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The real demon isn’t just behind us

19 December 2014

In our haste to take offence, we overlook the real scandal, says Paul Vallely

OH NO they didn't! Oh yes they did! We went to a panto the other day. It was Dick Whittington at the Sheffield Lyceum, and rather a fine romp it was, too. The show - with its easy romance, dexterous dancing, corny humour, and all-round splendid silliness - was everything you could hope for in a Christmas pantomime. But one thing raised an eyebrow.

It was not the joke about the local MP, Nick Clegg, about whom they could have been far more acerbic. Nor was it the jibes at rival towns nearby in South Yorkshire: "I saw a horrible accident just off the M1 - it was Rotherham." When the audience were asked at the end what punishment should be meted out to King Rat, one bloodthirsty youngster shouted, "Kill him." The official answer was: "No, let's just make him do panto at Donny," as the locals call Doncaster, which is just up the road.

No, what struck a slightly quizzical note was the Muslim prayer prostrations Whittington and Co. indulged in, when they were washed up on the coast of Morocco. They were saved by a gag. When the Sultan informed them that this was not the traditional greeting in his country, the japers stopped crying, "salaam, salaam," and shouted instead, "False salaam". Everybody laughed. But I looked round and noted that the audience was noticeably low on brown faces.

Modern society is big on taking rapid offence. So how do we decide when something goes too far? The contemporary calculus of outrage can be hard to comprehend - as the UKIP candidate Kerry Smith found out last week, when he had to resign for calling gays in his party "poofters", and joking about going on a "peasant hunt" in Chigwell. He probably thought that such views were a desideratum rather than a disqualification, in the party of populist dog-whistle politics.

He was wrong, as was the Labour MP Emily Thornberry when she made what she assumed was the innocuous assertion that UKIP had won the by-election in Rochester on the votes of the C2 "skilled manual workers" - a sociological category known colloquially as White Van Man.

Yet no one seemed to take offence at another Christmas theatrical production, the musical Little Shop of Horrors, now running in a high-octane version at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Its Mad-magazine humour relies heavily on stereotypes about Jews. Perhaps it's too much of a cartoon for anyone to seriously call it anti-Semitic. Or it could have something to do with the fact that its creators, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, are both Jewish.

Perhaps you're only allowed to exploit stereotypes about your own group, but not other people's. That was certainly the experience of Baroness Jenkin, who recently undid a year's good work on foodbanks with four careless words. Lamenting the decline of cooking skills in the British population, she remarked that the problem was that "the poor can't cook." Plebgate II followed.

The real scandal, of course, is that this Christmas there are now four million people in the UK who are hungry enough to need to visit foodbanks. Sadly, we now seem to prefer easy outrage to addressing serious scandal.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester.

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