It’s been a busy week for the easily offended.
On Tuesday, it was reported the Motion Pictures Practitioners Association of Nigeria banned local actress Rahama Sadau from making movies because of an “offensive hug” she had committed in a video in which she performed with a male pop star. She’s deemed immoral, apparently, by “conservative Muslim clerics” who believe Sadau is “corrupting people’s values”.
On Thursday, we heard Russians were “outraged” by a Robbie Williams song and promo video in which their nation was “stereotyped”. In The Guardian one Russian complained that Williams’ Party Like A Russian was “a tired cultural cliché” of the kind:
… smilingly tolerated by cosmopolitan elites when directed at Slavs in the 21st century.
And then we have the strange and terrible saga of the Budgie Nine. My non-Australian readers should know that “budgie smugglers” are Aussie vernacular for the skimpy Speedo-type male swimwear popularised by former prime minister Tony Abbott some years ago.
The term’s cheeky implication that we blokes are hiding some rather minimal tackle underneath that shiny tight fabric is typically self-deprecatory antipodean humour, and usually taken in that spirit.
As is the behaviour of the nine young men who stripped down to their Malaysian-flag-emblazoned swimwear at the F1 Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur. One could argue that they were mocking their own masculinity and sending up their own “Aussieness” as much as mocking the Malaysian nation, merely by wearing such ludicrous garments.
The local authorities didn’t see it that way. For their sins, they spent four days in a Malaysian prison, and narrowly escaped worse only by offering an unconditional apology before the court.
Like the tourists who stripped naked on a sacred Malaysian mountain back in 2015 their actions were deemed deeply offensive to someone in that country.
Call me irresponsible but isn’t this, frankly, a teeny-wee-bit of an overreaction to some celebratory larking about by lads at an international sporting event?
Naked tourists invoking angry spirits and causing earthquakes on Mt Kinabalu is one thing – throw the book at them, the blasphemers! – stripping down to your swimmers in tropical heat at a post-race party in celebration of one’s favourite F1 racing driver seems more like what Australians call “larrikinism” – boyishly bad behaviour, and in this case far less transgressive than the alcohol and drug-fuelled antics many professional sportsmen routinely get up to.
Whatever you think of it, it is hardly the stuff from which prison sentences and international incidents should be made.
We live in increasingly intolerant times, alas, in which the long-established liberal democratic right to cause offence is under unprecedented attack – not only by Islamists in Nigeria and elsewhere, and orthodox Christians in Georgia (who boycotted Pope Francis’ recent official visit to their country), but holier-than-thou advocates of all stripes and ideological orientations.
To critique patriarchal and homophobic Islamic theology is dubbed “Islamophobia” in too many quarters. To support the right of an alternative thinker like Bjorn Lomborg to articulate his views on how to address anthropogenic climate change is deemed “climate change denialism”, and so on.
And in response to the proliferating ranks of thought police speaking out evermore loudly in our times, reactionaries such as Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson declare their right to post-factual declarations of outright bigotry and voodoo politics (such as Trump’s claim that Mexicans are “rapists” and that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy).
True liberals – by which I mean those who believe in diversity and multicultural mingling, as well as not merely tolerance but acceptance of the Other – must stand up and defend the right to offend, and the duty to be prepared to be offended in turn. Short of incitement to hatred and/or violence, we should all in these turbulent times be prepared to die to uphold that right, even when we disagree with the offensive remarks in question.
The argument, for example, that a plebiscite on marriage equality should be rejected because some particularly fragile folk might have their feelings hurt is nonsense, and rank political opportunism by Labor – which had six years in government to legislate on this issue.
The debate this plebiscite will encourage may well at times lead to offence in some quarters, be they in the pro- or anti-camps, but who cares? Identity politics have hardly been without rancour in the past.
Let’s get the issues around marriage equality out there and resolve them once and for all, especially when the polls indicate a healthy majority for progressive change.
Those who aim to suppress “offensive” behaviour and, worse, offensive speech, play into the hands of the authoritarians for whom censorship and control of the wayward human spirit is a key weapon of their continuing rule.
While Malaysians get angry about budgie smugglers, their prime minister Najib Razak allegedly loots his country’s state investment fund of billions of dollars. That is the kind of offence that, if true, should really matter to Malaysians.