(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 16.)
An Auckland signage company recently erected a Christmas billboard that appeared to mock sex-change celebrity Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner.Predictably, an outcry followed on social media. The billboard was denounced as “transphobic”. Some of the signage company’s own clients objected, presumably for fear of being condemned as guilty by association (an understandable concern, given social media’s propensity for lynch-mob vindictiveness).
The signage company duly took the billboard down, apologising for its “bad judgment”. A donation of $1000 to a support group for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth accompanied the mea culpa.This is an increasingly familiar and predictable pattern. A company with a reputation for pushing the boundaries draws attention to itself with a provocative promotion. When Twitter and Facebook subsequently erupt in protest, as they seem programmed to do, a backdown and apology usually follow. We’re assured no offence was intended.
But by then the purpose of the promotion has been served: the company has attracted the attention it sought. Its name now registers with people who hadn’t previously heard of it (such as me, in this instance).Even if the company takes down its billboard (or cancels its ad campaign, or whatever), that in itself is likely to generate more media coverage. Mission accomplished.
Everyone’s a winner. The company gets a higher public profile (for which $1000 might seem a very modest price) and the objectors enjoy the moral satisfaction of having chalked up another victory against bigotry and oppression.It’s like a ritual dance in which the steps are choreographed well in advance and executed with practised precision.
As you might deduce, I’m sceptical about companies that come up with edgy promotional ideas and then, when the complaints start pouring in, sound surprised and even hurt, insisting that their intentions were innocent.Because I’m sceptical, I’m not going to gratify this particular company by identifying it, or by repeating what the billboard said. (I will, however, say that I find it hard to believe the company didn’t know it was risking a backlash.)
But the fact that some companies court controversy with provocative advertisements is only one of two interesting things going on here.The other is that an ever-increasing proportion of the population identifies itself as an oppressed minority and seems to go through life looking for reasons to feel offended, as the reaction to the billboard demonstrated.
It’s getting to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether the real victims of oppression are the diminishing majority who no longer know what they can say without fear of upsetting someone and being stigmatised as Nazis and bigots.What makes it harder for this bewildered majority is that the rules keep changing and new categories of victim seem to be created every week.
Language becomes a minefield too – a means of imposing ideological correctness. You use the wrong term at your peril.While some of us are still familiarising ourselves with the initials LGTB, further permutations keeping popping up, such as LGTBQ (for queer) and LGBTI (for intersex). It’s as if a race is on to define ever more rarefied categories of gender identity.
It seems kids are being dragged into this too. Among those offended by the Caitlyn Jenner billboard was a woman who identified herself in the media as the parent of a nine-year-old transgender boy. She was reported as demanding a face-to-face apology from the signage company – not to her, but to her child.This is grandstanding, pure and simple. But worse than that, it’s imposing adult concerns (or perhaps neuroses is a better word) on kids whose greatest need is probably to be allowed just to be children. God knows, their lives will get complicated enough as they get older.
I feel sorry for the boy in question, who was identifiable because his mother was named in the media. He’s been dragged into a public debate that he probably doesn’t understand and may have had no desire to be part of.Let’s accept that there may be genuine cases of transgender children, but I doubt that they’re helped by parents politicising their condition and using it as leverage in a public controversy. But this is what it’s come to.
Defining yourself as a victim has become the thing to do. And as more groups assert their victim status, the mainstream majority finds its rights under increasing attack.Public policy makers and private corporations have become noticeably twitchy about upsetting vocal minorities. Their response is to whittle away at freedom of speech.
There was a striking example of this in Britain recently when Digital Cinema Media, which handles advertisements for several cinema chains, banned a Church of England advertisement showing people (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The company was worried that the ad, which was to be shown in the week before Christmas, would cause offence to non-Christians.We haven’t yet encountered such dangerous extremes of timidity in New Zealand, but it’s bound to come.