Nobody has the right to be spared offence

Almost certainly, the good burghers of Dudley in the West Midlands will have used the word “inappropriate” when discussing whether they should allow Philip Ridley’s play Moonfleece to be performed at the town’s theatre. When they banned it, the reasoning was that the play’s themes of homophobia, fascism and the BNP were not “suitable for a community setting”. For their part, the Moonfleece team, who had hoped to “start a conversation with the right”, accused the organisers of appeasement.

Such is the nature of cultural debate in 2010. A challenging, good-hearted message from the stage, protests from the public, ending in the sullen silence of repression and unexpressed arguments. Yet in rows like this all sides emerge feeling smug. The liberals have done their best to reach the yobs, who have then, rather satisfyingly, confirmed their own oafishness. The yobs have seen off the metropolitan do-gooders. Wringing their hands in the middle, the local worthies have avoided trouble.

Ridley has argued that racism and homophobia, once crude and obvious, have become dangerously normalised. The same, though, can be said of intolerance – and not just among the fascists.

The exploration of difficult subjects, and the expression on unpopular views, are becoming increasingly impossible in our nervous yet bullying culture. Traditionalists and progressives, the left and the right, agree on one thing: it is better to suppress an awkward argument than to debate it. The only essential difference between the two sides lies in how the process of suppression works.

Religious zealots, and those on the extreme right, favour shouting and trouble-making of the type which dogged Jerry Springer: The Opera and had the play Behzti cancelled in Birmingham. Those on the left simply decide that work which has an inappropriate or troubling message should, on balance, not be staged.

An exaggeration? Try to remember when you last saw a play on TV which challenges the prevailing political and moral consensus. When, recently, the BBC engaged with the scandals surrounding MPs’ allowances and commissioned a drama, the resulting work was a funny, broad comedy in which the MPs were bent, the Speaker an establishment fool, and the young female investigative journalist a heroine.

It was, in other words, 100 per cent safe, playing to the assumptions and prejudices of its audience, skittering cartoonishly over the surface rather than doing what serious drama should do – dig for the complexities below it. Like the organising committee in Dudley, the BBC prefers to avoid trouble.

Both sides are united under the banner of offensiveness. Moonfleece will offend local fascists: better not show it then. A televised play on, well, virtually any serious subject might offend viewers: why not do a biopic of Fanny Cradock instead?

That new hero of sanity and openness Philip Pullman has recently uttered wise words on this subject when an “ordinary Christian” declared that he had been personally offended by the title of Pullman’s novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. “No one has the right to live without being offended. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended,” Pullman said. If the man disliked the novel, he could complain, criticise, or write his own book. But no one had the right to stop something being written or published.

It is a simple message on behalf of debate, words, thought. Those of the right or the left who justify censorship in the name of offensiveness should remember it.

All hail the future Lady Prescott

What joy there must have been among Labour old-timers when no fewer than three cabs-for-hire, Hoon, Hewitt and Byers, removed themselves definitively from the list of potential peers.

Some future members of the House of Lords are easier to envisage than others – Margaret Beckett and John Reid have been rehearsing the part for some time – but the perfect peer would surely be Lord Prescott of Hull. It is said that, while John Prescott is ambiguous about being elevated to the upper house, the future Lady Prescott has no such doubts.

He should, of course, accept. The great enemy of snobbery, whose public obsession with class has become a profitable television franchise, will have material for yet another series on how the Prescotts have been brutally excluded from the British establishment.

 Independent, Wednesday, 31 March 2010