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A Defence of the “Age of Offence”

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Wherever I look these days I cannot help but stumble across article upon article on how my generation, specifically the liberal among us are becoming ‘trigger happy,’ politically correct sheep, covered with a very festive sprinkling of snowflakes. It’s like an evidence compilation aimed to firmly label us as, The Age of Offence. I can’t defend every single one of these cases, of course there are some extreme stories even I roll my eyes at. However, most of the cases aimed at convincing me that the world is folding to liberal outrage end up falling flat.

Of course, the topical issue is that of Konstantin Kisin and the infamous UNICEF benefit contract. Kisin refused to sign a behavioural contract asking him to make sure his jokes were not abusive towards demographics protected under anti-hate-crime legislation. Kisin was outraged at this move, citing comedians’ tendency to “stray over the line”.

What people miss when they criticise ‘liberal’ students, such as Kisin, of cracking down on freedom of speech, is the crucial component of the business transaction. For a political group who are supposedly pro-business and personal responsibility, it seems right wing commentators don’t understand that in agreeing to perform at a gig affiliated with UNICEF, Kisin would be operating not as a lone comic, but as a UNICEF affiliate. I don’t support censorship, but if this is a case of censorship, so are most brand ambassador/general company contracts whereby employees would be reprimanded if not fired if they badmouthed the company. In the same way one is allowed to vocalise any opinion they wish about Coca Cola, until they become a Coca Cola ambassador, one is allowed to “stray over the line” in regards to ‘racism, sexism, homophobia…’ until they are performing at a benefit for a charity who actively fights these issues. A performer at a children’s party shouldn’t be that surprised if they were asked to avoid songs with lyrics deemed inappropriate for their audience. These can be songs that would be perfectly fine in an unaffiliated band set. It makes perfect brand sense for a UNICEF gig to not include jokes that are “abusive,” even if these jokes are still valid at a normal gig. In fact, I am a strong supporter of a comedians right to push the boundary, but I cannot get angry at a student charity for wanting to make sure the content of the gig was suitable for their event. If you don’t want to sign the contract, you don’t have to. That’s how business works.

I think the issue here is partly the way stories are presented coupled with an unconscious blockade built by traditional ways of thinking. This can be seen in the discrepancy in thoughts about freedom of speech for comedians versus the rest of the employed population, as well as in cases where those criticising are not those catered to. Take the story of Manchester Student Union banning clapping for instance. When you take the story at face value, I’ll admit it does sound a little absurd, although the idea of a whole room of people silently jazzing is quite a pleasing image. However, upon doing only the slightest of digging, one discovers that it’s not some random qualm with showing appreciation through auditory means. Nor is it equatable with some of the more extreme elimination of triggers. It is to accommodate for those suffering from autism and other illnesses for whom the noise of clapping can deter them from attending student talks. I believe that when a university states that it is disability friendly and includes Autism amongst the disorders it supports, this support has to be genuine. It is not enough to merely allow students with autism to attend university if they cannot then experience as normal a student life as possible. Were there no wheelchair access to lecture halls, this would be seen as an obvious contradiction of support for wheelchair users. Why then is support for non-physical disabilities laughed at and called political correctness gone wild? When you compare it to a situation we as a society are accustomed to and illuminate the very little difference between the two, I honestly believe it no longer feels like “liberal madness”. In fact, I compare this approach to clapping and autism to the regulations on flash photography at certain places such as Disney rides to allow those with epilepsy to enjoy the same experiences; regulations I applaud. Who would want to actively deny certain children the magic of Disney?

I think, and I really hope this does not come across as condescending, that the trouble a lot of people have with getting their head around these stories is that they can’t understand what it is like to be in the position of those these initiatives help. It is easy to take for granted being able to attend events without medical worries intervening. Frankly, if I have to “jazz hand” it out so that some excited child gets to go to the pantomime at ease knowing that all they have to do is sit back and enjoy, then I’m more than happy to do so. I get that it feels a little strange, perhaps people feel embarrassed by it, but I don’t think it’s that much of a sacrifice in order to let other people experience the same things I do without a second’s thought. And for those who have said accommodating for students with autism is “pampering” I would hope they would reconsider this view as it reeks of ignorance and privilege.

I’m fed up of all moves being made to help people either through charity work or just simple human kindness towards people other than oneself as being painted under the broad brush of pandering and liberal pampering. Most of these initiatives such as the clapping adjustment or even allowing people to enter their preferred pronoun into university databases so as to be addressed correctly are reflective of a realisation that perhaps we can’t understand everyone’s lives. For those who are born into the wrong body but who haven’t the funds or the circumstances to transition, I can only imagine the pain caused by being constantly referred to as the wrong gender. As a person who was born in a female body who identifies as a female, I don’t ever have to worry about being addressed as the wrong gender. But it’s no skin off my nose if someone, who worries that based on their looks they will be referred to as the wrong gender, wants to let people know their preference. If this comes in the form of a name-tag or a conversation, what does it matter? Even Piers Morgan is supposedly supportive of transgender people, why then is allowing transgender or non-binary people to live their lives in the exact same fashion as cis people, whereby they are referred to by the pronoun they identify with, a problem? Even if that includes non-traditional pronouns.

In summary, I feel that genuine cases of political correctness overstepping the mark are infrequent and have been used to cloud judgements in regards to initiatives simply aiming to make people’s lives better. I think most people opposed to these initiatives, if they truly took the time to look past inflammatory headlines, would be able to see the core purpose which is logical inclusivity. I think these people have been conditioned to hear buzzwords such as “Student Union” and “environment of respect” and think “liberal snowflakes.” Pointing out that it’s merely putting everyone on an equal level amidst discussion, conducted in a respectful environment of course, should change some minds. But to those few who intentionally occupy their time not with spreading human understanding and kindness, but with ignorance, circumstantial privilege and the refusal to accommodate, I say only this: I’m not outraged, I’m just disappointed.

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Kathleen Falconer

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