The arbiters of taste: who will control society?

14 Jan



In his blog for The Monthly on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Mungo McCallum concludes his Readers’ Digest argument that laughter is the best medicine by observing that even those wielding automatic weapons can’t fire them if they’re doubled over with mirth.  “After all,” he writes, “even the most rabid fanatic would find it hard to aim a Kalashnikov while guffawing.”

McCallum’s piece is about the lines that are or should be drawn between satire, humour, and offence, but what he fails to address is who exactly is to determine those limits, and what criteria they are to employ in order to arrive at their judgement.

This is another aspect of the battle for societal control so relentlessly fought by groups such as Collective Shout and individuals such as Melinda Tankard Reist, with whom I have locked horns on more than one occasion. See the Category Defamation Threats on this blog if you want to know just how hard these people will go after you in an effort to shut you up and impose their views.

I know people who find Seinfeld cruel and unfunny. I know others who find The Simpsons offensive to their sacred notions of family. I’ve heard arguments that the HBO series Breaking Bad, in which a regular high school chemistry teacher morphs into a drug lord after learning he has terminal cancer, has led to an epidemic in the manufacturing of methamphetamines. I find McCallum’s line quoted above offensive in its casual dismissal of the profound seriousness of rabid fanaticism. I don’t find it satirical or humorous, and I suspect it could only have been written by someone who has little first-hand knowledge of any kind of terror.

The point is, something will always offend someone. There are those who are outraged because every cliff top in the country is not fenced off to protect us from falling over it and sustaining injury, or death. There are those who want to kill every shark in the ocean because now and then one of them eats someone. There are those who believe being hurt and offended is so great an injury laws can and should be passed to prevent their emotional distress.

There are those who take out their Kalashnikovs because they believe being insulted and offended are justifications for murder. There’s very little that can be done about someone with that particular mindset, and if all other provocations are denied them through censorship of potentially provocative commentary they will still kill, on the spurious grounds that an entire mode of existence is offensive to them and it’s their right to eradicate it.

The fight for the power to wield societal control is constant, and it takes a myriad of forms. In general, our liberal democracy is controlled by the values of the bourgeoisie who are, also in general, obsessed with issues of law and order, affronted by graffiti, entirely precious about their right not to be offended, insulted or otherwise emotionally ruffled, and consumed by notions of decency and what they determine to be appropriate. Look at our politicians if you don’t believe me.

There is no doubt that words can damage. Vilification of any kind causes hurt and damage and destruction. Rather than impose legislation that seeks to prevent and punish the utterance of damaging and destructive words, satirical commentary, unfair criticism, racial and religious abuse, I would prefer that we instead focus our attention and resources on education and remediation. I think this because largely legislation has no effect at all in everyday situations, and in many instances can make resentment against the other, whoever the other happens to be at any particular time, even worse.

In my opinion, legalisation that seeks to control who can say what, when and where is driven by bourgeois desires to exercise social control and create a perceived utopian culture in which proponents of bourgeois ideology feel most “comfortable.” While the bourgeoisie have not yet resorted to firearms with which to impose their vision of the world, they have instead demanded a level of surveillance and state control over language and how it may and may not be used that is astounding.

While I do not agree with Attorney-General George Brandis that everyone has the “right” (whatever “right” means in his context) to be a bigot, it seems to me that legislation attempting to prevent the expression of bigotry is doomed to fail, except in very rare high-profile situations.

The battle for societal control will not be won by silencing. It is a wrong-headed and prejudicial battle in the first place. We cannot, for example, silence the Murdoch press and even if Andrew Bolt came a cropper with his racist views what was gained in the larger sense by his stumble? He hasn’t shut up, he’s just as offensive, if not more so, and he gained an inordinate amount of support and sympathy. In general, his name is remembered as a consequence of those events, and not the names of those vilified and insulted, or the nature of the vilification and insult.

I know from my own experience of being threatened with legal action if I didn’t retract and shut up that it only made me more determined to express views I believed to be worthy of expression and that I had the right to express, because why shouldn’t I? My views were extremely offensive and insulting to some. So what? Theirs were equally offensive and insulting to me. Neither of us should have been silenced, and only one party (not me) had the financial wherewithal to threaten the other with silence or ruin.

What we need to do is think about is what can be done that will actually achieve fundamental change, instead of focusing on window dressing and  band aids that at best do nothing and at worst incite those who are silenced by legislation to even more devious expressions and behaviours.

McCallum is wrong, laughter is certainly not the best medicine when faced with a Kalashnikov, or being otherwise silenced by punitive measures employed by the state at the behest of the hegemonic bourgeoisie.

The best medicine is to resist and refuse efforts to silence, to be subversive, to transgress, to contest, to challenge, to protest, to be civilly disobedient, to refuse to be shut up by those who are “uncomfortable” with certain forms of expression. Your discomfort is not my problem, tell them. It’s yours. I’m sorry you feel it, but there are ways you can deal with it if you have the courage, and silencing me is not one of them.

