The drill is pretty simple. Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May arrive at some dust-blown corner of the earth, and either purchase a trio of rackety old vehicles, or borrow someone else’s very expensive and exotic cars, and then set off in the general direction of adventure. A few days, a thousand miles, some swearing, eschewed metaphors and beers later, they pack and go home. BBC airs the show. And then a tumult of complaints arrives. The Beeb issues some half-arsed apology, and Clarkson gives it all the “bollocks to that” treatment in his Sunday Times column. Rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. (Yes, the show is repetitive, jingoistic and blokey, Kevin Bloom (http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2010-11-21-top-gear-tries-again-to-make-it-in-america). Some people like that, you know.)
The latest one involves the Top Gear India Special, where the lads used the opportunity to make comment about the state of India’s drinking water and IT industry, among other things. Since the India Special hasn’t yet aired in South Africa, we’ll leave it to that screamingly excellent paper of record, the Daily Mail, to describe what Top Gear did in India.
“The controversial star caused outrage with an episode set in India in which he strips to his boxer shorts in front of his hosts and hangs offensive banners on trains,” the Daily Mail said. “Staff at the High Commission complained that the programme was ‘replete with cheap jibes, tasteless humour and lacked cultural sensitivity.’ Clarkson and his co-presenters drove around in a Jaguar with a toilet fixed to the boot. Showing off the car’s unusual modification as he drove around the slums, Clarkson boasted: ‘This is perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots [British slang for, well, you know what].’ They also hung up banners that read ‘British IT is good for your company’ and ‘Eat English muffins’, which turned into offensive messages when the carriages pulled them apart.”
The BBC has since got 23 complaints from India and Britain. The High Commission of India reportedly sent scalding correspondence to the British government, to the effect that Top Gear was in “breach of an agreement” struck, where it had granted permission for the film to be shot because the producer apparently said that they would focus on “beautiful scenery, busy city scenes, local charm and colour” and India’s “car culture”. It seems like Top Gear’s reputation for naughtiness preceded it, prompting the High Commission to release the necessary permission under the condition that Top Gear not poke any risqué jokes at India.
Now, when Top Gear made fun of Mexico, we thought that the jokes were somewhat pointless and irrelevant. And once an otherwise insensitive joke is made for the sake of being mean, the speaker of it stops being a brave commentator and becomes a bully. Nobody likes those.
Top Gear’s success was built partly on Clarkson’s assumed role as the voice of reason against the unwelcome largesse of Tony Blair’s health and safety nanny state. Jezza’s rants about ridiculous regulations, speed cameras and limitations were justifiable. Being an Establishment Conservative, in defiance of his northern lower-middle-class roots, his sulphuric views on poverty and immigration are unsurprising and pander to Rupert Murdoch’s vast flock of angry, nationalistic readers. Clarkson, at least his public persona, is not a complex man, all told, and neither are his co-hosts on Top Gear, nor the show itself.
Video: Top Gear India Special trailer
But the sands of political correctness have shifted under Top Gear. Things are not what they used to be. As British society struggles with immigration and civil unrest, Jezza’s idea of what is fair game may be drifting dangerously close to the area where he’ll be so irrelevant and curmudgeonly that the BBC will eventually be forced to pull Top Gear off the air. In the meantime, not content to let Top Gear drift inevitably into obscurity, the “PC brigade” has been yapping incessantly at its feet. But there is such a thing as taking it too far. It is often said that free speech must be contained by considerations such as hate speech and incitement to violence. The converse is true as well. By overly pandering to political correctness, free speech suffers. The scale is often unbalanced when offense alone is grounds for sanction.
The Guardian’s Miranda Sawyer tried to comes to terms with the increasingly crass language spoken in private, and the increasingly PC language of public discourse. She described how racial and gender stereotypes had reached the point where they were unnoticeable when said between acquaintances – but such generosity wasn’t allowed as soon as it was all public. Even the act of ironically speaking about stereotypes gets you burned, if you do it in public, as Ricky Gervais discovered in October 2011. And the age of Twitter has only served to make us all PC vigilantes, she contended.
