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Sex, politics and the new blasphemy
December 2017 / January 2018

Michael Gove on the “Today” programme on October 28, when he made a joke comparing John Humphrys to Harvey Weinstein (©Rick Findler/PA Wire/PA Images)

On the morning of Saturday October 28, 2017, as the Today programme celebrated its 60th anniversary by broadcasting in front of a live audience in the Wigmore Hall in London, Michael Gove was rash enough to tell a joke. John Humphrys had suggested there was a danger that aggressive interviewers would make politicians look silly, and diminish them in the eyes of the public.

Gove responded: “I know what you mean. Sometimes I think that coming into the studio with you, John, is a bit like going into Harvey Weinstein’s bedroom.”

This produced a burst of laughter and clapping from the audience, and Neil Kinnock, who was also a guest on the show, joined in by saying, “John goes way past groping! Way past groping!”

“You just pray that you emerge with your dignity intact,” Gove said.

At home, I too laughed, and told a visitor who had not been listening to the radio how funny Gove had been.

Yet before Today came off air, Gove had issued the following tweet: “Apologies for my clumsy attempt at humour on R4 Today this morning — it wasn’t appropriate. I’m sorry and apologise unreservedly.”

The boundaries of permissible speech are shifting at such speed that even one of the nimblest minds in the Cabinet can get caught out. An angry feminist tried to explain to me what was so objectionable about Gove, Kinnock and Humphrys: “It was white men sitting around on a cosy radio show not taking the experience of women who’ve been raped seriously, and trivialising those women’s experience, and suggesting that’s the way you should see the world, imposing their white male view of the world on everyone else.”

If you try to defend yourself against this kind of attack, you merely add insult to injury. However much you insist you take rape seriously, you sound as if you don’t. Soon you are accused of sympathising with Harvey Weinstein.

My purpose here is not to justify what Gove said. I do not want to be the kind of reactionary who, in the words of Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind, “cannot grasp movement”. My interest is rather in trying to understand what is happening. For the pace at which words which used to be considered harmless have become unusable, and words which used to be considered obscene are printed even in reputable newspapers, is so rapid that it disorientates many people. In July 2017, a Conservative MP, Anne Marie Morris, had the whip withdrawn from her for using the expression “nigger in the woodpile”, which Theresa May described as “completely unacceptable”. According to the Prime Minister, “Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.”
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Lawrence James
December 21st, 2017
10:12 AM
We are well rid of the old blasphemy for law. It was always unfair since the victim [ s ] were never present in court for cross-examination.

F Hugh Eveleigh
December 7th, 2017
8:12 AM
What a well written and argued article. As one born in the late 1940s I have sufficient memory of what was allowed (or not) in earlier times as to be able to understand the transient nature of much of the current madness. We are all human beings but the 'sapiens' part of our Latinate descriptor is sometimes a little suspect because many of us have at some stage said or done something spontaneously which could 'offend' someone somewhere and which in retrospect we might have managed in a more nuanced manner. As most of us are not politicians, actors or widely known in any sense our actions are a part of the somewhat idiosyncratic cut and thrust of daily living and go unnoticed. Balance and 'common' sense are lost in the current flurries of outrage and offence. It will, like most trends, pass in due course but in the meanwhile many public lives are being ruined because of PC reactions to alleged misdemeanours of word and deed.

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