.)
But our leaders and commentators give every impression of thinking the opposite. We have legislation designed to protect through the criminal law anyone who might feel offended in their most cherished and sensitive beliefs. My wounded feelings are enough to cause you, who used a bad word or offended against some shibboleth or piece of sectarian etiquette, to have your collar felt.
It was not so, even quite recently. Until the end of the last century legislation against racial discrimination and abuse had two motives: to prevent discrimination, particularly in employment, and to stop people being physically threatened, as Mosley and his thugs had done to the Jews in the 1930s. Only recently have governments thought it their job to prevent hurt feelings.
And legislation is just the sharp end of it. It sometimes seems as if the first priority in all our discourse these days is not to say what we think but to avoid saying anything that might offend.
Offence might be at the use of a Bad Word. Just as in Einstein’s theory of relativity the speed of light is absolute and unaffected by the context of the bodies on which the light falls, some words now are so Bad that they are never to be breathed – or even thought – irrespective of context. When they have to refer to them people call them things like ‘the N word’. You can imagine them crossing themselves and resolving on a few Hail Marys as they say this, because even as they do so there is a fleeting moment when they cannot help thinking the word ‘nigger’. It flits unbidden into the forefront of their brains and – oops! – thought crime.
Recently the BBC fired a radio DJ for playing an old record of a song, The Sun Has Got his Hat On, where the word ‘nigger’ could be heard, even though when the record was made (about the same year as Agatha Christie published her book Ten Little Niggers) the term was neutral, and the phrase in the song itself was not abusive. As a result not only has a man lost his livelihood but we can no longer listen to The Sun Has Got his Hat On. That is not the end of the world, but it was a nice song.
Similarly, the entertainment industry has retrospectively abolished cigarettes, the fourth absolute evil of our secular era, along with racism, sexism and dog shit. In real life, decoding the Germans’ wartime communications at Bletchley Park, like the War generally, took place in a thick blue fug, but you would not guess that from The Imitation Game, where the atmosphere is at all times brightly devoid of secondary smoking.
Bad words are easy to spot: bad states of mind less so. Nevertheless many column inches (or are they now column centimetres?) are devoted to discerning doctrinal error in apparently neutral material. Things that you might have thought were OK turn out to have a vein of sexism running through them, or worse. The invariable censorious conclusion: ‘I don’t think you should have said that.’
‘Rape’ is interesting. It is not yet a Bad Word. You are still allowed to say it, though it is considered good manners to lower your voice by a minor third when doing so. But it is becoming an absolute: irrespective, like saying ‘nigger’, of context. The sad and rather sordid saga of Ched Evans, working itself out in counterpoint to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, illustrates this. What he actually did and what she actually did and what the effect of seeing him toiling about in shorts might actually have been on the few hundred die-hard fans of Oldham Athletic (or ‘the Bottlers’ as I believe the club is affectionately known) are no longer relevant. What matters is that Evans has ‘Rape’, or as we will soon have to call it ‘the R word’, figuratively branded to his forehead, like the ‘D’ word inscribed on heretics by the Inquisition or the Stars of David forced on Jews by the Nazis. It is an absolute and we all have to make obeisance to it, not out of empathy with people who have actually been raped, but out of weepy solidarity for those who assert the oblique victim status that – who knows? – they might one day be raped.
Thank God, as so often, for the French. Charlie Hebdo asserts the requirement to think, judge and laugh, and that thinking is better than mushy feelings of victimhood. It suggests that just because many people take refuge in idolatry (and, yes, saying that the Prophet is so wonderful that his appearance can’t be imagined is just as idolatrous as the tackiest Queen of Heaven print) that doesn’t make it good, or respectable, let alone worthy of protection. It asserts that being jabbed by a figurative foreign object can be salutary.
I am glad that our leaders say they agree, proceeding down the Champs-Elysees with their solemn faces and tailored overcoats. I wish I believed them.