08 December 2005

Corporate Censorship

Ok, let's make this clear from the outset, I am in a VERY bad mood right now. The sort of bad mood that is invariably generated by prolonged exposure to my department. I need a holiday, a change of city, and a change of PhD (anyone looking for a bright young PhD student with a broad background in environmental science and environmental impact of technology who is currently feeling undervalued and generally being shat upon from multiple orifices please contact me). I could also do with a laugh, especially as Space Cadets failed to deliver last night.

What makes someone laugh depends on their personal tastes, and those tastes vary dramatically from person to person and from time to time. Right now something 'unfortunate' happening to one of the numerous members of my department who seem to be conspiring to piss me off would have me in stitches, but no doubt given sufficient time away from this place I'd feel otherwise. Conversely, in several years time I may be sufficiently removed in time and space to look back on my years here and laugh at them for the complete f**king joke that they seem to be, but not so right now when I'm trying to turn the complete sum of my efforts into something vaguely worth being an example of the highest examinable qualification it is possible to achieve in the UK. I can only hope there is something sufficiently dark and amusing on TV tonight (I'm thinking Keri from Space Cadets suffering from an imploded head due to the vast amount of vacuum it blatantly encloses - but that's just me).

Yet there are some people out there who seem to think they have the right to censor things that other people find funny just because it offends their way of thinking, and some corporations so scared of the backlash from those people that they are willing to remove certain 'offending' products from their shelves. Obviously these are highly selective decisions, and ones which take no account of the number of people registering their complaints. If the same decision-making criteria were applied to every decision over whether or not to sell a product then Asda would've ceased selling ridiculously low-priced sweatshop-made school uniforms years ago, and Esso would've gone into voluntary receivership even before the Exxon Valdez disaster.

By now you've probably guessed where I'm going with this, but just for the minority let me state that there are, in some cases, reasons for censoring material that goes as far as to incite violence. I may think Roy Chubby Brown is a racist, sexist, homophobic, and completely unfunny idiot who's only chance of ever getting laid was to become famous, but he's not actually inciting violence and some half-brained f**kwit out there might get a little lift out of watching his material. After all, even half-brained f**kwits need a break once in a while - if only to give their key workers a break (or whatever the latest term is for the poor under-valued saints who work for social services).

So to get to the point, what have Woolworth's and Sainsbury's got in common? You've guessed it, they've both withdrawn copies of Jerry Springer the Opera from their shelves due to pressure from the Christian right.

Before discussing the show itself let's briefly go back to the numbers game. JSTO brought in one of the highest audience figures for any show shown on BBC2 at 10 on a Saturday evening outside of the peak holiday seasons (no doubt boosted by the number of people, myself included, who tuned in to see what the homophobic facists behind Christian Voice were complaining about). Add to that the numbers of people queueing up to attend the West End production as well as those who will attend the UK tour and we're talking significant numbers here. The sort of numbers that might lead any normal retail chain to think that stocking the DVD would be a good purchasing decision. Indeed the sort of numbers that would completely overwhelm the 45,000 odd complaints to the BBC, many of which were clearly from people who hadn't even seen the show. Case closed.

Back to the show itself. Was it funny? And was it offensive (and if so was is offensive enough to be banned)?

I started this post with the statement that what someone finds funny is dependent on personal tastes. Well in my case (as you might've guessed by the Space Cadets comments) I do find the Jerry Springer Show funny - although having lived in the US I also find it scarily more representative of the general US population than I'd like to think. Anyone who puts themselves up for what everyone knows will lead to public ridicule either deserves everything they get and more, or genuinely needs treatment for mental illness. The latter is not meant harshly, I actually cope with a form of mental illness myself and know how woefully inadequate our mental health services are and how badly stigmatised sufferers of mental illnesses are by many members of our 'society'. I also find jokes about religion (and non-religion) funny, but even more so when they manage to be clever in the process.

JSTO ticks all of these three boxes for me. It makes clever, and quite scathing, observations of the talk-show business, with the Springer Show as the ultimate low point that is so cynical of the reasons for its own existence it doesn't even need the additional satire added in the first half of the production. And yes, I also found the religious jokes highly amusing and clever in the process. Obviously many of those 45,000 moaners seem to have missed bits of the bible that are joked about or lack a decent understanding of Christianity - a comment echoed in the Guardian following the screening by none other than a high-ranking member of the Christian faith. It is also silly to the point of absurdity, something that many scriptwriters strive for but never achieve. The Devil's Chorus (altogether now! 'He's a c**t! He's a c**nt! He's a c**ting, c**ting c**t!') may be memorable for its limited diction, but it's also memorable for being one of the most absurdly funny moments in an absurdly funny production. Some of us liked it - get over it.

On to the 'offensive' stuff. At this point it's probably worth making a few things clear to the sheep that complained (and those who didn't but have already drawn the same conclusion) without seeing the evidence:

1) The religious bits you're having hissy-fits about are almost entirely in the second half, and the second half is a DREAM SEQUENCE. Dream sequences are exactly that - not real, and not supposed to be real. Didn't you get that?

2) The guy who plays Jesus IS NOT wearing a nappy when he appears as Jesus. Not that that should matter (sadly it obviously does to some) but if you check you'll realise that the actor undergoes both a change of character and of clothing during the interval (ok, the clothing change isn't too obvious, but it does happen).

3) So what if Jesus admits to being 'a little bit gay'? How do we know for sure he wasn't? I mean, if one of the few bits of evidence we have that suggests he expressed a preference one way or the other (the evidence that suggests he bonked Mary Magdalene) is rejected by elements of the Christian church then it doesn't leave us with much to go on does it? The only reason the likes of Christian Voice complained about this are because they are openly homophobic bigots. Visit their website and you'll see what I'm talking about, they make every effort to publicise their prejudice. I could, of course, add that having Jesus being played by a black guy might also lead to prejudice from those same people.

