11: A Series of Jolts to the System

27 May 2010

I’m going off-theme for this update. Last Wednesday, I had an experience which shook me. I have to share.

I’ve been going on dates with a woman called Charlotte Eaton. Last week, Charlotte took me to Udderbelly, the venue on the South Bank run by Channel 4. The gig, ‘No Offence… But’, involved a panel of comedians exploring the limits of acceptability in comedy.

We arrived at 9 p.m. Udderbelly consists of a giant plastic tent and a rambling bar area, replete with purple lighting, a beautiful crowd and a tropical theme. We showed our tickets and entered the arena, where about 100 were in attendance. On stage were five chairs, each with a microphone and a cup of water. We sat near the front as the panel filed in.

Said panel consisted of three comedians: Brendon Burns, Richard Herring and Francesca Martinez; a journalist called Secunder Kermani and the ex-Labour MP Oona King. The compère, who stood, was called Paul Basset Davies. His opening question was: “Is there anyone here who doesn’t read The Guardian?”

They talked about jokes dealing with paedophilia, rape, racism and disabled people. There was gentle humour and quite a bit of audience participation. The broad premise was that anything is an appropriate subject for comedy in the right context. They agreed, for example, that people from a particular ethnic background can tastefully tell gags at the expense of their own ethnicity.

The most interesting observation came from Ms Martinez, who said that she didn’t feel there was anything wrong with offending people, arguing that being offended was part of being alive. Overall, the topic chimed well with the panel’s experiences as comics, but nothing radical was being said. Everyone agreed with each other. Everyone was comfortable with their collective position. I was shattered after a long day, happy with light conversation sprinkled with gags.

Behind them was a projection screen. Halfway through, the discussion paused and they played six YouTube-style videos Mr Kermani had made. They included him:

  • posting a picture of an erect penis on a lamppost above a spoof ‘lost-and-found’ sign, then filming people’s reactions;
  • arriving at a café accompanied by a sex doll, then filming the waitress’ bewilderment.

There were also three videos featuring a person dressed in a burqa (an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions), alternately:

  • running up to joggers in a park and flashing at them;
  • busting dance moves (while wearing earphones) in HMV; and
  • having a loud and explicit discussion about anal sex on a bus.

Following the videos, Oona King remarked that she enjoyed comedy such as this, which challenged people’s stereotypes.

Then Charlotte got hold of the microphone.

“I disagree that the videos challenge stereotypes of women who wear a burqa. I live in a part of London where lots of women wear that dress. One of my great pleasures in life is riding a bicycle. People all over London ride bicycles, but I’ve never seen a woman wearing a burqa riding a bicycle. I’ve never seen one dancing. In fact, I’ve never seen a woman wearing a burqa doing any of those things. It makes me sad that someone dancing in a burqa is so abnormal as to be funny. The videos don’t challenge stereotypes, they compound and entrench them by portraying an artificial picture for the purposes of comedy.”

Finally, something contrary. Brave enough to use comedy to explore cultural segregation within London? That could get juicy.

Oona King responded. “People who don’t interact with individuals from those communities wouldn’t get to see them perform those sorts of activities…” She then told an anecdote about being heckled by a group of 15-year-old girls (some of whom were wearing burqas) when she was an MP.

A tingle ran down my spine.

Ms King had just made a straw man argument: ignore the point the person has made (‘The videos contradict my view of British society, informed by my experience of it.’); tell them they’ve said something different (‘I have no direct experience of this section of British society, but I perceive…’); then deal with the question you’ve projected onto them.

As it happens Charlotte is more interactive with random people on the street than anyone else I know. But that’s by-the-by. Assuming Ms King isn’t a mind reader, she didn’t know anything about Charlotte. She’d assumed things about her based on the way she looked or sounded, then ignored her point and addressed a different one.

Charlotte asked for the microphone again. The production person passed it to her. She got one syllable out, then Mr Burns talked over her with an off-the-cuff gag. An exchange between the panel members resulted and, ignoring the invitation to discuss something controversial, they pressed on with their dinner party chat.

But the scene before me had changed colour. They weren’t of a mind to push boundaries or explore the limits of acceptability. They were of a mind to keep it safe and pat each other on the back.

The discussion wasn’t going anywhere and I needed a wee, so I nipped out. The gents was at the far side of the bar area. It was a five-minute round trip. When I returned they were discussing the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy (when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet which associated him with terrorism). My ears pricked up.

I got back to my seat and whispered in Charlotte’s ear “Wish I hadn’t missed this bit, what’s been said?” She turned to me, frowning. “This is really weird.”

