Custom Screening: In defense of offense

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I was trawling YouTube one night and happened upon a 2006 discussion between Stephen Fry and the late Christopher Hitchens on the subject of blasphemy. Now, anyone who knows anything about either of these men will need no introduction to their stance on religion. Indeed, so familiar am I with the screeds of Fry/Hitchens memes that appear on my Facebook wall that I was lulled into the belief that I had at least an aphoristic understanding of Fry and Hitchens’ take on anything and everything.

Nevertheless, this debate yielded a comment I found equally fascinating and alarming. Fry listed what he believed were the two most overused words of the last decade. The first was, “respect” and the second, “offense.”   For Fry, the phrase, “I find that offensive ” yields the rather uncharacteristically ineloquent response, “well, so fucking what.”

What right, I thought, did Fry, a privileged, white male from an upper-class background and Hitchens, an even more privileged white heterosexual male have to discuss this word ‘offense?’ Surely, aside from the exception of Fry’s homosexuality, there can be very little that would offend these people; as wealthy white men they represent the world’s most overwhelming — and probably offensive — majority.

Yet there was something about the alleged ‘whine’ of calling ‘offense’ that struck a chord. The way that television columnists and reviewers are so quick to cry  ‘offense’ irritates me. Too often are wonderful programs like, “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,”  “Game of Thrones” and (my perennial favourite) “Girls” used as critical target practice for crimes of offense. Perhaps more obviously, personalities like Ricky Gervais are pilloried for their insensitivity without people properly understanding what they have said. This phenomenon seems to be the blight of the left-wing press and blogosphere. Like an Oliver Stone film, there’s something about the poorly argued, unbalanced and didactic criticisms that — in spite of the fact that I share much of their political and ideological beliefs — rouses me against them. In other words, it is the means, rather than the message that grates.

The sexism of “Mad Men” is impossible to turn away from. Intentionally front and center, it hangs heavy in the air, like the clouds of smoke exhaled by the licentious partners of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce. The Guardian — which seems to have adopted the mantle of online publication for the global left — has facilitated from the beginning a debate over the necessity of this prejudice in the program.

The debate has gravitated towards three extremes: that the sexism is an accurate representation of the gender roles of the period, that it is used to show that men and women of that time and place were so equally trapped by their gender roles that everyone was universally miserable, or that the sexism is gratuitous and that the historical accuracy defense belies a contemporary harmful nostalgia for a sexist past. Obviously, there is no answer and I don’t intend to find one, but the debate was interesting and was as much about what the artist intended as it was about what viewers took from it. The debate itself seemed to lift television from the gutters of criticism to the sort of artist and observer debate usually reserved for other media.

Compare this with the Gawker’s squawking over Lena Dunham’s alleged latent racism, or The Guardian newspaper’s critique of the nostalgic conservatism of “Downton Abbey” and an image emerges of a knee jerk criticism that denies television the ability to be anything more than a didactic and propagandistic medium, incapable of expressing more than one idea or opinion at a time.  The vitriol of these articles almost tried to argue against the very existence of these programs and begs for their decommissioning. Who said art was not allowed to be conservative?

Who said it could not be nostalgic — some of the best works of literature are nostalgic! Isn’t Julian Fellow’s argument — that no matter what our situation in life we are bound to be miserable – something rather valid, or at least interesting in these class-conscious times? At the very least, it is not offensive, but provocative. The harsh criticism of the content and ideas of Dunham and Fellows sadly suggests critics are unable to distinguish television writers as artists in their own right, capable of making historical and literary judgments like anyone else.

Perhaps, for that reason, I enjoy just a small helping of provocative offense. It’s a bit like Orson Welles’ famous speech in “The Third Man.” Though cooked up at the last minute by Welles himself, it betrays a remarkably prescient understanding of the issues plaguing today’s media :  “You know what the fellow said — in Italy, for thirty years under theBorgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and theRenaissance. InSwitzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? Thecuckoo clock.”

My thoughts should not be misconstrued as an apology for the often prejudiced, hopelessly white and often masculine domain of contemporary television. I pay my respects at the totems of left wing thought, I lay my triennial electoral tribute at the altar of my country’s Green party. I have picketed, protested and petitioned for liberal causes that, in the interest of brevity, I will not list here. The issue is with the overuse and misunderstanding of offense. Perhaps the best example of my position is Ricky Gervais’ whose eloquent offense showed, that when well-timed and well-articulated, offense is not just fun for debate, it is often the point itself.