An assault on the sensibilities

It’s probably about time I had something to say on matters unrelated to the Australian political situation. Which brings me to my other, recently neglected pet blogging topic – climate change.

I came to hear of the 10:10 campaign and Richard Curtis’s “No Pressure” short film via Deltoid, The Guardian and Climate Progress. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend watching the video yourself. Suffice it to say, it’s rather more gory than you would expect of a climate change action campaign. The reaction to the film was rather negative, and 10:10 has withdrawn the video (though of course it’s still available on YouTube).

I fancy there’s something of an overreaction going on, though. Once you accept that the gore is merely an appeal to a particular dark sense of humour – which it was – the only things you can really complain about are (a) that it’s not really that funny, and (b) that other people may mis-interpret it.

First, not being funny is not an especially heinous crime. I am frequently guilty of it, I’m sure, and yet I remain a free man.

Second, the people who will mis-interpret it are precisely those who were least likely to get the message in the first place. This is what Julian Morrow termed the “secondary audience”, in his 2009 Andrew Olle Media Lecture:

The secondary audience come to access controversial content because it’s controversial. The secondary audience often tends to be the very opposite of the target audience.

Morrow went on to discuss The Chaser’s “Make a Realistic Wish” sketch, which itself caused great rumblings of discontent. That controversy parallels the “No Pressure” controversy to an extent (though you might argue that the stakes are higher in climate change). Morrow elaborates on secondary audiences:

I don’t believe there’s any convincing evidence, or even a theory, that taking steps to try and placate the secondary audience is prudent, or can be effective. I tend to think it only fuels the fire. But I recognise that’s just as hard, probably impossible, to prove too.

His point is important. We can’t (necessarily) keep worrying about what the secondary audience will think. Almost by definition, the secondary audience is reactionary and less open-minded than the primary audience. Moreover, I worry about  sentiments like that expressed at Climate Progress:

The video is beyond tasteless and should be widely condemned. … None of this excuses that disgusting video.

It’s fine to (a) be personally shocked and other assorted adjectives, and (b) suggest that the film was a tactical error. But let’s not run off the rails. At worst, the film was an honest but misguided attempt at encouraging action on climate change. To say that it’s “beyond tasteless” beckons imagery of something much worse. It was merely tasteless, not beyond tasteless. To say that it “should be widely condemned” seems to invite blind outrage, and rather ignores the fact that it did, after all, have good intentions. This feels like a comment motivated by fear of those who might retaliate against you, not an honest assessment of the situation.

And I worry that it does merely fuel the fire, as Morrow speculates. It may simply add to the film’s notoriety and advertise it’s potential as a propaganda weapon for the denialists. One needlessly apologetic or appeasing remark and you may find yourself being held up as evidence of dissent, or even on a list of people who apparently oppose the AGW scientific consensus. I realise that denialists of all stripes can and do take perfectly reasonable and innocent remarks out of context whatever happens, but let’s not provide them with the material if we can help it.

This is what they’re after, I think. I am reminded of another story that did the rounds in the US several years ago. One Professor John Daly was widely reported as having advocated that “soldiers in Iraq turn their guns on their superiors”. This was immediately held up as evidence of the evils of liberalism. I recall an Internet forum discussion in which “the left” was challenged to condemn this professor. Fine, you might say, let’s condemn him. Ah, but not so fast there. If you do a bit of background reading, you’ll discover that Daly was expressing this sentiment in a private email (and was taken somewhat out of context). It was only brought into the public sphere by people looking to generate controversy. By being part of the condemnation roll call, you wouldn’t be saving face for “the left”, but rather legitimising a manufactured issue, and also legitimising the notion of collective responsibility for the actions of an individual.

So it is with the “No Pressure” film. Surely it isn’t too hard, when/if confronted, to argue simply and truthfully that the film was targeted at a “different”, “alternative”, etc. sense of humour. We shouldn’t be required to condemn it, nor take responsibility for it. Nobody was actually hurt (I assume). Frankly, if anyone was offended at the idea of being singled out for not feeling the need to take action on climate change, that’s their problem. We’re not talking about racial or sexual discrimination, but about the common good. At some point, your beliefs do become the business of everyone else. You almost certainly won’t like it, but neither will the rest of us like the idea of pulling our weight when you aren’t (simply because you don’t want to).

I shall quote Morrow again to conclude:

If you were just offended, unlike those who’ve been hurt, I don’t believe you’re owed an apology. You can demand one. And it’s possible that some people will say sorry to you – some for noble reasons, some for cowardly ones, some just to get you to shut up.