Mr Herring was talking – articulating the view that “the cartoons were really pathetic” (fair enough). He then said that “the death threats were also really pathetic.”

Hang on? There were over 100 actual deaths, numerous attempted murders, an attempted terrorist attack on Germany, several artists had to receive police protection and three Danish embassies and a Norwegian embassy were set on fire. Is “pathetic” really the word you’re looking for?

Mr Kermani was passed the microphone. “You know,” he said, “I’d hate to plead a special case for Islam…” He then proceeded to plead a special case for Islam, arguing that Islamic sensitivities and religious traditions should be treated more delicately – and the relevant rules of censure calibrated differently – than for other religious or social groups. My heart started thumping in my chest.

Oona King was next. She argued that the cartoonists brought the death threats upon themselves, stating that drawing such cartoons in a “politically unstable” situation meant that you should expect to receive death threats.

Following a 90-minute discussion about using comedy to explore social issues Oona King (currently head of diversity at Channel 4 and previously MP for Bethnal Green and Bow) was justifying why artists who draw stupid cartoons should expect to receive death threats, but neither she nor anyone else on the panel was prepared to make a basic defence of the right to free speech.

I was flabbergasted. It was like witnessing a parody of the British media fraternity disappearing up its own bum, peddled by some foaming-at-the-mouth, right-wing American talk show host. The adrenaline was kicking in. My head was spinning as I furiously tried to arrange my thoughts. I put my hand up for the microphone.

But there was clapping and Mr Davies was wrapping things up, inviting everyone to the bar to “carry on the conversation”.

Outside, disillusionment wasn’t even close to describing how I felt. What a bunch of lily-livered charlatans. We’d been promised an exploration of the limits of acceptability and received precisely the opposite. Downcast and outraged, Charlotte and I got a drink.

Mr Davies, the compère, who’d seemed an amenable fellow, was at the far side of the bar. I was exhausted. I’d been running around London all day and it was well past my bed time. I really wanted to go home.

But you have to speak up.

We sauntered over.

Mr Davies was with a couple of lady friends. We joined their conversation, making small talk about the context of Udderbelly and the show. Finally, he asked “What did you think?”

“Maybe it would have been good to have people on the panel who disagreed with each other?” said Charlotte. Everyone laughed politely. Mr Davies then related a story about talking to a political journalist from The Daily Telegraph who’d once said something which was contrary to his view, but that was also constructive.

“Well you know, sometimes ‘right-wing people’ have a point,” I quipped. Everyone laughed politely again. I was face-to-face with him now, so I moved in.

“I was surprised that no one on the panel was prepared to make the case for free speech when the Muhammad cartoons were raised.” I told him. “I felt that the show was ostensibly about engaging with barriers of acceptability in art, but that as soon as a genuinely difficult area was mentioned, no one would go there.”

“In my view, associating the Prophet Muhammad with terrorism is absurd, naïve and lacking any sort of historical context. It’s something a child might do. It should never have been a story, let alone a diplomatic incident. So wasn’t the most notable thing about the episode that it reinforced the worst stereotypes of outrageous small-mindedness within certain elements of certain Muslim communities? Isn’t that exactly the sort of topic you might have usefully engaged with using humour during your discussion? I was disappointed that the entire panel blithely acquiesced to the idea that it was understandable to threaten a bunch of stupid cartoonists with murder…”

He wouldn’t look me in the eye. I was doing my best to be warm, direct and charming, but he’d started averting his gaze. First he looked at my right cheek, then my left cheek then – bizarrely – rapidly alternated his gaze between them. It was as though he was pretending I wasn’t there. Suddenly he called out to someone to his right and turned away.

It’s been a long time since anyone blanked me. Nonetheless, it was his physical (and, I believe, instinctive) reaction to my words which was shocking.

Ever wondered what happens when you take someone’s hypocrisy, stick it right in their face, then invite them to confront it?

There’s your answer.

‘What business is it of yours what I do, read, buy, see, say, think… as long as I do not harm another human being on this planet?’ – Bill Hicks

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19 Responses to “11: A Series of Jolts to the System”

  1. Mark Snare Says:

    Expecting too much of Labour MPs and media types Weetle?

