I've been puzzling over my reaction to the Ross/Brand controversy. Like a lot of people I feel pretty repulsed by what Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did to Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter. But I've felt the need to investigate why I feel this way. My thoughts on this have been mingling with those on a recent article in Renewal by Adam Lent of the TUC in which he calls for a new 'Civility Alliance'.
As an ageing (ex-)punk (well, wannabe punk - I had some of the records, but not the clothes) I can't claim that I find things objectionable just because someone - even if a lot of people - find them 'offensive'. Indeed, offensiveness seems often to go along with justifiable - and justifiably vehement - criticism of the oppressive, pompous, superstitious, imperial and generally reactionary. At its best, punk had this kind of targeted offensiveness.
But the Ross/Brand antics have a very different flavour. This wasn't the act of subversives assaulting complacency in the face of the powers that be. It was two very powerful media personalities using their power to play rather cruel jokes on those with much less power. They were celebrating their power, rather like a playground bully.
Now I don't want to get sanctimonious about this. Sadistic power playing is endemic in the modern media. A whole host of shows make use of and appeal to the same sentiments. It is, in a sense, unfair to single out Ross/Brand for criticism because their pranks were representative of so much that now passes for 'entertainment' - which may be why noone at the BBC stopped the program before it went out.
But this also tells us not to fall for the idea that Ross/Brand are wild, taboo-breaking rebels. Their pranks reflect a spirit of dull, unimaginative conformism to the mores of modern entertainment - mores which are, in turn, a reflection of the wider mores of our (post-Thatcher, neo-liberal) society.
In this social and cultural context, it is in fact civility which becomes subversive. Think about how your actions and words might affect other people's feelings. Think about how your demands affect possibilities for others. Adjust what you do and say accordingly. These things sound banal, but are in fact deeply challenging when we seek to follow them consistently. (I certainly don't.) And people are often shocked when you insist that we try to follow these norms consistently (just look at the Fabian 'Chavgate' controversy over the summer). Taking the route of civility - of solidarity - is so at odds with how we actually live so much of the time that people are sometimes offended by the demand that they be civil.
Civility, it would seem, is the new punk.