4) Finally, the swearing. We're all aware by now that the figures quoted by Christian Voice were inflated by mutiplying every use of a swear word by the number of cast members singing or saying it at the same time. Working this out entailed only the most basic logic - the same logic that is currently being applied to the alleged discrepency between the number of members of Respect and the amount of money it claimed to have amassed from its membership fees in the lead up to the general election (but that's for another day and another blog). Each half of the show was prefaced by an excruciatingly long statement about both the content of the show and the use of strong language. As for the 'blasphemous' swearing - well it's not the fault of atheists that it's so common is it? Don't blame us for being unwillingly culturally indoctrinated into the use of language that comes from the bible. If it's ok to utter 'oh, God!' as an expression of shock or surprise, then given that language is an evolving medium (sod it, might as well get the creationists going whilst I'm at it) then it's just a matter of small incremental steps in use from 'oh, God!' to 'bloody hell!' to 'Jesus H. F**king Christ!'. Just ask a linguist.

Furthermore, we're talking about something that was put on after the watershed, well-publicised, and well-received by those who'd been to watch it in London. Whilst I personally object to the censorship of any programme due to 'excessive use of strong language', over-use invariably comes across as a purile and half-arsed attempt to turn something that wasn't going to be very funny in the first place into something even less funny. But this all depends on context, and when it works it really works, and in this case I thought it was spot on. Just try imagining finding South Park funny without the playground language. If this isn't your thing then you know where the remote is - turn over or turn off.

If JSTO is justifiably offensive for any of these four reasons, or any other, then I'm concerned. If any of them justify the banning or censoring of the show then the right to freedom of speech is in grave danger. The fact that two national retailers obviously think they are is either worrying evidence of the influence of the religious right on business and/or evidence that they are seeking to grow their consumer bases amongst a small-minded group of people who seem to have conveniently forgotten that their ideological predecessors were once in the vanguard of the defence of freedom of speech. And as the Cooperative Bank recognised (after discovering that Christian Voice had somehow managed to open an account with them) supporting the religious right, in the UK at least, is not a good marketing strategy. Need I say I can only hope this shows in the Xmas profit margins of said retailers.

Finally, a double thank you (I wrote directly to both at the time). Thank you BBC2 for defending the right to freedom of speech and offering me the opportunity to watch a form of art (opera) that I wouldn't go and buy tickets for. And thank you to Christian Voice for kicking up such a fuss that I was persuaded to miss a night out clubbing to watch something I didn't actually think was going to be any good. I can only hope that the publicity surrounding the decisions of two of our most prominent retailers not to stock the DVD will actually lead to even more people watching it.

See you for the live show when it comes to Leicester in February!


(And if anyone out there thinks my comments here should be censored then you can f**k right off too!).

Thanks Keith, I won't be censoring your post (if I did it would be the personal bit at the start, not the asterisked bits).

You beat me to the mark with your comments about moral failure of commercial concerns. There are other recent cases, such as failure of Corporate America to support the Darwin exhibition, and Ford removing its advertising from a gay magazine due to threats from evangelists.

I have great difficulties with the concept of 'ethical business' anyway. Can there be such a thing?
Leicester Secularist - as linked to by the BBC :)
At the risk of being thrown out of the Secular Societies I have to say that I am in a dilemma over this Jerry Springer business.

While I of course object to the efforts of Evangelical christians to prevent performances of the opera, I'm not keen on the opera itself and, having seen extracts on TV, I won't be going to see it.

It's not my kind of show, I've never been a fan of satire, and I don't like all the swearing. Like Voltaire I 'defend the right' of the creators to perform the show, but certainly not 'to the death'.

I also have problems with protesting against the refusal of Woolworth and Sainsbury to stock the DVD. Personally I have never bought a DVD at these shops, and don't think they should be selling these goods. Just as I don't think supermarkets should sell papers and put newsagents out of business.
Some interesting points, George.

I think there is plenty of work to do and many different roles that people can play in the pursuit of secularism.

One is having a presence where there is likely to be visibility such as at the Jerry Springer show.

But there are many other much more routine ongoing things that need to be done.

I'm not one for demonstrating myself, it's just not me. I'm more of a keep-the-home-fires-burning sort of person.

I guess it's about each of us contributing where we can - and healthy debate about complex issues.

Supermarkets are interesting places. On the one hand, they give the illusion of choice by having so many different sorts of products arrayed in one place. In reality, they make their money by increasingly narrowing the range of what is available and increasing the volume of each item stocked.

I try to use local and independent shops, Pick's Organic Farm at Barkby Thorpe (home deliveries of organic meat, vegetables and groceries) is one of my favourites. However, I love going to ASDA - the noise, the bustle, the liveliness. That's what attracts me.
Supermarkets create controversy in the book industry too, with some retailers (large and small) violently opposed to publishers providing advantageous deals to businesses that are stealing the bread from the mouths of babes, sorry, booksellers.

The opposite argument is that supermarkets put books under the noses of people who wouldn't otherwise read them. Good for books, good for publishers, good for writers.

The things is: this IS going to happen, regardless of the railings and wailings and reasoned arguments of how the world as we know it will end.

I think we have to look around us and observe what's happening and then look to where we can best use our energy to make our arguments to the greatest effect.
Come on Keith, stop pulling your punches and let us know what you really think. Enough of the shilly-shallying already.

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