I laughed my head off, said someone taken hostage by murderous ideologues never.



8 Responses to “The arbiters of taste: who will control society?”

  1. Elisabeth January 14, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    Terrific post, Jennifer. Humour has a context, and when not everyone gets the joke it can be very divisive. Silencing is rarely helpful but then there are situations – as with that woman who tries to encourage people not to immunise their kids – when there seems a need to put a lid on it, but this I suspect is rare. Mostly we need to be able to listen to and tolerate our differences, unless they are the differences of lunatics. But as you say, who decides on this? A vexed question.


    • Jennifer Wilson January 14, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

      Thanks Eisabeth. These vexed questions continue to, well, vex me. It’s alarming to find oneself holding similar views to those one frequently opposes!


  2. mix1127 January 14, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Mungo’s piece didn’t impress. Rather it trivialised matters.

    At work I’m surrounded by posters and signs telling people to respect one other, not to bully and so on. It makes absolutely no difference to people’s behaviour. Bullies aren’t mollified. If anything, people treat these signs with contempt. Inhouse social marketing, well intentioned, has perverse consequences.

    In another life, I worked in a university where I wore several hats, including affirmative action officer. After a year of relentless antagonism by senior university officials, and a good deal of vilification at campus meetings, I resigned my post and went back to study but not before submitting the university’s annual report on equal opportunity – an honest report! In that case, legislation made little change to systemic discrimination felt across that university by LBGTI people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and other marginalised folk. Legislation is a very blunt instrument.


    • Jennifer Wilson January 14, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more. Have experienced similar things in workplaces with hollow mission statements and pointless statements of values

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mayan January 14, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    The idea that using the state to enact laws to restrict speech to a comfort zone doesn’t use firearms and threats of violence is false. All laws, if disobeyed, are eventually enforced at gun point. Even parking tickets, should one ignore summons and court judgements will, ultimately, result in arrest by armed police officers, and should one resist arrest, violence will be used. Sadly, it is easy to forget that fact and pretend that using the state to impose one’s will upon others is somehow the civilised option that forgoes intimidation and violence.


  4. doug quixote January 14, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    Thank you Jennifer, a thoughtful contribution to this most fundamental of issues. If we have no freedom of speech, what then do we have? Certainly not the pluralist democracy we have now, despite the best attempts of the BACWA and the fascists to ban, censor and suppress our freedoms.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. paul walter January 15, 2015 at 4:52 am #

    The old fella lost it when he move to the example of Coren cartoons on Amin, forty years out of date.

    Far better would have been the example of the obvious clamping down on Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson after a series of absolutely biting cartoons concerning Cameron, the Euro community and the recession and sometimes (gasp) Obama.

    I think in this case Jennifer’s contention that right wing “satire” has the same relevance as Alan Jones as to “journalism” is correct- when I get round to the 18C thread I will probably find that this thread is expanding on that. Much of the conversation seems to be to do
    about legitimising Goebbelsian slanders and adhominem as the default, which suits Murdoch, et al, far worse offender than fearfull ndpanicky highly strung types like MTR, who roused by all the panic- merchandising react from mindstates created by information deficits.

    Western cultures have yet to learn that the sort of follies they identify in other cultures apply doubly to we “civilised” folk, as we claim to “know better”.

    Given the state of the world and the “forgetting” as to the real reasons for resentment; our invasions and genocides in the Middle East finally creating reactions not entirely to be not unexpected (if we were as “rational”as we pride ourselves on being”). Too much of the stuff coming out of Western Europe re Islam (and Judaism sometimes) is kneejerk reactionary and I think Charlie Hebdo itself recognised it in offering a sort of apology of its own, first edition back. I imagine the crushing shock could jolt them into remembering who the real enemy is and.mocking the Oligarchy, not those those wounded by its actions…Mungo of all people should have understood it exponentially better.

    So now we come to the other issue the thread raises, the tendency for well intentioned nanny stating to become a straight-jacket ossifying into exactly the sort of authoritariansm or theocracy by fiat that we find in “öld” cultures now under seige and reactive, elsewhere. Censorship will be a slippery slope.. you can ban, say. Tobin the denialist or
    Jihadi types, soon you get to ban the likes of Pilger and gut public or broadsheet journalism and broadcasting as Murdoch would like to see, consigning us to ignorance-induced feudallsm also.

    Once again DQ makes a reasonable observation. In nearly fifty years we have not been able to figure out a move from the old default, pluralism, to any thing better. If anything, even the pluralist balance is gone, I’d say… too many misanthropist Pickerings and Rush Limbaughs in the woodpile, losers whose only consolation seems to come from dragging the rest down with them, to prop up their rich mates..


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