WE like to think of ourselves as living in a great age of progress, a time of unprecedented democratic freedoms. We’ve never had it so good.
But really, who are we kidding?
We actually live in a mighty age of censorship.
You can’t make it from dawn to dusk these days without someone calling for something frivolous to be banned, moderated, restricted, or ruled downright unlawful.
More often than not, the thing causing ‘offence’ is not offensive at all — or even if it is offensive to a very small minority, it is utterly harmless.
A few days ago, we were mourning the loss of comic writer and actor Terry Jones, whose finest hour was perhaps directing Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, a satire on the life of Christ.
Chatting to a friend last week, he commented that, controversial as the Life Of Brian was when it was released in 1979, it would never have even got made today. It would be considered too offensive.
I pondered on his remark. On reflection, he was probably right.
How odd that 1979 should seem so less censorious than 2020.
Of course, the Monty Python film was banned in Ireland on its release, by then film censor Frank Hall.
Ironically, Hall made his name as a comedy satirist, in Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, but he decided the people of Ireland should not see Life Of Brian, describing it as “offensive to Christians and to Jews as well, because it made them appear a terrible load of gobs****s”.
It’s a strange formula for censorship. Perhaps the film Michael Collins should have been similarly banned, since it portrayed the Brits as “a terrible load of gobs****s”.
However, the Ireland of 1979 was obviously not ready for Christianity to be belittled in such a way, although not long after, the film American Gigolo was given the go-ahead to be screened here after initially being similarly banned.
Clearly, seeing Richard Gere partaking in full frontal nude scenes was not as offensive to the Irish as hearing Jones’s character as Brian’s mother telling a crowd of followers: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.”
Ireland has moved on since those days, but my friend’s point about us living in a less tolerant, and excessively politically correct, age holds true.
There is an argument that, these days, Life Of Brian may have more chance of being shown here in Ireland, given the current antipathy to the Catholic Church, than it would in the UK and other countries.
But the problem we have in 2020 is that, while Frank Hall was the sole custodian of the nation’s values as regards film 40 years ago — along with a small cabal of influential people including bishops and conservative politicians in other areas of life — nowadays there are literally hundreds of guardians of good taste who are far too quick to censor and ban where they see fit.
This week, we heard from another of this cabal of people, who are forever dreaming up weird and wholly unnecessary ways to regulate our lives.
Ann Francke, in her capacity as head of the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, said in a BBC interview that sports banter in the work environment can exclude many staff, especially women, and even lead to laddish behaviour such as chats about sexual conquests.
Although falling short of calling for such behaviour to be banned — even Stalin would probably think that a tad Draconian — Ms Francke did say such behaviour should be moderated, adding that good managers should be inclusive and ensure everyone in their team felt comfortable with what was being discussed during informal chats.
Not so much censorship, then, more a policing of what should be an informal and organic situation — office chats.
Not surprisingly, the incendiary remarks were met with disbelief and gales of laughter. In our Echo office, we broke away from discussing the finer points of VAR to point out that sports chat was indulged in by both men and women — and the men and women who were not interested in sport had a merry old time anyway, discussing everything from Donald Trump to Love Island, to the election debate and the merits of feng shui (there are some odd people here, in all fairness).
It’s the idea of regulating such spontaneous conversations that strikes many of us as ludicrous.
What was actually offensive was the suggestion by Ms Francke that some men in an office environ-ment will briskly move on from talking about sport and enter the realms of how’s your father.
“It’s very easy for it to escalate from VAR talk and chat to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend,” she said.
Notwithstanding the fact that nearly everyone in our office is married, it’s incredible that any- one in any office — of any gender — in this day and age would think ‘banter’ about who they shifted at the weekend was acceptable in female company. Indeed, in any company.
It conjures up a comical image of two fellas arguing over whether a penalty should have been given to United, before one goes off at a tangent and says: “Speaking of which, I hit the back of the net myself on Saturday night...”
That’s a scenario Terry Jones and the Pythons could have made some mileage from.
Naturally, the comments by the head of the Chartered Management Institute attracted criticism, although it was noticeable that media reports concentrated on responses from women only. I guess in this age of censorship, no respectable man would want to be seen as anything but on the side of the politically correct.
Sports journalist Jacqui Oatley said cracking down on sports chatter would be a “terrible idea”, adding: “If you ban football chat or banter of any description, then all you’re going to do is alienate the people who actually want to communicate with each other.”
Others feared that other topics such as soaps could also be censored if sport chatter is banned.
“Where would it end?” asked one female office manager. “Banning people with children talking about them so as not to alienate people without children? Certainly not!”
It all reminded me of my first ever job, way back when I was a student, working part-time in a large bakery chain in England. I was 17 and would blush at the sight of a girl. During breaks, the middle-aged women would swap scandalous tales of lust and love, while cackling as my face went ever deeper shades of red.
Did I complain? Did I what? Those women were the salt of the earth and within a year or two I was laughing along with them.
Censuring chatter about sport in the office is simply ludicrous.
Then again, if someone was to float the idea of a ban on fans of Liverpool FC boasting about their team’s imminent league title... Hmmm, maybe we’re onto something.