Some people love to take offense on other people’s behalf. It’s a thankless task, probably because they didn’t need to do it in the first place.

One thing I’ve found about being of the Hebraic persuasion, is that every now and then, people might ask me, delicately, if I mind them talking about Christmas, or seeing an image of a pig. Uhm, well along with most Jews or Muslims, although Christmas and pigs may not be part of our cultural tradition, we’re quite fine to hear people talking about Christmas or indeed to be witness to anything pig related without spontaneously combusting at the terrible affront.

The tabloids love to fly Indignation Air to Outrageville because someone has allegedly taken offense on behalf of religions and is therefore ‘banning’ Christmas, figgy pudding and jolly carol singers. The headlines, of course, blame the religions – well, religion, it’s always Islam – while the actual story tends to reveal that maybe someone in a local authority hinted in a memo somewhere that perhaps they ought to not do X or Y in case it ‘offends Muslims’, and the council ‘have no plans to implement this suggestion at this time’. So naturally the headline is: ‘MUSLIMS FORCE COUNCIL TO BAN XMAS CARDS’.

At the opposite end of the media spectrum to the Mail and co, the rather fabulous Offbeat Empire, topically enough, blogged about  ‘Privilege Checking and Semantics-Scolding as spectator sport’  last week.  Seeing themselves as activists supporting non mainstream lifestyles, the bloggers at Offbeat find themselves daily at the receiving end of emails accusing them of bigotry, writing from a position of privilege and so on because they used such-and-such a phrase and should obviously have known this was unacceptable. Although at the same time they can’t possibly have known anyway because they are privileged and can’t possibly understand what it is to be left-handed in a right-handed world to use a facetious comparison and not single out any groups out here, as that’s neither my intention nor Offbeat’s. But let’s just say a bit of politeness and dropping assumptions might not go amiss if you want to flag up to someone well meaning that they may be doing something wrong.

Offbeat is founded on the idea of supporting alternative lifestyles, so there’s never any intent to marginalise or offend said groups. Yet some people seem to get their kicks from picking and picking at linguistic minutiae, never thinking, for example, that they may not be speaking for everyone that is in their community (which may or may not actually be a particularly unified community) or that there are very good reasons that even sympathetic people from ‘privileged’ groups may not be up on every detail on what is acceptable. The example I used with my friends is that I don’t call out ‘Ignorance!’  or ‘Bigotry!’ if a friend were to invite me to a beer festival in the middle of Passover. I am a member of a group that comprises about 0.5% of the British population – I don’t expect most people to know when Passover is or that I won’t be drinking beer during it. There’s no reason for them to know that, just as there’s no reason to believe they won’t quite happily accept and respect those things once they do know.

Likewise, I’m not going to harrumph that ‘Some of us don’t celebrate Christmas, you know’ once the media begins to go on about it continually from about, well, this week. This is, nominally, a Christian country, and along with almost every other non-Christmas celebrating person I am actually perfectly tolerant of this fact, unlike those imaginary fairy-light-hating Muslims. It doesn’t mean I am oppressed or accepting being treated like crap; it’s about accepting the reasonable limitations of others and the context within which I am living.

It’s not just religions or people with minority status who can call on righteous fury these days, though – indignation is very equal opportunity.

A recent ‘case’ (I’m loathe to call it case without quote marks) saw Matthew Woods given a 12-week sentence at a youth centre for some doubtless droll and pithy comments on missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann. The judge decided that public opinion, whether they’d seen the comments or not, made his pathetic postings ‘abhorrent’ enough for a custodial sentence. Woods was targeted by an angry mob and actually taken into custody for his own safety, and it seems once this was done, the mob ruled and he had to be criminally charged.

But it wasn’t my ‘public opinion’ – and many other people would see no reason to sentence the man, or even take this issue to court. The ‘Sun Sez’ mentality wins the day.

Josie Appleton’s Spiked article on Section 5 of the1986 Public Order Act, and more particularly the way it has been used in recent years, shows how worrying are the implications of this attitude: ‘Nobody even needs to have been actually harassed or distressed by the defendant’s behaviour. Nor is it necessary for the accused to have intended to cause offence, only to be “aware that his behaviour may be” harassing or distressing.’

Something, to be sure, is rotten in the state when judges decide how offended the public should be at something that they generally wouldn’t see until there’s an outraged article about it in the national press. When did just telling someone ‘That’s out of order, please stop it’ become not enough for a comment that’s out of line? Do we have that little faith in people that we think punishment under criminal law is a proportionate punishment for a tasteless joke?

At other times, it’s not a legal punishment that results. The ‘Sachsgate’ exchange conducted by Russell Brand on his Radio 2 show, with Jonathan Ross, was barely noted by anyone at the time it went out, but BBC-hating parts of the media  gleefully whipped up a frenzy of offense, resulting in multiple complaints from people who either never heard the exchange or otherwise went out of their way to listen to it in retrospect. The upshot was that the two presenters were effectively exiled from the BBC because people who weren’t listening to the show in the first place were offended. Similarly, anyone could draw attention to something a bit non-u online and say ‘Look, just LOOK at this, it’s SICK!’ when otherwise no one would have seen it to be offended by it without it being specifically brought to their attention.

Can it really be possible to say that ‘public opinion’ is offended when public opinion is generally represented by the most vociferous and obnoxious parts of the press? It’s not for one person or body to say what people ought to be thinking or saying.  More  horror seems to be expressed these days at the concept of religious representatives speaking out on moral topics than on the media doing so, when the media’s views can be no less dogmatically entrenched, and are certainly attended to by more people. Moral outrage? Not in my name. Or not without checking with me first, OK?

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