“But even Twitter isn’t anywhere near how we talk to each other in real life. I think about how I talk with my husband, the jokes I make about him being Irish, the slating I get from him for being from Manchester,” Sawyer wrote. “Not because I’m anti-Irish or he hates Mancunians, but because, in this country, slagging someone off means you like them. Calling someone a twat might mean you think they’re a twat. Or it might mean you love them a lot and think they’re the exact opposite. It’s all about how well you know them. Which can be hard to judge in itself. Plenty of people get hacked off because an acquaintance gets too cheeky too soon.
“Sometimes it seems as though PC is a never-ending moral exam with endless permutations to catch you out. If football player X calls football player Y a black bastard, should he be reprimanded? What about if X calls Y’s mother a whore? What about if he says the same thing about his sister? Or his 12-year-old daughter? What about if he called her a white whore? What about if X and Y are cousins, does that make any difference? What if they’re from different countries?” Sawyer asked.
The answers aren’t really easy. Today’s world where the brisk PCness of the 70s, 80s and 90s has been blunted by irony and the revelation that women and brown people can be prejudicial too is a lot more complicated.
But what’s become rather clear is that knee-jerk crusades against anyone who uses a word like mong, darkie, or who puts a toilet onto the boot of a Jaguar in India are hurting an even greater cause – that of free speech and clear thought.
Ross Perot is a billionaire and former independent presidential hopeful whose 1992 campaign was destroyed by a few missteps – such as when he addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People as “you people”. The British Labour MP Diane Abbott (the first black woman to be a British MP) was forced to apologise for angry tweets she sent in response to the media using the term “black community leaders” following the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.
It becomes almost impossible to address any issue – let alone resolve it – if mere offense becomes an acceptable defence. The #CapeTownIsRacist “debate” is the perfect example of the obfuscating nature of politically correct language. Nothing gets resolved.
Unbelievably, even Julius Malema has fallen afoul of this sort of thinking. In October 2011, he held a rally in October where he said, “There is no person who must live without electricity or water… there must be no child who can’t go to school because his parents can’t afford to pay for school fees. All children must go to school. Bana ba lena ba tshwanetse ba dumelelwe gore ba tsene sekolo le bana ba makula mona.” Translated as he had intended it, the sentence he uttered in Sepedi says: Your children must be allowed to go to school with Indian children. However, the proximity of “makula” and “coolies” was too close for many – he was accused of inciting racist hatred against Indians. A surprised Malema issued an apology shortly afterwards. He didn’t mean to give offense, he said. That was the Pedi word for Indians that he had learned growing up. A number of black people from Limpopo confirmed his view.
It didn’t help that the South African public has become primed to take offense at anything Malema says. All of public discourse in this country is thus poisoned. Thanks to the history of racial prejudice, and the erosion of Desmond Tutu’s spirit of reconciliation, we are forced to carefully select and weigh every word when dealing with issues of race. There’s the added, and entirely unnecessary, sword of Damocles that hangs where we believe that upsetting someone across the race divide may mean race war. It’s all very tense and dramatic, and the power of words becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy under these circumstances.
Which isn’t to say that South Africa isn’t different to other societies in this one respect, but there are very real dangers to living in a society where free speech and thought has taken a back seat to almost every other lefty philosophy. It’s a balance which we’ve got entirely wrong.
We’re lucky that in South Africa, the Bill of Rights doesn’t give anyone the right to live their lives without ever being offended. In some countries, you get jailed for saying the wrong thing – even if there is no hate speech or incitement to violence. An Egyptian businessman is facing serious jail time for tweeting a picture of Mickey Mouse in Islamic garb.
When offense becomes the new sacrilege, people like Jeremy Clarkson become the champions of free speech. In a world where liberties such as those taken on Top Gear are not allowed, we cannot be frank about anything at all. DM
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