Monday, October 09, 2006

A roundup of 'taking offence' in Britain

It has been a bumpy ride for sensitive souls this past week. There has been so much going on that might possibly have offended them that I hardly know where to begin.

We have had a Somerset vicar offending Japanese visitors to the village of Bishops Lydeard by making feeble jokes about autumnal nips in the air; and numerous doctors offending old people by calling them “crinklies”.

We have had a Bournemouth councillor offending homosexuals by suggesting that Noah (of the Ark fame) would have been legally obliged to take in same-sex animal couples had he been operating in 2006; George Osborne offending autistic people by suggesting they have something in common with Gordon Brown; Boris Johnson offending fatties by using the word at all; Jack Straw upsetting Muslim women at his surgery by asking to see their faces; a publishing company removing all references to the “ British Isles” from its atlases for fear of offending Irish schoolchildren; and, perhaps most ridiculous of all, the Metropolitan police banning the use of the word “yob” in case it offends the hoodie-wearing classes.

With so many wounded feelings and near-misses out there it’s astonishing, really, that the entire country hasn’t ground to a halt.

But it hasn’t, has it. Apart from the usual chorus of auto-complainers, nobody seems to have turned a hair. If the crowded streets of west London are anything to go by, the human race — Muslim, gay, autistic, Japanese — seems to be chugging along together quite smoothly: occasionally, from across our reservoirs of hurt, even managing to smile at each other.

Nobody smiles much at the lawless laddies, it’s true. Thanks in part to so much police sensitive awareness training, lawless laddies seem to have been abandoned to a parallel universe of their own, where hardly anyone dares to establish eye contact with them, let alone risk hurting their feelings with a grin.

Actually, that’s not the point. Does anyone seriously believe a knife-wielding yob gives a flying fig what we call him? Of course he doesn’t. I wish he did.

It’s not just the yobs. On closer inspection it’s hard to see how any of this week’s supposed targets would have had valid cause to complain. We don’t know how many homosexuals were copied in on the Bournemouth councillor’s hated Noah’s Ark e-mail. But it strikes me as faintly preposterous to suggest that they would have been too fragile to take a joke — not against themselves, note, but against the absurdities of equal opportunity law.

It was a Tory councillor who wrote the e-mail, by the way, and a couple of Liberal Democrat councillors who chose to object to it so publicly. A case of genuinely hurt feelings or of political point-scoring? You decide.

Ditto the “row” over Osborne’s autism joke about Brown’s endogenous growth-theory tendencies. The left-leaning author Nick Hornby, who has an autistic child, was quick to cry foul. He made an uncharacteristically po-faced statement about disabilities not being funny.

Yet, oddly enough, he didn’t complain when his brother-in-law Robert Harris made a similar comment about Brown in this newspaper only a few weeks earlier. Why? Might it possibly have been because Hornby spotted an opportunity to make a dig at the Conservatives? I think so.

As for the vicar’s “nip” joke — having spent my childhood two miles from the village of Bishops Lydeard I would be astonished if a Japanese person had ever, in all its dozy history, found himself anywhere near the place, let alone paused there long enough to read the vicar’s newsletter.

As it turns out the loudest complainer, who is calling for the poor vicar to resign, is not a Japanese tourist but David Onamade, head of the Somerset racial equality council. Having made such an unholy fuss, he now finds himself on a marvellous platform from which to justify to council taxpayers his job, his salary and his pension. Perhaps that is coincidental. I’ve no doubt he would say it was.

I don’t know how much Japanese people mind being referred to as “nips”. Not much, I expect. They have a long history and a proud culture, as do we. And I don’t mind in the least being referred to as a “pom” or a “rosbif”. Do you? Does anyone? Of course there might exist, somewhere, a Japanese individual with unreasonably tender sensibilities who finds it painful to be referred to in such a way. In which case Onamade, by drawing national attention to a bad joke in a village newsheet, has succeeded in upsetting them quite unnecessarily. Shame on him. I think he should resign.

We’ve got to a point now where the Auto-Offence Brigade — most of them professional, many of whose salaries you and I are paying — have us so edgy that we dare not question anybody’s “right” to take offence at anything, regardless of truth, humour or logic. They yell so loudly and so brutishly that it’s hard for the rest of us to hear ourselves think.

When footballers "dive" - roll around the grass in paroxysms of affected agony after bumping into an opposing player in the hopes of getting him sent off - it is the diver and not the other man who gets shown the red card. I wonder if we shouldn't instigate a similar system for these blubbering offence-takers who seem to cause nothing but bad blood and who waste so much of our time.

Politicians suspected of taking offence unjustifiably should have their whip removed. Novelists should have their books boycotted. And as for that great army of publicly employed equality officers - whose original purpose must once have been not to stir up trouble but to try to smooth relations between potentially antagonistic factions - I think this country would be a more peaceful, less paranoid and more genuinely tolerant place if we got rid of the lot of them. Might save us a couple of bob [bucks], too.


