Michael Kelly: 'By lowering the bar on what is offensive we run risk of genuine concerns being dismissed in future'

Since it was founded in 1980, Peta – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – has shown an enviable ability to grab headlines. Within months of the US-based animal rights organisation coming in to existence, it played a crucial role in the case of the so-called Silver Springs monkeys.

The 17 macaque monkeys had been captured in the Philippines and taken to the Institute for Behavioural Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. The monkeys quickly became known as the most famous lab animals in history as celebrities, politicians and animal rights campaigners fought over their continued captivity.

The legal wrangling went on for 10 years and the monkeys were subsequently euthanised. In the process, Peta had been transformed from a little-known advocacy group to a force to be reckoned with. The organisation’s founder Ingrid Newkirk is entirely unapologetic about the group’s courting of publicity, claiming Peta has a duty to be “press sluts”.

“It is our obligation. We would be worthless if we were just polite and didn’t make any waves,” she insists.

Almost 40 years on, it has lost none of the ability to generate headlines as an interview on yesterday’s ‘Morning Ireland’ highlighted. A spokesperson was on the radio arguing that well-worn phrases such as ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ were unethical since they depersonalise animals.

Presenter Bryan Dobson deserves a medal for keeping his composure as he admitted he was “nervous as a kitten” about the encounter but was relieved in the end to have had “a whale of a time”.

Dobson managed to use an animal-themed idiom in every sentence and in fairness the lady from Peta was not in the least bit po-faced and took it all in good jest.

Most people roll their eyes when they think of such campaigns and in fairness one would have to hand it to Peta for generating a discussion. But there is a deeper issue the debate points to: to what extent should language be policed or phrases deemed no longer appropriate restricted?

Shareena Hamzah, an academic at Swansea University, suggested this week that lawmakers should consider banning phrases like “bringing home the bacon” and “killing two birds with one stone”.

“Flog a dead horse” would also be out. Such language, Dr Hamzah claimed, not only objectifies animals but it also runs the risk of offending vegans.

It’s not just animals that are raising hackles. This week, the Dublin-based charity radio station Christmas FM was forced to clarify that it had not, in fact, followed the lead of a US network and banned the song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’.

The song was originally written for the 1949 film ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ and went on to win an Oscar that year for best original song. The US station said it was pulling the number from its playlist over concerns that the lyrics are tacitly about sexual assault.

I’ve never paid much attention to the words up to this point, but listening back it brings creepy to a whole new level.

Does the song perpetuate what some feminist activists describe as ‘rape culture’? That’s debatable. I seriously doubt that listening to the song has given any man licence to sexually assault a woman.

And, where do we draw the line? Should there be a full review of all songs before they are played to ensure they don’t contain lyrics that are now viewed as inappropriate or offensive? Who would decide?

Leonard Cohen’s iconic hit ‘Hallelujah’ contains a line about tying a man to a kitchen chair and cutting his hair. Should this be banned because of the supposed cavalier attitude of the song to male victims of domestic violence?

Some commentators have inevitably labelled the storm over the song as ‘political correctness gone mad’. The British tabloid press is particularly exercised about the issue of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ and idioms around animals. The only saving grace for Prime Minister Theresa May is that the looney fringe of her Conservative Party has so far not managed to blame the controversy on the European Union.

These issues inevitably come and go, and it’s important not to blow the actions of one US radio station and a publicity-mad animal welfare charity out of proportion. But both issues point to an important discussion. The deeper question is to when does the desire to remove all possible offence from contemporary culture go too far. Who decides what is offensive and what isn’t? Surely, “I’m offended” is too low a bar to set?

The popular wedding dance the ‘Hokey Pokey’ started out life as a puritan parody mocking the Catholic Mass. It doesn’t have me running to my room sulking when I see it at a wedding, nor should it.

People shouldn’t go out of their way to offend others, but people should also lighten up, stop taking themselves too seriously and grow a thicker skin.

If we constantly lower the bar on what is deemed offensive, there will be a backlash from sensible people and that will run the risk of genuine concerns being dismissed when they are raised. That would leave everyone worse off.

Michael Kelly is editor of ‘The Irish Catholic’ newspaper

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