Channel: Oh No They Didn't!
Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 143234

Victoria Coren: Responds to 'Elementary Backlash"


Last week, in this space, I broke the law. Technically, I could be prosecuted. Technically, my only hope is that Rowan Atkinson can get the law changed before a gloved hand knocks at my door.

My column about Elementary was one of the most-read articles on the Comment Is Free website for days. What an accolade, the casual observer might think. After all, we live in a serious world. Some girl's unenthusiasm for a TV series in which Sherlock Holmes is a New York junkie and Doctor Watson is a sexy lady from Charlie's Angels is not a serious matter. If thousands of web-surfers are poring over that column, what a tremendously entertaining piece it must be.

But no. It was not my creative writing that fascinated people, but my racism. And as a little sweetener, like sprinkles on an ice cream, my sexism. Ideologically, I am the new Bernard Manning. (Unfortunately, the resemblance doesn't end there.)

Many of the messages I've since received on Twitter have been accompanied by the hashtags #racist and #sexist and, in one charming case, #youdumbbitch. This is why I read with particular interest about Rowan Atkinson's launch of the Reform Section 5 campaign, to repeal that part of the Public Order Act that makes it a crime to use "abusive or insulting" words within earshot (or eyeshot) of anyone likely to be offended by them. I would quite like this section to be reformed, in time for me to swerve jail.

The sexism charge was nuanced; some believe that Lucy Liu's casting as "Doctor Joan Watson" is a positive step for women in Hollywood; I do not, and those who disagree think I must therefore be a misogynist. Fine; give me a couple of hours round a pub table and I'll have that debate with pleasure.

But the racism charge was based on the following two paragraphs, which appeared about halfway through my column:

"Lucy Liu [told] the Times, 'It was a very big deal for me to play an Asian-American in Charlie's Angels; Watson's ethnicity is also a big deal', as if someone had bet her £100 that she couldn't cause at least three Conan Doyle fans to suffer a pulmonary embolism.

"Personally, I'd like to press Liu's face into a bowl of cold pea soup for that statement. It's not just her failure to distinguish between creating a new character and mangling a beloved old one (Tread softly! You tread on my dreams!), but the triumphant tone over such an appalling and offensive racial change. Let me be clear: I rather like the idea of an Asian Watson, but American? God save us all."

Now, I think it's fairly obvious that this is a silly joke about Americans, as imagined by a tweedy old fan of Victorian literature. It is not a difficult joke to spot. It's a standard structure: set up an expectation based on one half of a sentence (or, in this case, word), then say something based on the other half. As in: "My boyfriend's got a dog. I'm revolted by the hairiness and the smell. But I like his dog."

My furious online correspondents, however, reacted as though the last two sentences simply weren't there, managing somehow to take those lines as a statement of anti-Asian feeling. If I were more famous, the Daily Mail would have reported the complaints under the headline "COREN IN RACE ROW" and I would have been marked down forever as that woman who used to host a quiz show until her hatred of Asians was revealed and she was forced into hiding forever.

As it is, I will be remembered as a racist only by those too daft to get my silly joke, and those who saw the damning internet blogs that failed to quote exactly what I'd said.

Nevertheless, those people were genuinely offended. Some may be quite stupid ("How can you defend the BBC's male-dominated, all-white Sherlock?" asked one angry lady, the answer to which is so obvious that I couldn't be bothered to type it) – but I deliberately allowed readers to believe for two seconds that I was about to make an anti-Asian statement, in the full knowledge that some people are stupid and that even so familiar and simple a comic U-turn might be too much for them. Technically, and illegally, I invited offence.

Last week, a caller to the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 said that Andrew Mitchell should be jailed for swearing at the police because "there is too little respect for them".

As someone who remembers from childhood the timid, furtive voices of east European cousins on the phone – those few who had survived the concentration camps – who dared not speak freely from behind the Iron Curtain because they feared being tapped and followed, I am extremely offended by the suggestion that my own beautiful British society should become a police state, in which rudeness to these authority figures is punished by incarceration. But do I think the caller should be jailed for offending me? No, I think there should be no such thing as a speech crime. However foul a thing you want to say, you can say it freely as far as I'm concerned. And I'm including the skinheads who shouted "Yid" at me during my grandfather's funeral.

Yet, even if you believe that offensive remarks should be proscribed by law, what about remarks that are misunderstood as offensive? It's nigh impossible to speak without any risk of misinterpretation, especially when mobs are out there looking to be outraged.

You don't have to support the campaign to reform Section 5. But one day, your teasing dig in a colleague's leaving card will be taken the wrong way; or your mobile phone comment will be misheard by passers-by in a crowded street; and then they will come for you.</blockquote>


Viewing all articles
Browse latest Browse all 143234

Latest Images

Trending Articles

Latest Images