Sorry James Delingpole But You're Wrong: I Am Offended By Celebrities Telling Nazi 'Jokes'

Since our digital Pandora's Box has democratised comment by empowering an occasionally ugly free-for-all, the opinions of the masses don't count as much because they lack brainy ballast, according to some. This is particularly so when it comes to what does and doesn't cause offence.
Ian West/PA Wire

I'm not easily offended. I always found my school nickname, an inventive combination of middle name and religion - Gid The Yid - mildly amusing rather than mildly insulting. My protruding ears have elicited a plethora of insults that I've borne with a sticks-and-stones smile - you know, jug ears, FA Cup, Dumbo, that kind of thing.

And if my friends insultingly demand I go in goal when they're scraping the bottom of the barrel to fill a Monday night five-a-side team, should I take offence at their dismissive opinion of my sporting prowess or quietly admit I'm an enthusiastic incompetent?

But some things do offend me and I've begun to feel increasingly uncomfortable about saying so. I'm lucky enough to find outlets to vent my feelings - blogs, newspaper articles, website columns - and possess a modicum of writing talent not to always embarrass myself with my opinions.

Most people, however, must risk their sanity by entering the echoing fury-chambers of Twitter, Facebook or even printed letters pages to express their distaste for perceived racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semitic sleights.

But for some commentators, such recourse lacks real meaning. They demand that moral compasses are guided not just by feelings but intellectual grandstanding. Since our digital Pandora's Box has democratised comment by empowering an occasionally ugly free-for-all, the opinions of the masses don't count as much because they lack brainy ballast, according to some. This is particularly so when it comes to what does and doesn't cause offence.

Obviously not everyone adheres to such a perverse more-equals-less argument but this week I found myself in the midst of one. A fulminating right-wing columnist for whom I have enormous respect - indeed I employed his freelance skills on many occasions during my years as a newspaper executive - took offence at my offence.

James Delingpole wrote a powerful essay in The Spectator magazine about 'Christopher Biggins and the fall of civilisation', and how society is being tarnished and weakened by our inability to seek discourse and react with understated good sense. Instead we turn the volume up to 11 and cry foul over every little perceived offensive remark.

He eloquently described how the TV star - 'panto dame, national treasure and now sainted martyr' - was being unfairly demonised for a 'possibly' ill-judged quip about a Jewish woman lining up for a Nazi-style shower on the Channel 5 reality show, Celebrity Big Brother. Possibly offensive, ill-judged, malicious, stupid etc etc. James believes that Biggins has possibly transgressed and 'shouldn't have apologised for his reasonably minded person of whatever religion...could possibly have taken offence at any of his remarks on Big Brother. And anyone who tries to do so should maybe get a sense of perspective.'

Admittedly, if you're looking for a sense of perspective the social media battlefield that is Twitter is not the place to go. But go I did, politely tweeting James that he was wrong. And here's the (slightly truncated) exchange:

Me: I'm reasonably minded and, honestly James, this time you're wrong. Your wider argument is spot-on but Biggins a bad example.

James: Write me an essay explaining why. Otherwise I write this off as an ex cathedra Twitter opinion of no value whatsoever.

Me: Just cos u rnt offended doesn't mean I'm wrong 2 b. Whiff of schoolboy stupidity but as unacceptable as playground taunts.

James: If your argument is based on 'offence taken' spare yourself the effort. Not interested. I like intelligent debate not random opinion.

I'm on holiday and didn't want to have to write an essay to express how offensive it is to hear that a celebrity teased a Jewish woman about gas chambers and then read a celebrated journalist saying I'm wrong to be offended. But here it is. And, yes, I had to look up 'ex cathedra' too.

What most troubles me, however, is James's arrogance that I had to write an essay to explain why I'm offended, that I needed to intellectualise my emotions. Otherwise, he seemed to be suggesting, my opinion, my randomness, didn't count. I had to compete on an equal footing with him to justify my thoughts.

I don't think you have to be Jewish to think Biggins overstepped the mark. In fact, my travelling companions, none of whom are Jewish and all of whom I would suggest are 'reasonably minded', are unanimous in their belief that he was crassly offensive. Not anti-Semitic, just offensive.

Some might conflate the two and I suspect that this is where James and others who bemoan our inability to stiffen our upper lips is on surer ground. There is a disturbing and censorious puritan streak within society that discourages open debate and restricts people from speaking their minds. We take 'offence' at the slightest thing and then scream 'Racist!' 'Homophobe!' 'Antisemite!' just because we can and because we will find endless support within the often moronic, malicious and myopic world of social media.

But just because their ill-judged accusations are wrong, it doesn't mean that offence is not being felt by others whose sensitivities are slightly more sensitive than those in James's camp.

When I read Biggins's death camp 'joke', I was reminded of something else a couple of fellow 15-year-olds used to do at school, to accompany their Gid the Yid greeting. They'd give a gas chamber hiss when I walked into a classroom and sat down. I heeded my parents' advice and never said anything, and it only stopped when the teacher cottoned on to what was happening.

That's why I found Biggins's comment offensive - I'm Jewish. And that's why James didn't. He isn't. But for him to suggest I (and anyone else who shares my opinion if not my ability to get it published) needed to write an essay to explain why that should be so, is as unthinkingly arrogant as the Twitter-trolls he and others spend their days baiting.

Perhaps it is his sense of perspective that is skewed, not mine.


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