Tyranny of the individual

House of Fraser’s removal of an ‘offensive’ ad following a single complaint shows that any sensitive soul can play the chief censor these days.

Alex Hochuli

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Topics Politics

The British House of Fraser chain has pulled a promotional poster from its 61 department stores across the UK and Ireland after one woman complained that it was ‘racist’. Promoting this season’s fashionable colours, the poster declared: ‘Black is back, White is right.’ The woman who complained said these words reminded her of a 1960s racist poem. The store’s management pulled the ad, seeming to accept the woman’s assertion that the marketing team must not be very ‘culturally aware’.

Society has always had its fair share of self-appointed moral guardians, usually groups of individuals with that unfortunate combination of over-sensitivity and over-zealousness. Such illiberal groups, made up of hundreds or just scores of people, have been able to convince individuals, businesses and councils to back down over the merest slight or ‘risque’ advert or campaign – and thus to police public space and debate. Yet now we have moved from the tyranny of the minority to the tyranny of the individual, where one seemingly thin-skinned complainant can determine what is appropriate for the rest of us to see and hear. This is more pernicious than anything Mary Whitehouse’s army did in the past.

Recently, tiny groups of people, or just one person, have been able to censure other people’s speech and actions. In 2004, the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) upheld the complaints of three people who had taken offence to Somerfield supermarket’s advert for a meat dish which included the use of the word ‘faggot’, on the grounds that the word is also derogatory slang for a homosexual. spiked recently reported on a similar row over a West Midlands pub selling something called ‘The Michael Barrymore Pie: Faggots Swimming in Gravy’ – here, too, a very small number of complaints managed to turn this misplaced piece of pub humour into a national controversy (see Why we’re standing by our un-PC pie, by Neil Davenport).

A series of incidents involving ‘anti-Welsh racism’ has demonstrated that complaints from fewer than a dozen people can lead to censure. A publican in Somerset, England who pinned a Welsh flag on her wall so that patrons could take pot shots at it on St George’s Day (it was the only dragon she could find) received a visit from the police after a single complaint was made. A single viewer of BBC 1’s Question Time instigated an investigation by the police into a Daily Mail journalist for supposedly having made ‘offensive and belittling’ comments about the Welsh during the programme. Yet when 81 people (also a very small number, of course) complained about the TV ads for Pot Noodle, which depict Welsh miners digging for noodles down a coalpit, their complaint was not upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Clearly this is not a numbers game. The fact that there was 81 times more indignation over Pot Noodles than there was over a journalist’s comments on Question Time is irrelevant, both to the official regulatory system, where, in Ofcom’s case, only one complaint is required to initiate an investigation, and to the question of free speech more broadly. Why should it be any more acceptable for one person or 81 people or 81,000 people to determine what the other 60million of us can see, hear and watch?

Even when there are ‘high’ numbers of complaints, which apparently justify taking censorious action, we are still actually talking about tiny minorities of outraged individuals. Barclay’s Bank retracted an advert showing a man being stung by a bee following 290 complaints, mostly from allergy sufferers (standing up for their ’cause’, presumably). A Fanta ad was pulled after 272 people complained that it was ‘disgusting’ – it showed individuals spitting out streams of Fanta from their mouths. What kind of people could seriously be offended by that? Following the complaints, the ad was restricted to post-watershed (that is, post-9pm) TV, in case children might be tempted to copy the people in the Fanta ad and spit their drinks everywhere.

In these instances, there is not even the pretence of being democratic. Democracy is about empowering the majority over the dictates of a minority. In the new forms of minority censorship, we have the empowering of the individual; the endowing of each citizen with the power and influence to be the gatekeeper of decency. This might sound well and good…empowering even. In reality it is censorious and belittling. One might even say it is offensive.

The upholding of complaints made by a tiny group of people or even a single individual turns every one of us into the potential eyes and ears of regulators, the footsoldiers of every jumped-up interest group in the country. Take the couple of police officers who complained about an advert for a Wearside law firm. The promotional poster advertised the fact that everyone who is taken to a police station is entitled to free legal advice. It was placed opposite the main police station in Sunderland and showed an attractive woman dressed as a sexy copper waving handcuffs under the words: ‘It’s a fair cop! (but it might not be)….so let [our solicitors] advise, assist and defend you.’ Following the police officers’ complaints, the law firm removed the poster.

This was not a case of the long arm of the law intruding into citizens’ lives. Rather the couple of cops who complained were speaking as ordinary citizens, defending not the image of the police against uppity lawyers but rather the integrity of female officers against an ad they found to be ‘sexist’. It seems that even when the police demand censure these days, it is as small groups of offended individuals rather than as a body of armed men.

Today, it isn’t only those who have been personally offended who file complaints; now the morally righteous tend to complain on behalf of others. A Swansea receptionist made a complaint to the police after she witnessed a man shout ‘Sieg Heil!’ at an Asian woman from his car as he drove past. The man was a BNP member, and he was fined; he argued that the case should never have come to court as the victim of his spiteful words never actually complained. He has a point.

The fact that an increasing number of statements, adverts and actions are withdrawn as a result of individual complaints is the inevitable outcome of trying to defend any group from ever being offended. Today’s culture of inoffensiveness, the idea that ‘You can’t say that!’ if it hurts someone’s feelings, has given rise to censure based on tiny numbers of people claiming to have felt offended. Once society accepts that it is legitimate to protect individuals or groups from the subjective category of ‘offensive’ speech or expression, then that gives carte blanche to individuals everywhere to demand the removal of things they don’t like. At least the old censors claimed to be democratic, to represent a ‘silent majority’ or ‘public decency’; of course this was nonsense, because in fact they tended merely to dress up their own values as the nation’s values. Today, by contrast, groups like Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority openly respond to tiny handfuls of complaints, using the bogeyword of ‘offensive!’ to remove certain words and images from the public realm.

The consequence is an unmistakable narrowing of what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, and the spread of both formal and informal speech codes. Such minority censure can only encourage ignorance and heightened sensitivity amongst the public. We might update Burke’s dictum: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to complain.

Alex Hochuli works at the Institute of Ideas.

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