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November 03, 2009

Being offensive should not be a cause for complaint to the police - or we risk becoming a police state, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Newspaper comment - however offensive we might find it - should never be a matter for the police, argues Theodore Dalrymple.

A piece in the Daily Mail by the columnist Jan Moir about the death of the pop singer, Stephen Gately, has occasioned (so far) 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. This is more, apparently, than it has ever received about any other single article. While I accept that complainers are not necessarily representative of the population as a whole, this outpouring of outrage is, perhaps, an indication of what the British public is interested in, and what it thinks important in this time of crisis.

Gately, aged 33, was found dead in his pyjamas on a couch. His lover was off elsewhere. The offending article about his death said, inter alia (including an encomium to the deceased's charm), that

Under the carapace of glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see.
This was because, in the opinion of the columnist, young men of Gately's age do not die suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes. They die, presumably, of wickedness or depravity, at least of the inevitable consequences of wickedness or depravity.

As it happens, this is not always true. Young men of Gately's age do sometimes die unexpectedly of natural causes, and apparently he was one of them. The article was factually wrong, therefore; and one of the lessons of the episode, at least for journalists, is that one should not opine on the causes of an unexpected death in advance of the post mortem results.

The tone of the article was very far from nihil nisi bonum, and no doubt was ungenerous in spirit. I myself know nothing, neither good nor ill, of the deceased, though I must confess that his profession does not predispose me much in his favour. However, in the absence of knowledge of definite evil on the part of a recently dead person, it seems to me that the conventional piety of saying nothing ill of him is a decent one.

One important question that the case provoked in my mind was: do really bad men wear pyjamas? I know of no research on this important question.

The most alarming aspect of the story, however, is that the police received complaints about the article.

Presumably this was because Gately was homosexual and those who complained felt that the article was derogatory - by implication, nothing was said directly - of homosexuals. In fact, had Gately not been homosexual, and had it been his wife who was not present at his death, the columnist for the Daily Mail might have written precisely the same words; but let that pass. By no stretch of the imagination could it be said that the article was an incitement to an illegal act, at least in the traditional sense.

It seems that the police are now to be resorted to, at least by some of us, when we have our feelings offended. In the conception of the complainers, presumably, the article was an expression of contempt and therefore of incitement to contempt. And since we all have an inalienable right to the equal regard of everyone, the article was, or should have been, against the law.

I have no idea how seriously the police took the complaints. Alas, I have no confidence that they dismissed them out of hand. The capacity of British public servants, in the atmosphere of political correctness in which they now have to work, to get everything exactly the wrong way round, doing what they ought not to do, and not doing what the ought, is very great. Chief constables are now less policemen than managers of public opinion whose job is the placation of vocal pressure groups. Let mayhem reign, so long as pressure groups are satisfied.

But even if the police took no notice of the complaints, it is not necessarily true that the complaints will have had no effect. The fact that they were made at all, that everyone now knows that they were made, and that we cannot rely on the police to dismiss them out of hand as neurotic if not actually psychotic, is sufficient to induce people, who want no trouble with the police, to start watching their ps and qs. Freedom of expression is thus nibbled away, not by censorship, but by self-censorship. We begin to live in an atmosphere of fear, in which walls have ears.

This atmosphere is already very strong in much of the public service. No one wants to be caught saying anything that might offend anyone, and that might lead to a formal complaint. After all, the definition of offences such as bullying are often so broad and loosely defined that, once the charge is brought, it is nearly impossible to defend yourself against it. You enter a Kafka-esque world in which refutation is impossible. It is best, therefore, to be utterly bland and never speak your mind.

Exquisite sensitivity is, of course, very useful to managers, who exert their power by exhaustive and exhausting investigation of the ill-defined and undisprovable. Immense labour goes into the attempted capture of clouds; and once someone has experienced an investigation into such a complaint against him, lasting weeks or months, he is changed for life.

To go running off to teacher if our feelings are offended, even if the person who offended them is indeed offensive and fully intended to be offensive, is to increase the power of teacher over us. It is to demand that teacher regulate our speech in minute particulars; and once the grosser violations of our feelings are suppressed, we will become yet more sensitive, so that what were once minor violations of our feelings become gross in our own estimate, until we extinguish our own altogether.

The more benefits the authorities claim to confer upon us, the greater the scope for informing. Recently in my local council offices I saw a poster asking the public to inform upon those who were cheating on Social Security (the picture of such a cheat was of an obese young woman, junk food made flesh). When I told the staff that I found the poster creepy, they were surprised and did not know what I meant. Was I in favour of benefit fraud? Of course not, I said; but even less was I in favour of a population of informers. And that is precisely what a benevolently overweening state will produce.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.

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I absolutely agree: and it brings us closer to a place where doubts about individual members of certain minorites may not be criticised at all.

Posted by: Frugal Dougal at November 3, 2009 07:17 PM

Thank you, Mr. Dalrymple for this article. As an American who constantly fears the blurring of the lines between being a "victim" and being "uncomfortable" I always appreciate articles that point out the dangers in creating an informers culture. Many, it seems, believe that if one does not powerfully affirm each individual opinion then they are a criminal aggressor that needs to be publicly denounced if not imprisoned. I think, in the humblest opinion one can have, that those who reported the article to the police need to grow thicker skin. If I called the police for every article that offended my sensibilities and lifestyle I'd never be off the phone.

