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Saying what you want without fear of offence sounds good... until you do it

Andrew Hankinson
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

This column is about a room. It’s definitely not about: 1) Why can’t I say the things I want to say? 2) Grrr, the culture war or 3) Why I quit Twitter. But there will be moments when it seems like I am writing those things. The one I’m most worried about is the first one, because I want to get into why some of us are hesitant to express ourselves truly, but I don’t want to mention free expression or free speech. I’m not stupid.

I’ll start with a couple of dispatches from the culture war last week. The first is Radio 1 ruining Christmas by not broadcasting homophobic language to our kids. Instead they will use a “radio edit” of The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York which omits, for example, the word “faggot”. Good: my kids listen to Radio 1, I don’t like them hearing that lyric, I can hear it elsewhere, language progresses. It’s an example of the phoney culture war.

Much more important (and interesting) was the Irvine Welsh documentary, Offended, in which Welsh, wearing a turtleneck jumper, talked to people who work in arts and culture. (I know 2020 has put a lot of things in perspective, but I think it’s still important to fight against the word “creatives”.) He wanted to know whether they were avoiding creative risks due to social media and the culture war. “Are artists and writers running scared?” he asked.

Sometimes, is the answer. I’ve just written a book about comedy, which was described as a “battleground” in the documentary. I’ve not been running scared, but I am jogging in a state of worry. My book is a kind of biography of a comedy club, the Comedy Cellar in New York, but it’s really about what we say and who gets to say it, which is, correctly, the subject of debate. But then, while writing the book, a bigger controversy: one of the club’s regulars, Louis CK, was exposed by the New York Times for sexual misconduct.

We can’t hide everything down Stewart Lee’s trousers… We have to try harder to ignore the anticipated reaction of social media

That changed things and for the past few years I’ve been writing with an imaginary Twitter reaction on my shoulder, like a shit editor, hysterical and telling me it’s all fucked. I feared that, because I was writing about Louis CK, people would trawl the book for things to cancel me for or trawl my career for other things I’ve written. Or what about an email? Or text? Or a social media post? Why had I existed so extensively? What good had it done? I never felt this with my first book, which was about a real murderer.

Which is why I recognised the debate in Welsh’s documentary. I don’t know if lyricists are killing homophobic darlings or if artists are resignedly removing all knobs from child mannequins, but I felt the urge to self-censor. Why go against the grain? What does that sentence really achieve? Will it cost me commissions? Why take the risk? As the Comedy Cellar’s owner, Noam Dworman, put it: “We are all living in a hostage video.” Just say what you’re supposed to say or take the risk of being “dragged”, being Google infamous, or quietly not getting hired.

I did change my book due to social media. One of my worries was taking jokes out of the room and the comedians getting in trouble for what I published. I couldn’t explain the tone of jokes or the facial expressions in my book. I didn’t want to describe each comedian’s identity. So I included my side of the interviews, in the hope that people would better understand the conversation, and I tried to publish any controversial jokes in a way that meant they were already broken. Most of all, I tried to clarify that a book is different to a room. The point was that things happen between an artist and their audience, whatever the setting, and whether it goes well or badly; it should be between them. None of the rest of us can properly understand it. When I interviewed Stewart Lee, he told me about watching Kunt and the Gang sing about raping a paperboy: “His songs were the most disgusting songs. But it didn’t matter because we were all in this room. We were in this room where it was like normal rules had been suspended.”

Some people wouldn’t find that song funny. I watched it on YouTube and laughed. We suspend rules to make room for the transgressive. Some find it easier than others. In the Comedy Cellar, a comedian told a joke that made use of the death of a real child. A customer complained. Dworman emailed back: “It’s simply impossible to lay down an objective standard that everyone could agree on. It’s the same reason the first amendment is interpreted so broadly. It’s virtually impossible to decide what speech is acceptable and what can be forbidden. In the end, it would all become about not offending me and my particular sensibilities.”

Unfortunately, the internet is every sensibility. So what do we do? Am I just a rapidly balding man shouting at the internet factory to stop production? Yes. One of the Comedy Cellar’s solutions, before Covid, was asking customers to put their phones in envelopes. That makes me bristle, but it gives back some creative freedom to comedians. In the UK, I’ve twice seen Stewart Lee leap into the crowd, take someone’s phone off them and put it in his trousers until the end of the show. The American and British methods are both effective.

But we can’t hide everything down Stewart Lee’s trousers. I think, when creating things, we have to try harder to ignore the anticipated reaction of social media. We have to accept that our work might be co-opted. We shouldn’t change what we are doing to avoid wilful misrepresentation. Our defence is what it has always been: context. Have you read the article? Have you watched the film? Have you read the book? Were you in the room? If people take the work in context and criticise it, that’s fine. We should ignore the rest.

Andrew Hankinson is the author of Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t and You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat)