Have you noticed how people seem to be getting offended about the strangest things? For example, there has been controversy this month over two songs that are regularly played in English-speaking countries at this time of year. The first is Baby It’s Cold Outside, a duet between two people (usually a man and a woman, though the lyrics are not gender-specific). It was written by Frank Loesser in 1944 to sing with his wife as a party trick. One character is persuading a slightly reluctant other to stay in the warm rather than go out into the winter weather. It’s flirtatious and funny, especially in my favourite version by Cerys Matthews and Tom Jones with an entertaining video which is worth watching right to the end. But some people say the lyrics promote date rape, and the song was banned by some radio stations earlier this month.
This is interesting as evidence of how our perceptions change. In 1944 no doubt date rape existed but it was not a widespread topic of conversation or media interest. In 2018, after #metoo, the world is a different place. So rather than looking like an innocent piece of comedy, to some people Baby It’s Cold Outside looks like a sinister instruction manual for would-be date rapists.
The other song that has been getting people hot under the collar is Fairytale Of New York, a more recent classic by The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl. This is one of my two favourite seasonal songs. I love that it portrays people having an argument – so very common at this time of year – rather than the more usual saccharine sweetness. During the argument, two people hurl insults at each other, one uses the word ‘faggot’ and this is what has caused upset. (The other uses the word ‘slut’ but that doesn’t seem to be a problem… ho hum.) Shane McGowan, who co-wrote the song, made a dignified statement explaining that the song features two fictional characters who are not nice people so some of the things they say are not nice. He explains that storytelling requires unpleasant characters – which it does, or there is no drama.
One interesting thing about all this offence being taken is that more people hear about and listen to the songs. So people’s outrage, amplified by the media, has the opposite effect from that which they intend.
Perhaps words are easy to be offended by. It’s harder to be offended by the really offensive things going on around our planet such as famine and capitalism. We long for simplicity, for a world with problems we can solve. Yet banning a song containing the word ‘faggot’ is not going to fix global homophobia.
Research can be offensive, too. Of course unethical research is deeply offensive, but even careful, rigorous, ethical research can cause offence. John Bohannon, in his TED talk, said, “The great pleasure of science is the defeat of intuition.” I think that’s a wonderful sentence. Yet so many people hold fast to their intuition in the face of research evidence, outraged by the facts that challenge their beloved and long-held beliefs.
This, too, is interesting. I suspect this very human trait contributes to the barriers in translating research into policy and into practice. It certainly fuels many debates and slanging matches on social media. That gets exhausting sometimes… so I’ll be taking a break for the holiday season. See you in January!
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