Posted by: M. Jordan Lichens at November 3, 2009 10:34 PM

"One important question that the case provoked in my mind was: do really bad men wear pyjamas?"

That was precisely the first thing I thought on reading the start of your second paragraph. I'd imagine that opinion would be sharply divided between conservatives and progressives...

Posted by: P.H. at November 4, 2009 12:47 PM

"This was because, in the opinion of the columnist, young men of Gately's age do not die suddenly and unexpectedly of natural causes. They die, presumably, of wickedness or depravity, at least of the inevitable consequences of wickedness or depravity."

This is factually incorrect. The complaints were because Jan Moir believed the cause of Gately's death to be his homosexuality. This is not the first time TD has either misunderstood the crucial point, or is beign dishonest. Which is it, I wonder?

Posted by: Kimpatsu at May 13, 2011 11:28 PM

I was surprised that neither Dalrymple nor the commenters commented on what was obvious to me which was that the government of England was teaching hatred of obese people and associating their girth with lack of morals such as being a cheater, liar, lazy, and parasites. I saw this article by Dalrymple this week and now I see a news story that a place in England, Dundee, the social working department, has created the situation of children being taken away from parents based on their girth and also saying that the parents will not be able to see their children ever again. They had moved them into a house and had social workers observing them and taking notes but not educating the parents so that the parents say "I made home-made spaghetti and potatoes and I don't know why we haven't lost weight." They could have given them money with which to buy more expensive and healthier foods. The social worker interference in the family is based upon the bottom line of the NHS and what the children might cost the system in the future. Apparently they think that if the children grow up and in the future if the children develop diabetes that it will cost the system apparently more than if the children become drug addicts due to a broken home, and lost brothers and sisters, and guilt and anger and depression and loss, because the intervention that resulted in the destruction of the family by the government which started when a child lied about his father. It could also result in one or more of the children having a nervous breakdown. We don't know yet whether the marriage of these people will survive the psychological "castration" of the father by the government.

I am surprised that Buddhists are not objecting to both the policy of the British government and to the case regarding the obese family as an interested party. After all, their Buddha does not exactly cut a svelte figure. I know that Santa Claus is being slimmed down, despite the psychological meaning that ample size represents generosity while being skinny psychologically has the opposite meaning as expressed by Shakespeare when he had Caesar refer to Cassius as having "a lean and hungry look." which was a negative comment in the play Julius Caesar.

I do not like it when the government chooses a group of people to scape-goat and persecute, and I think that the fact that the government of England is doing that is very serious and should be stopped. Government needs to be controlled because self-control is incompatible with government since they have the laws and the police and the police power and the right to reach into one's pocket and take away money and shut down and seize bank accounts.. That is why some people here in the US are listening to the Tea Party which is demanding limits on government. You probably are not aware of the positives of the Tea Party because the media is Leftist and big and bigger and biggest government is what Leftists love and Britain and Europe are Leftist. But now all of us get to see the dangers of unlimited government. because one can ask "why the Draconian measure that "the family will never each other again?" and the answer is "because the government can" "because who is there to stop the government, and the social workers, and the bureaucrats and the judges?" And yes the morals of the UK are in deep disrepair because they allowed the Lockerbie bomber to return home to see his family when he with premeditation murdered 270 people, while all this family did was have meals together with imagined medical bills in the future. Granted this family can't promise oil to the UK.

Let's hope an appeal court judge exercises some common sense discretion regarding the family. It seems that assigning a nutritionist and a personal trainer to the family would have been a better way to waste money that paying for social workers to "observe", or even better tell them to attend Weight Watchers together, or have them all carry around weights since carrying more weight burns calories, or just leave them alone, and fire the social workers.

It seems the government was more into assigning blame and punishing than solving the problem, probably because there is more job security in not solving the problem (like the UN).

Are there no organizations in the UK that provide legal representation for free when rights of citizens are being threatened? Is the US going to have to start giving refugee status to the overweight because of persecution in countries like Britain that once stood for individual liberty? Maybe the family should have had a sit down strike, and sat on the social workers.

I really think the people of the UK should rise up and create a circle around the family and prevent the separation. After all, India threw over the British over the salt tax by showing up. But alas, due to posters like the one described in this article, the people of the UK either hate the obese and agree with the decision, or have learned helplessness. Experts state that obesity is growing in the UK. That means, I guess that in Britain more and more people will be losing their children. Joe Myles is the family's solicitor. Jane Simpson wrote the article. It was published Sept 5, 2011 and has over 1,000 comments at the Daily Mail and won't take more comments. I think Jane Simpson should give the name of the parents so that a legal fund can be created. In the US so many thousands of people would be writing and emailing and calling the Dundee Social Workers Department and their superiors that the department would crumble under the weight of public opinion. But then again, we in the US have talk radio that tells us about extraordinary cases like this one because we have freedom of speech, and internet use, and that allows mobilization, while the Left in the UK does not allow you to have talk radio, because they "know better" don't you know. First we heard about the case of two policewomen who couldn't trade babysitting services. Then we heard a case from Germany where they were going to take the children away because the parents were Christian and did home schooling. You may think we are cow boys but we sure would prefer to be cowboys than to be treated like children by "experts with police powers".

Posted by: TMay at September 9, 2011 08:21 AM
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