I’m no fan of Steve Bell, the Guardiancartoonist. I can’t say I’ve ever laughed at one of his squibs, which are witless and crude. Some would call him ‘fearless’, but he just seems cruel and over the top to me. When the Guardian finally puts him out to grass, which surely won’t be long, he will disappear into the inkwell of history. But having said all that, I would defend to the death his right to produce his tasteless cartoons, as well as the right of his newspaper to publish them.
Last week, the Guardianprinted a Steve Bell caricature of Priti Patel sitting next to Boris in the House of Commons that was widely condemned as ‘racist’. The reason? He depicted her with horns on her head and a ring through her nose, which many saw as a derogatory reference to her Indian heritage. ‘This cartoon is offensive on every level,’ tweeted the British Tamil Conservatives. ‘It’s anti-Hindu. It portrays the Home Secretary, of Hindu origin, as a cow. A sacred symbol for Hindus. It’s racist and misogynist. It’s plainly unacceptable! It may constitute a hate crime.’
That’s complete nonsense, I’m afraid. The Tamils, along with thousands of other conservatives who claimed to be outraged by Bell’s cartoon, are doing exactly what the left has been doing for the past 25 years, namely interpreting something in the worst possible light so they can pretend to be offended.
The fact is, Bell is not portraying Priti Patel as a cow, let alone a sacred one, but as a bull. After all, bulls have rings through their noses, cows do not. If you’re in any doubt, Google ‘sacred cows’. Admittedly, there are such things as sacred bulls in Hindu culture, but was that really Bell’s intended reference? Drawing the Home Secretary as a bull makes sense, given the allegations made against her by members of the civil service, most of which boil down to saying she’s aggressive and confrontational. Incidentally, I don’t think she should be remotely ashamed of that. If I were her I’d buy the cartoon and give it pride of place in my downstairs loo.
But let’s suppose Bell’s critics are right and he is trying to depict Patel as a sacred cow. So what? Yes, many Hindus would find that offensive, but that’s the price you pay for living in a free society. I’m sure tens of millions of Christians found Life of Brian offensive, but that’s not a reason to pillory its creators or distributors. Effective satire is often extremely offensive. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a truly memorable piece of satire that isn’t. As John Cleese once said: ‘No one has the right not to be offended.’
Some of those expressing disgust at Bell’s cartoon have pointed out that the tribunes of the progressive left would be absolutely up in arms if a cartoonist for a right-of-centre paper depicted Diane Abbott or Dawn Butler in an equally unflattering way, including the Guardian. No doubt that’s true, but the correct response in the face of such faux outrage is to reject it out of hand, not to embrace this censorious approach and apply it to our political opponents.
If we accept that some jokes or cartoons should be ruled out of bounds because someone, somewhere might find them offensive, then the other side has won. When faced with an ‘unacceptable’ caricature of one of their own, conservatives should defend the cartoonist’s right to free speech and tell anyone on their side who claims to be upset by it to grow a thicker skin. Steve Bell’s cartoon is no more a ‘hate crime’ than Amber Rudd’s speech on immigration was at the 2017 Tory party conference.
No, the point worth making is the opposite one: to attack the Guardian for not standing up for free speech. In the week following the launch of the Free Speech Union — the membership organisation I’ve helped set up to defend free speech — the Guardianpublished a piece attacking it (and me) every day. According to their columnists, it’s a political cause that only benefits male, pale and stale conservatives and therefore isn’t worth defending.
Turns out, the speech rights of male, pale and stale socialists are also at risk. We don’t generally do corporate memberships at the FSU, but I’m willing to make an exception for the Guardian. I’ve a feeling its journalists are going to need our protection as the left turns on itself and begins to purge the ideologically impure.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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