  2. Sam Wells Says:

    and Australians :-)

  3. Rebecca Hallam Says:

    Sam I recognise your right to free speech, yet am mildly amused at your apparently subscribing to the stereotype that Australians’ may not be capable of exploring concepts more complex than when to order the next beer. Thanks Pete for this story, whilst my recent experience has been somewhat more cloistered to the context of my own (small town) issues and various family and work related stressors I can relate to the issues that you are raising and empathise with your experience! My issues may have been far less ‘important’ on a global scale, but I’ve still been frustrated to the point of not sleeping on the basis of ill-informed people subscribing to a populist view of the way that things ‘should’ be perceived and adopted rather than exploring new concepts and boundaries and accepting that the information you seek needn’t come from the area from which you think it should! Labels stereotypes and lack of exploration of the unfamiliar make being an ‘exercise physiologist’ in a small rural town very difficult for people looking for a ‘physiotherapist’. It’s so bloody hard to convince them that my title does not indicate that I don’t have the skills and knowledge to meet their needs – but that’s just my stuff! Thanks for giving me a smile on a frustrating Friday!

  4. Jarred Smith Says:

    Hey Pete this story all too familiar. Why is it that public political debate consists of right-wing xenophobic nut cases or week as piss spineless left wing wankers who think the enlightenment is something Buddhist strive for. It is so frustrating!!!

  5. Mike Says:

    Alarms bells should have gone off when they started the evening’s discussions by asking the question, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t read The Guardian?”. As good a paper it can be, it shows that they are going to be limiting their views to the kind of person who generally agrees with the views of the Guardian.

  6. nick Says:

    “He wouldn’t look me in the eye. I was doing my best to be warm, direct and charming, but he’d started averting his gaze. First he looked at my right cheek, then my left cheek then – bizarrely – rapidly alternated his gaze between them.”

    I do find that nudity has a disarming affect on people.

  7. Ash Says:

    I can’t say I’m surprised about what you saw – I see this failure to think, yet alone apply our common principles, every day. I teach girls wearing burkas, sometimes about things that relate to rights. Once or twice, when I’ve not cared too much about keeping my job, I’ve talked to colleagues about this insult to the equality that women have achieved in our culture – and have been opposed most often by feminists and socialists.

    That politicians and media types lack any understanding of the liberal values that allow them their free lifestyles does not surprise me any more.

  8. Joanne Taylor-Horne Says:

    Live and let live – do no harm to others. Simple and effective! Just like me :-)

  9. Jamie Kitson Says:

    I found what Frankie Boyle said very interesting: the BBC were apologising for his remarks regarding Rebecca Adlington and Frankie Boyle responded that the producers would not let him make jokes about either of the wars that we are fighting but instead sent them pictures of Rebecca Adlington, so what did they expect? Funnily enough I don’t think the BBC printed his comments.

    http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/55306,people,news,unrepentant-frankie-boyle-adlington-looks-like-a-beagle

    When you say there had been over 100 actual deaths who are you talking about? Not cartoonists surely, I assume that it was the death threats against the cartoonists that were “pathetic”.

  10. Paul Bassett Davies Says:

    I’d like to comment on what you’ve written about this event, and about me. My question about anyone in the audience not reading ‘The Guardian’ wasn’t, in fact, my first; it was a lighthearted and ironic reflection on the answers to my two previous questions, which seemed to indicate a lack of diversity of opinion in the audience. In the debate itself I did my best to ensure that people who wanted to contribute got the chance, and also to steer the discussion into interesting and challenging areas; if it’s your opinion that I didn’t succeed, so be it. I think you misunderstood what Sec Kermani was saying. His point was that many Muslims in Britain feel angry and vulnerable, and because a lot of people don’t understand why this should be the case he was trying to explain it. He wasn’t claiming that Muslims are right to feel that way, and he wasn’t trying to justify or advocate special treatment, and said so very clearly. When I met you in the bar, I did my best to include you in a conversation I was having with old friends, as it was clear you wanted to say something. As it happens I was quite serious about wanting more dissenting voices on the panel, and I’d tried to get some; however, the composition of the panel was partly determined by the promoters of the event, who wanted to have well known comedians in order to attract more people. I’m genuinely and passionately engaged with issues of free speech, censorship and offensiveness, and one of the reasons I get involved in events like the one you attended is that I don’t know the answers, and I want to keep learning, and keep an open mind. I distrust absolute, unquestioning conviction in anyone, of any persuasion. As for your feelings of being ‘blanked’, all I can say is that I’d had quite a long day, too, and a stressful one. I did my best to be courteous, and I’m sorry if you felt you didn’t get the attention you wanted. It certainly wasn’t my intention to hurt your feelings, and I can’t help thinking that you’re making all of this a bit more about yourself than it actually was. I understand that you disagreed with some of what was said in the discussion, and that you weren’t satisfied by it, but I do find some of what you’ve said about me and the other contributors unpleasant and offensive. Naturally, I support your right to say it.

