Offensive remarks of Ukip MEP raise questions about what is acceptable
Opinion: Tide of irrationality and abuse not created, but facilitated by social media
Godfrey Bloom MEP: offered to apologise personally to the ambassador “of Bongo Bongo land”. Photograph: Reuters
A few years ago, a few of the speakers who came to the podium during the UK Independence Party’s Saturday morning conference session in Skegness spoke cheerfully about the size of their hangovers from the night before.
Nobody was insulted. Most of the audience thought they were “good cards”; few bothered or cared to wonder about what the media or the public thought, perhaps believing that they were not paying much attention. The party “does not do political correctness”.
By the time they gathered in Exeter this spring, however, some control had been exercised: there was no more mention of hangovers, while the language from the stage on everything else was relatively carefully chosen, if still colourful.
However, less guarded language was not hard to unearth, since many were highly exercised about David Cameron’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage, talking freely, without venom it has to be said, about their objections to wedlock for “poofters”.
‘Bongo Bongo Land’
This week, Nigel Farage was back on duty defending his clan, following one councillor’s approval of Saudi-style amputations for criminals, while MEP Godfrey Bloom was criticised for complaining about sending aid to “Bongo Bongo Land”.
Bloom remains unrepentant: he offered a half-hearted apology, if it could be even called that, saying he would write to the ambassador of “Bongo Bongo Land and apologise to him personally” if people were insulted.
His conduct raised a debate about the language acceptable in politics, about who decides and about how it should change over time; but also, too, about the rising tide of irrationality and extreme abuse that was not created by social media but is certainly being encouraged by it.
Bloom’s language received waves of support on Twitter, and there would certainly be wider support for his belief that the UK should not now be spending £12 billion on international aid, where some of it ends up spent on “Ray-Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and all the rest of it”.
For many more, the remarks will confirm views that Ukip members, despite their denials, are closet racists, who would, to give just one example, probably have talked happily about hanging Paddies during the height of the Troubles.
Clearly, Bloom could have said everything he wanted without the cheap jibes, but is the voter better off knowing that these are the thoughts that rattle around his head before deciding on whether they should vote for Ukip or not?
Undoubtedly, some in the party are the gift that will keep on giving for headline writers over coming years, since there is little sign many Ukip people want to soften their language or change their views.
However there is an issue for others to address too. Nothing is more illiberal than liberal self-righteousness, even if it is a mote in the eye the media frequently fails to address.
For example, a Channel 4 News interview on Monday evening with Ukip leader Nigel Farage ended when newscaster Krishnan Guru Murthy introduced the next item about synthetically produced beef with“Talking about bull . . .”
Regardless of what one thinks of Farage, and he excites strong opinions, it is difficult to imagine that any other party leader in Britain today would have been treated in the same way, and with so little comment from anyone afterwards.
Stupidly chosen words
Equally there is the issue about the proper penalty for offensive, ill-thought-out or stupidly chosen words.
The BBC sports commentator John Inverdale was roundly criticised after he said Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli was “not a looker”.
Besides failing at the first hurdle for not being a gentleman, Inverdale was wrong because his argument was illogical: Bartoli’s likely appearance as a teenager, on which he remarked, had nothing to do with whether she was going to beat Maria Sharapova. Having behaved idiotically, Inverdale was subjected to a campaign by people whose aim it seemed was not just to get an apology and BBC censure – both of which would be valid – but to ensure he never appeared on television again, which is not.
During the debate about same-sex marriage too, there were times when liberals failed the first test of the dictum attributed to Voltaire about defending to the death the right to express opinions, often portraying objectors in the most lurid language possible.
Many such objectors were and are bigots. Others, however, had genuine religious and social doubts, which should be acceptable as long as they do not seek to interfere with the rights of others or defy the law; others are just uncomfortable with change.
The problem is proportionality, or the lack of it. It is possible for us to disagree a lot or by the largest degree possible in the history of mankind; but sometimes we can disagree just a bit, reasonably, without the tiresome, high-octane invective that pollutes so much of our debate.