Britain's streets are full of fear

By India Knight

(The first name "India" tells us that the lady writing is of upper class origin)

In the week when the word “yob” was banned by Scotland Yard because it might “alienate” teenagers and injure their tender feelings (oh boo hoo), Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, 40, was murdered by a gang of “youths” outside his flat in Hackney, east London.

Stevens, a married father of two little girls, was an émigré from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Britain, where he held down two jobs — delivering food for Tesco during the day, night portering at a restaurant in the evenings — to pay for his education. He was in the third year of a maths and finance degree at the University of Greenwich, having turned down a place at Cambridge so as to stay closer to home. A 17-year-old “youth” has been charged with his murder.

Stevens lost his life because he had had the temerity to ask the gang to keep the noise down after they broke into the communal area of the council estate where he lived. It was about 10pm. “Some of us have work in the morning,” he’d reportedly said which, as rebukes go, is both polite and mild. He was stabbed for his pains and left to bleed to death on a stairwell.

It has since emerged that Stevens and other residents had repeatedly urged the police and the council to do something about the appalling goings-on at the estate. “Prostitutes, smackheads, people having sex on the stairs,” one resident said. Another mentioned gangs of youths congregating in stairwells, taking drugs, urinating and trying to start fires. “The police and the council had been aware of it all for some time,” a relative of Stevens said last week.

I used to live in Hackney opposite two crack houses. The phone box in our road was regularly used as a (rather snug) boudoir by stoned — and not in a benign way — prostitutes. There were needles in the local park and crack-smoking paraphernalia littered the pavements. We were once woken in the night by two dozen armed police who explained that there had been a burglary and that the burglars, who had guns, had taken refuge on our roof.

I took my sons for a walk in the park a couple of days before we moved out of Hackney. It ended abruptly when we saw a young boy being cut down from a tree; he had tried to hang himself.

This in an area, by the way, which was last week described by a London newspaper as up-and-coming and made to sound rather charming and cosmopolitan, with bars and cafes open until 5am (I rather wonder who the paper thinks goes drinking at 5am. Schoolteachers? Yummy mummies? Or — here’s a thought — a feral underclass celebrating the night’s pickings?) It made no mention of the gun crime, the stabbings, the drugs or the desperate, crazed £5 whores.

What is especially depressing about this whole depressing story, which took place in a depressed area full of depressed people doing depressing things, is that I imagine Stevens himself knew a thing or two about deprivation; and that what he knew would put his assailants’ poxy little gripes to shame. Originally from Kinshasa, which is a horrible city in a grim country, I don’t expect the offer of a place at Cambridge exactly fell into his lap. “I believed in myself and got what I wanted,” he once told his college newsletter.

There are unsettling moments when I feel myself turning into a rabid old-school Tory, and this is one of them. What’s with the pathetic, weedy nonsense from Scotland Yard about hurting yobs’ feelings, when stories such as Stevens’s have, shamefully, become commonplace? Who cares about their feelings? I don’t. I couldn’t care less. I don’t care how hard their lives are: I don’t expect Stevens’s life in Kinshasa was much of a picnic either but at least he was doing his best to better himself to make a new life for his family. And I am so tired of the stupid liberal notion (held by me for decades) that gangs of hoodies are all gigantically deprived and thus need our pity, love and support, rather than our approbation. What they need, actually, is to be locked up.

Deprivation is relative: none of them is starving, all of them are clothed and all of them have access to free education. Besides, one of the yobs arrested in connection with Stevens’s murder is, if you please, the son of a social worker for Hackney council, which doesn’t quite constitute the frontline of ghettohood.

The gangs that periodically terrorise my new extremely salubrious, picture-postcard corner of north London aren’t “deprived” in any material sense that I can understand, either — not when they are wearing several hundred pounds’ worth of designer clothing. They are certainly emotionally deprived to which the only solution, short of eugenics, is first-rate education — starting with nursery and, in some cases, psychotherapy from the age of five.

That is a political point. The broader social point is that the killing in Hackney is the merest tip of a deformed, monstrous iceberg. We are all, wherever we live, at the mercy of marauding gangs of underclass yobs, intent on damage, and there seems to be little that anyone can do about it (which is why I’m sounding so cross. I’d have been less cross 10 years ago, and hardly cross at all 20 years ago, but the crossness escalates with every year that passes because the problem gets worse and nothing happens).

I was recently told by a representative from my local Safer Neighbourhood Team that its powers were somewhat limited: it could ask gangs of boys what they were doing lurking in residential areas at 2am, but since it was not legally allowed to make physical contact with them, it could not actually remove them if vocal persuasion failed.

Besides, the representative said mournfully, they’re often on bikes, which means they move too fast. As for Asbos: not terribly helpful when in some circles an Asbo is a badge of honour. I mean, really: someone’s having a laugh and it’s not you or me.

Being frightened in the street and even in our own homes — feeling scared to intervene when yobs are behaving badly for fear of one’s own safety — has become the norm in this country. We moan about it in the same way that we moan about leaves on the line or automated telephone systems: it’s just everyday life.

You have to gird your loins before opening the local newspaper, because its tally of crimes makes you come over all agoraphobic. I used to be absolutely appalled by gated communities — the super-rich making themselves safe because they can afford to. These days I grudgingly see the point. And that feels profoundly demoralising.


