Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Clarkson story: a parable for our times

It’s amusing to follow the ferment about Jeremy Clarkson, star of motoring programme Top Gear, that led to his being suspended by the BBC after what it called a “fracas” with a producer.

The rumours are that, in this instance, a “fracas” meant a punch thrown.

What makes the story more interesting than a banal news item about crass behaviour, is that Clarkson represents something quite profound in English society, indeed in society of most developed economies today. Considering that he’s spent years cultivating an appeal based on shallowness, it’s even remarkable that he can represent anything profound on anything.

Jeremy Clarkson
Some find him appealing
He’s regularly in trouble for using derogatory, even racist language, or just for slurring other people or even whole nations. He had to leave Argentina in a hurry after sporting a number plate (H982 FLK) which some thought was a reference to the 1982 Falklands conflict. He had to apologise to Mexicans for describing them as lazy and feckless. He riled India too with some tasteless comments.

What these incidents all have in common is that they’re delivered in a humorous way, which makes it hard to criticise them without seeming humourless oneself. My difficulty is that comments whose only effect is to offend don’t strike me as all that funny, and making them sound funny, only makes them more offensive.

In passing, I feel exactly the same about some of the more tasteless cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published by organisations such as Charlie Hebdo.

What the attitude reflects is a sense that it’s OK to be offensive about other people, and whole groups of other people. Those who think like Clarkson will assure you that they’re not racist, they’re merely upholding the right to say what they think (so they’re actually staunch protectors of free speech, not just bullying boors), and reject Political Correctness (to which they’ll usually tack the words “gone mad”).

It’s those attitudes that have led to the rise of parties such as UKIP in England or the Front National in France. They too would claim not to be racist, but to speak simple common sense for ordinary people. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that behind their rejection of Islamist extremism, say, there’s actually a dislike of anyone espousing Islam, and behind that, as a recently-former UKIP Councillor revealed, a dislike of anyone black (she claimed she couldnt bear to look at black people).

So it’s a racism that generally dare not speak its name.

What makes its role so sad is that often the people who admire it most, the fans of Jeremy Clarkson, for instance, admire it for its strength. Clarkson has the courage to speak out and say the things many believe but don’t dare express. His boldness is admirable to them.

Taken to its extreme, this attitude can become deeply dangerous and corrupting. If three young girls from East London chose last month to travel to Syria to join ISIS, I can’t help believing that much of the attraction was to a movement with the courage to say out loud what others merely feel but are too timid to voice. And ISIS of course goes still further: it takes cruel action, instead of limiting itself to cruel words.

There’s no comparison in degree between a Clarkson bullying jibe and an ISIS beheading, but they’re still linked, by indifference to hurt, by a breaking of the normal bonds that prevent us acting on such aggressive impulses, and by the sense in many others that this is an expression of courage.

What’s particularly interesting about the Clarkson case, however, is the money aspect. As well as having made a fortune from it himself, under his tenure Top Gear has become one of the BBCs most successful programmes. That touches on another problem in our present societies, the power of money. Given what he brought in to the Corporation, Clarkson must have felt himself to be immune to any kind of action against him. Whatever his behaviour, the BBC could never part company with him – they’d be cutting off the hand that fed them.

So it’s striking that the BBC has suspended him. They’ve even cancelled the last three programmes in the present series of Top Gear. And that really is a major step.

Because it says “there are certain forms of behaviour that we simply won’t tolerate. And it makes no difference how wealthy you are, or how much wealth you generate.”

It’ll be interesting to see where this story goes next…


Faith A. Colburn said...

Hip, hip hooray for this post, David. I've been accused of humorlessness because I don't find jokes that demean somebody funny. I keep hearing about how it should be okay to make fun of Muslims--why should they be immune to the same treatment as Catholics and Poles, etc. Trouble is, I've never heard a follower of Islam make fun of other religions. Maybe I'm just too sequestered.

David Beeson said...

You're not humourless, Faith. It's that humour that's humourless. Because it's founded on unkindness and lacks generosity.