Get Over It

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Moral outrage appears to be very much in vogue these days, particularly when it comes to what we see on our TV screens. The uproar over The Chaser‘s ‘The Eulogy Song’ and the following week’s ‘faeces-stain Christ’ sketch are just the latest frenzied response to a television show by our self-appointed moral guardians following the outcry over Channel Ten’s sinful US import Californication and the controversy over ‘bad taste’ in Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High on the ABC.

The Chaser, of course, drew condemnation from all corners, including both major Party leaders, and the usual rather predictable demands for apologies and calls for ABC funding to be cut in order to get these sniggering undergraduates off our screens lest they further trespass against all that is good and decent.

The Chaser Boys

More heartening was the candlelight vigil held outside Channel Ten in an attempt to put a stop to Californication heartening, because it indicated that the Christian faith has done such a phenomenal job solving the world’s major problems that some nationally televised nipples and high-definition fellatio is apparently the most pressing problem that believers have to turn their collective will towards.

Central to the complaints against shows like these is the concept of ‘offence.’ The show must be stopped, the guardians shriek, for it ‘offends’ somebody.

Chris Lilley’s jokes about rape and the disabled offend our sense of propriety; Californication‘s orally generous nun offends our religious beliefs; and The Chaser‘s callous attack on fallen heroes offends, it would seem, the very foundation of our humanity.

What is striking about everyone who wails about how much they are offended by a TV show (or for that matter a book, or a film) is their rock-solid conviction that it actually matters whether they are offended or not. They appear to be under the impression, these defenders of the purity of our souls, that whatever upsets them, personally whatever hurts their feelings or makes them uncomfortable should be a guide to what others are or are not allowed to watch, or what creative types should or should not be allowed to create.

To cause offence is, apparently, all that is necessary to precipitate drastic action. There is no need to demonstrate how the offending material will cause tangible harm; no need to show any genuine benefit that would derive from putting a stop to it; ‘I am offended’ is the cry, and all are expected to bow to it.

There are different ways of phrasing it, of course. For instance, conservative commentators who deride the ‘nanny State’ at every opportunity claim sex has to be taken off the TV to protect us from ourselves as if nobody but those with the immense self-control of conservative commentators is capable of watching a bit of smut without immediately turning into a ravening sex fiend. (It’s just sex, people it’s not as evil as your parents told you.)

The Chaser ‘s song was attacked on the grounds that it was attacking the dead , who ‘can’t defend themselves,’ a rather amusing rationale that rests on the notion that, in death, people lose the ability to defend themselves while miraculously retaining the ability to have their feelings hurt. Their sketch featuring pilgrims worshipping at a toilet bowl with a poo stain in the shape of Jesus’s head has drawn fire from Church leaders as an ‘assault’ on Christians’ faith, not that the likes of Fred Nile or Peter Jensen ever hesitate to make similar assaults on beliefs that don’t align with their own.

‘It’s not funny,’ is another familiar refrain from our self-appointed guardians, as if their own sense of humour is: a) reliable, or b) relevant in any way. Lots of people happen to think songs about dead celebrities, and fornicating nuns, and horrendously wrong drama teachers, are funny. And even if they didn’t, so what? Censorship should never be implemented on the basis of taste.

The bottom line is, the critics have been misinformed. Their personal sense of outrage does not add up to a compelling case for halting certain types of entertainment. If you want to restrict what I can watch, or read, or publish, or broadcast, you should damn well have a better reason than ‘it offended me.’ The delicate sensibilities of some members of an audience even a majority of the audience are not worth restricting our freedom of expression.

Some people believe that freedom of expression is not all that important. I respectfully beg to differ and if it wasn’t for that freedom, one side of that argument might not exist.

John Cleese said, ‘Nobody has the right not to be offended,’ and he was right. You might have the right not to be hurt, the right not to be forced to do things against your will, but the right not to be offended? The right not to be upset? The right not to have your feelings hurt? No such thing.

Personally, I’m offended by just about every word that comes out of Tony Abbott’s mouth, but I don’t go around calling for him to apologise for his value system, or to gag his public pronouncements. And he’s nowhere near as funny as The Chaser.

Whenever our guardians crawl out from beneath their shiny, virginal rocks to blast the amusements of the impure there are defences made. Eloquent and cogent ones. The Chaser boys made an excellent explanation of the satirical point behind ‘The Eulogy Song’ and the hypocrisy they were trying to lampoon. Chris Lilley has been impressively rational when elaborating his aims in creating Summer Heights High, and behind his gleeful bad-taste comedy there are indeed superb insights into society and the human condition. And Californication has had more than one supporter in this country and who knows how many in the US, pointing out the profoundly wholesome and moral message at the core of the series a message that is, behind the flesh, all about family values.

Of course, these defences are worthy. And well-formulated and absolutely true. And useless.

The guardians don’t care, won’t listen. They don’t want to know about how some people think intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment can dovetail with mockery and bad taste. In many cases, they don’t even want to know what they’re protesting about: The Chaser song provoked much more outrage from talkback listeners who were instructed to be incensed over a secondhand description of the piece than it did from people who actually saw the show.

No, all these people want is to ban things to keep society safe, and clean. And bland.

And that is why, as admirable as artistic defences to accusations of moral collapse are, they should be dispensed with. They have no effect, and in essence, put the battle firmly on the enemy’s ground. If we allow ourselves to be sucked into the game of deciding what is and what is not allowed on the basis of artistic merit, we cede a dangerous advantage to the prudes. By airing ‘The Eulogy Song,’ The Chaser might have been exposing hypocrisy, or they might simply have been having a big nasty giggle at some dead folks. Does it mean, either way, that they should apologise? Should they be hauled off the air if they can’t pass some imaginary test of artistic integrity?

It can be argued whether any piece of art or entertainment is a genuine attempt to engage, or simply to shock. It can always be debated whether a piece is trash or treasure, whether it’s cheap laughs or incisive comment. And people can differ over whether a comedian is cleverly irreverent, or just mindlessly offensive. Such debates are part of the joy of being a consumer of art, music, films, books, and TV.

But the moral guardians don’t want debate. They don’t want to prove the heart of art. They want to take away the smut and the disrespect and the uncomfortable jokes. And they want to do it for your own good, without examination.

That’s why we shouldn’t bother mounting intelligent defences of the shows we love. When somebody says, ‘I’m offended,’ simply reply, ‘So What?’ make a heartily profane suggestion as to where they can stick their moral outrage, before departing to enjoy the wide variety of artistic expression in this world no matter how deliciously wrong it may be.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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