Major national homosexual groups, ACLU, and others opposing David Parker's civil rights lawsuit on teaching homosexuality in elementary school

Major national and state pro-homosexual groups have filed an amicus curiae brief in Massachusetts District Court opposing Lexington parent David Parker's federal civil rights lawsuit, filed earlier this year. Given the high degree of interest that these groups have shown toward the Parker incident and court case, it's expected that they will offer continued legal and financial support to stop the Parker lawsuit. On Wednesday evening in Bedford, Massachusetts, the ACLU held a "Human Relations Council"/No Place for Hate forum at which the David Parker issue was a primary topic by the presenter.

"Why are all these groups - especially the national groups - so interested in a parent's right to decide what moral issues are taught to his children by adults in elementary school, especially regarding homosexuality?" asks Brian Camenker, president of MassResistance. "This is outrageous and very frightening. They must see David Parker's case as quite a threat to their ability to push their message on children."

The legal brief attempts to make the point that the state has a legal obligation to teach homosexual issues to young children in the public schools (justified in part by the same-sex marriage ruling), and that parents do not have the right to be remove their children from those topics, or even be notified. "This really seems to expose their true agenda," added Camenker.

David Parker was arrested and jailed in Lexington, Massachusetts in April 2005, over his request - and the school's refusal - to notify him when adults discuss homosexuality or transgenderism with his 6-year-old kindergartner, despite state law which requires parental notification. The incident made national news, with even Gov. Mitt Romney agreeing with Parker.

Then in March 2006, the same school presented the book "King and King", about homosexual romance and marriage, to second graders, and again refused to grant parental notification. In April 2006, Parker and the other parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against school officials and the Town of Lexington over the incidents and the town's refusal to follow state law. The suit is pending trial.


Australia: Teen failed for stand on homosexuals

A 13-year-old student was failed after she refused to write an assignment on life in a gay community, because of her religious and moral beliefs. Her outraged mother, Christian groups and the State Opposition want an investigation into the treatment of the Year 9 student at Windaroo Valley State High School, south of Brisbane. "It's no wonder our kids are struggling with the basics when the Government is allowing this sort of rubbish to be taught in the classroom," Opposition Leader Jeff Seeney told The Sunday Mail yesterday.

The uproar came as Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop this week announced plans for Canberra to take control of school curriculums from the states, accusing "ideologues" of hijacking the education system.

The girl was among a class of 13 and 14-year-olds asked to imagine living as a heterosexual among a mostly homosexual colony on the moon as part of their health and physical education subject. They had to answer 10 questions, including how they felt about being in the minority and what strategies they would use to help them cope. They were also asked to discuss where ideas about homosexuality came from.

Sources said the students were told not to discuss the assignment with their parents and that it was to be kept in-class. They said many of the students were uncomfortable with the subject matter or did not understand the questions.

The 13-year-old girl instantly refused to do the assignment on religious and moral grounds. "It is against my beliefs and I am not going there," she told the teacher, who responded by failing her. After a series of discussions between the school and her mother, it was suggested the girl would be better off leaving the state education system and attending an independent school.

The girl's mother said yesterday she did not learn of the assignment until reading her daughter's report card several weeks later and discovered a first-ever fail mark for health and physical education. "I went to the school thinking there might have been a personality clash with the teacher," said the mother, who asked to be identified only as Bronwyn. She said she was shown the assignment. "When I started to read it I thought, 'Oh my God' . . . I was shocked by the content," she said. "My daughter said she didn't want to do the assignment because she did not believe in homosexuality and did not want to answer the questions. "She was being challenged, but she should not be challenged like that at her age."

Bronwyn was concerned that her daughter was not given an alternative scenario. She said the school claimed it was powerless to change the curriculum. Bronwyn said the school seemed more concerned about how parents found out about the assignment. "That's what concerns me most . . . the parents had no opportunity to even see the assignment," Bronwyn said.

Ms Bishop said the incident highlighted her concerns. "This is another example of a politically-correct agenda masquerading as curriculum," she said yesterday. "Parents need to know the content of school curriculum so they can be confident their children are receiving a high quality education that is also consistent with their values."

The State Opposition and Australian Christian Lobby demanded an investigation. Mr Seeney said Queensland needed common sense back in the classroom. "The Beattie Labor Government has created a system that tries to tell kids what to think instead of teaching them how to think," he said. "It is completely out of line for students to be graded on their moral beliefs. "It's not the job of our schools to politicise our children. It is their function to provide our kids with the basics, like reading, writing and maths."

Christian Lobby state director Peter Earle said the assignment was not about education, rather a teacher or school pushing their own agenda on young minds. "The subject matter was totally inappropriate," he said.

After being approached by The Sunday Mail, an Education Queensland spokeswoman late yesterday said the school had decided to drop the assignment from its curriculum and would work with the girl and her family to achieve a "satisfactory resolution". "The aim of the assignment was to encourage students to think about diversity, culture and belief systems," she said. "Schools can offer alternative assessment topics in consultation with parents, if the school is aware of concerns about an assignment."


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