This is the full version of my article on the Jeremy Clarkson debate, published last month in the International New York Times. (I cannot contractually publish the full article on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published on the NYT.)
The middle-aged presenter of a British TV show about cars has been suspended by the BBC for allegedly hitting his producer during a ‘fracas’. Big deal, you might think; hardly global news. Except that, for many people, the suspension last week of Jeremy Clarkson, the controversial presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear program, is a big deal. A million people have signed an online petition demanding that the BBC reinstate Mr Clarkson. The story dominated news in Britain, and made headlines across the world — and here I am writing about it for the New York Times.
But then Top Gear is a very peculiar cultural phenomenon. What began in 1977 as a regional show about cars and road safety is today the BBC’s greatest global export. Boasting a worldwide audience of 350 million, ranged across 214 territories, it is the most watched factual program on Earth. It generates £20 million in profits for the corporation every year.
It is a show about cars in which the cars are almost incidental. The essence of Top Gear lies in childish pranks, ‘politically incorrect’ jokes, smutty comments and laddish banter. The reputation of the show has been enhanced — or diminished, depending upon your point of view — by a series of controversies over the years, ranging from schoolboy stunts to racial slurs. Top Gear presenters have deliberately crashed a pick-up truck into a tree ‘to test its strength’, smashing up both truck and tree; allegedly despoiled Botswana’s pristine Makgadikgadi salt pans by driving across them; been chased out of Argentina by an angry crowd after driving around in a car with the number plate H982 FKL, supposedly a provocative reference to the 1982 Falklands war; driven around an Indian slum in a Jaguar fitted with a toilet ‘because everyone who comes here gets the trots’ (a British colloquialism for diarrhea); described the ‘quintessentially German’ car as one that gave Nazi salutes; and sung the nursery rhyme ‘eenie, meenie, miny, moe’, including the line ‘Catch a nigger by the toe’ (the segment was cut out of the broadcast)
Mr Clarkson has, variously: crashed a pickup into a tree to test the truck’s strength, damaging both; been accused of despoiling Botswana’s pristine Makgadikgadi salt pans by driving across them; been chased out of Argentina by an angry crowd after touring in a car with the registration plate H982 FKL, supposedly a provocative reference to the 1982 Falklands War; driven around an Indian slum in a Jaguar fitted with a toilet ‘because everyone who comes here gets the trots’ (a British colloquialism for diarrhea); caused outrage by giving the Nazi salute in a segment about German cars; and sung the nursery rhyme ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, appearing to include the line ‘Catch a nigger by the toe’ (the segment was cut from the broadcast).
Mr Clarkson, who joined the program in 1988 to give it, as a BBC report put it, ‘a more abrasive edge’, has come to define the show’s ethos. For some, Clarkson is an irreverent, controversial rebel. For others, he is a chauvinist bigot.
In reality, he is neither. He is more like the schoolboy who has never grown up — the one who stands behind the teacher in the playground pulling faces or ties a firecracker to a cat’s tail. There is a long English tradition of this kind of adolescent humour, from saucy seaside postcards to comedians like Benny Hill. In the past, when sex was the great taboo, it was innuendo that felt naughty. Today, it is more likely to be political incorrectness. This is not because there is anything transgressive about telling jokes depicting Germans as Nazis or making racial slurs about Asians, but because struggles over appropriate language have become a form of cultural warfare.
Rules about acceptable speech have, over the past three decades, become increasingly significant forms of social regulation. From bans on hate speech to the policing of offensive language, the management of how people talk to each other has become an important means of supervising social relations and establishing moral boundaries. The fact that codes of speech are enforced in this way has led many to push back against them.
This is not simply a case of left vs right or liberals vs conservatives. Certainly, political correctness has come to be associated with the left, and many liberals have come to view the appropriate use of language as key to social change. But many conservatives are equally censorious and keen to use speech codes as a way of regulating social relations.
In this struggle over speech, those who protest against restrictions are often characterized as bigots who want the freedom to use racist, misogynistic or homophobic language. But many free speech campaigners, myself included, view the right to freedom of expression as central to the struggle against bigotry. And then there are those who feel marginalized and voiceless, and express their estrangement from mainstream institutions by rejecting what they see as the liberal consensus.
Few of the 350 million people who watch Top Gear across the globe, or the one million who have signed the petition for Mr Clarkson’s reinstatement, are likely to be either bigots or free speech advocates. But many chafe at the imposition of rules about what is culturally appropriate. That may explain how a show with a very English kind of puerile humor has gained a global audience.
What should be unsettling is not so much Mr Clarkson’s transgressions as the fact that a multimillionaire who counts Britain’s prime minister among his close friends should be seen as an outsider or rebel. It is a sad reflection on the contemporary world that rebelliousness has, for so many, been reduced to racist slurs and schoolboy pranks.
Equally sad is that so many others should expend such energy and rage railing at Mr Clarkson. A Guardian editorial likened him to an ‘ogre’. The Top Gear presenter may be a jerk, certainly; but an ogre? In the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman, one feminist critic wrote that ‘if every signatory to this petition were boiled down for biofuel, the world would be a cleaner, smarter place’. There is sufficient blind contempt there to suggest a promising future as a Top Gear scriptwriter.
The task of challenging bigotry has been diminished to the policing of language. The task of challenging conformism has been reduced to infantile jokes. It’s not just Top Gear that these days seems adolescent.