  11. Peter de la Marche Says:

    It is my opinion that the rules of etiquette and diplomacy (through which we all enact our lives) do not support or allow for an assumption of ‘free speech’ (indeed these two words are limited in meaning – particularly in law). I believe ‘humour’ is an art of communicating the absurd or revealing what is unreasonable and this is best achieved through acceptable taste, social awareness and by such approaches being tapered to a recipient audience.
    Thank you most kindly for the opportunity to express myself in some small way.

  12. P. T. Bakermarsh Says:

    Response to Paul Bassett Davies

    Regarding your response to my thoughts on the event ‘No Offence… But’ – I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond.

    I’m conscious that it must be demanding to steer (and orchestrate an inclusivity of opinion within) such an event, over which, by its nature, you don’t have full control. I further understand that it took you aback when I appeared at the end of a long day – jump-started into a second wind by adrenaline – to set out my outrage at the panel’s attitude.

    I was not making it my mission to be unpleasant. I was relating my personal experience of the evening. My rising sense of disbelief and bewilderment during the discussion’s closing section ended up defining my feelings about the entire event. Those feelings were very precisely reflected in what I was moved to write.

    With respect to whether or not Mr Kermani argued that the conventions of free speech should be applied differently to Islamic (as opposed to non-Islamic) sensitivities, our recollections are different.

    I greatly admire your comment that you don’t know the answers and wish to keep learning. Clear-headed reflection on these issues is vital. I too strive to be realistic about my own limitations. I trust that my adverse reaction will not negatively affect your energies committed to this important area.

    Personally, I’ve found that this has all added up to a complex learning experience. In that sense, the event achieved its goal.

  13. Mark Snare Says:

    anyone else think it’s really all a vehicle for Pete to let people know he’s gone on a date?

  14. Will Polak Says:

    Free speech in actio in the blog & responses. Thanks Pete for continually taking the time to “capture the moment”. Yes, it is YOUR (rather arrogant self-centred) moment being captured, but the true value is making that perspective available to the rest of us.

  15. Clare Johnson Says:

    Mark: love it!

  16. Charlotte Eaton Says:

    It was a good date :)

    I also have different recollections of the evening to Paul Bassett Davies. It would be interesting if Mr Kermani were willing to join this debate and let us know what he really thinks. So here is the question, plain and simple: are there some things that are not to be expressed in this society? If so what are they and how will you define what they are? How will you protect free speech?

    He definitely seemed to be of the opinion that Islam is a special case, and the other panelists seemed to be in agreement that the cartoonists got what was coming to them. Perhaps it was not surprising that the cartoonists were threatened, but to back away from their right to express is to collude with the lunatics who threatened them. The experience at No Offence But… was of watching the erosion of free speech; of everything the panelists initially seemed to stand for and care about. Free speech is one of the best things about this country, isn’t it? Otherwise its just a place with ‘fresh’ weather and fish & chips?

    Regarding Oona King’s comments about Muslim women throwing off their burqas to go clubbing at night: this is appalling hypocrisy. What does the burqa stand for at all then? Oppression, coercion, subjugation? Are we to believe that everyone wearing a burqa is at odds with what they are wearing? If this is true, why are we supporting this continued practice? Why are we colluding with the apparent lie that it therefore represents? We believe in freedom of expression. The basis of one person one vote is equality, equal say, equal rights: respect for one another, in our similarities and differences. For our abilities and potential not to be defined by any discriminatory factor – including gender. Empowering each other to be all we are; to be honest. If Ms King, as MP, was fully aware of women living in the burqa to whom it was anathema, who were trapped by it or not honest within it, where were/ are her responsibilities as MP, not only to her constituency but to the wider community that is this country? And if it is not a discriminatory garment, where are the men who wear burqas?

    Come on, let’s have the debate.

  17. Mark Snare Says:

    I think ‘we’ are having the debate, as a result of a facebook group, May the 20th has now become “Everyone Draw Mohammed (/Muhammed don’t know, don’t care.)Day” Pakistan retaliated by blocking facebook, only to climb down a few days later.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/Thunderf00t#p/u/18/ApmnezyPSMc

    you just gotta know where to look!

  18. Ivonne Ehler Says:

    Great post!

  19. Billi Paseur Says:

    yeah nice, 2 thumbs up my friend.

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