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Phones 4 U, Ke$ha and becoming offensive

Channel 4 was censured by Ofcom this week for cutting to a light-hearted sponsorship advert just after viewers had watched the particularly graphic and disturbing rape scene in the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Phones 4 U sponsorship ad was thought to be especially inappropriate for that moment as it features a couple apparently having sex, during which the woman pauses and asks to the camera ‘I’m faking it, can I upgrade’? Ofcom received 17 complaints about the timing of the advert and this week concluded that ‘the juxtaposition of a light-hearted sponsorship credit featuring a woman during sex with a disturbing and distressing rape scene in a film was clearly unsuitable… In Ofcom’s view this clearly had the potential to be offensive to viewers’.

The timing was clearly unfortunate, but to say that the juxtaposition was offensive is a stronger claim.  Of course, the psychological effect of being immersed in a violent scene at one moment and then confronted with the same(ish) subject matter presented trivially will not do much for the viewer’s aesthetic experience. But the regulator’s suggestion seemed not only to be that the juxtaposition detracted from the viewer’s enjoyment, but also that it was in some way wrong.

It is interesting to consider possible explanations for why two unrelated (and independently inoffensive) events become offensive when they are temporally adjacent. We should here draw a distinction between an individual’s subjective experience of offence – which could be felt inappropriately – and a normative (moral) assessment of the offensiveness of some expression or act – which would pertain regardless of how an individual actually responded. The psychological explanation at the subjective level might be that those who find the juxtaposition offensive fail to keep the events discreet in their minds: it is as if the succeeding event is a ‘comment on’ the preceding event. But, insofar as the succeeding event is not intended to be a comment on the preceding event, it is not clear that there is (or should be) a moral dimension to the offence that is experienced. When the film cut from the rape scene to the jokey advert, some viewers might have experienced it as an expression of disparagement towards those who were (understandably) taking the subject matter of the scene very seriously. If that had been the intention, then the attitude or communication that the juxtaposition expressed would indeed have been morally troubling. However, the content of the advert was not intended to express anything about the film alongside which it had been scheduled so, whilst it would have been preferable to avoid the coincidence, the juxtaposition was more careless than offensive (in the normative sense).

In the above situation, it was the collision of the two events that was thought to be offensive. Neither the film nor the advert became offensive in itself. There are other examples of juxtaposition where one of the events (or expressive incidents) seems to have become offensive itself through colliding with another event. This seemed to some to have been the explanation for why  Ke$ha’s song ‘Die Young’ was pulled from radio station playlists following the Sandy Hook School massacre. The artist herself was reported as saying that she ‘understand[s] why [her] song is now inappropriate’. Until the massacre no one had found the song offensive, but it appeared to become deeply offensive overnight. It might be thought that perhaps the song had always been offensive, but that nobody had noticed until that point. But in this case, aside from it not being a very good song, the lyrics were actually expressing the same sentiment found in the trite statements which implore us to ‘treat each day as if it’s our last’ and to ‘live life to the full’ – a sentiment which is not offensive. Had the song celebrated killing children, then it would have always been offensive rather than taking a massacre to make it so.

So, in this case too it does not seem that something inoffensive becomes offensive by virtue of colliding with another event. Granted, there were valid reasons to pull the song out of sensitivity towards the families of the victims – hearing the repeated reference to dying young may have been upsetting to anyone with the tragedy on their mind – but the lyrics themselves did not become offensive. Whilst our cultural ideas about what is offensive change slowly over time, the juxtaposition of two unrelated events (or expressive incidents) cannot make one or both become offensive. Either the juxtaposition makes salient the existing offensiveness of one or both of the events or it is the juxtaposition that is offensive; but, I suggest, only when the juxtaposition is intended to communicate something.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Hannah,

    I think this is a really interesting question! But I have a somewhat different take on it than you do. I think there is a sense in which something non-offensive can ‘become’ offensive by appearing in proximity to another otherwise non-offensive thing. And I don’t think intent matters to the occurence of offensiveness (though it might matter to how much blame we put on the person committing the offense).

    I’d start by borrowing a distinction from old-school philosophy of language, between a sentence (or at term) and an utterance. For those reading along, who might not be unacquainted: A sentence is obviously just a bit of language, and an utterance is a concrete expression of a sentence at some time, by some speaker, to some audience, in some context. (I’m leaving out various niceties here.) For instance, take the sentence ‘I’ll be back.’ This is one sentence, but it can appear as lots of different utterances. It can be growled by the Terminator, sung by John Lennon, or whispered by me when I slip out of the office to get lunch.

    Notice that in the above example, each utterance of ‘I’ll be back’ carries different weight. When I’ll say that ‘I’ll be back’ to the office after lunch, this is unlikely to have the same effect on my audience as the Terminator’s declaration. Yet it is the same sentence. Speaker, time, audience, context all matter to the import of an utterance.

    Now, consider the sentence ‘I agree.’ Is ‘I agree’ offensive? No. But now imagine the following dialog:
    Speaker A: Niall Ferguson said that Keynes didn’t care about future generations because he was gay.
    Speaker B: I agree.
    Speaker A: You do?! Really?
    Speaker B: Yes. I agree.
    Speaker A: Wow. At least Ferguson retracted his claim and apologized… [links are disabled, so see here: ]

    While the sentence ‘I agree’ is not offensive, this particular utterance of ‘I agree’ is! (At least I think so.) In this sense, then, the obviously non-offensive sentence ‘I agree’ can become offensive when it manifests as a particular utterance, in a particular context.

    So. Perhaps the film scene and the phone advert are not offensive in themselves, when treated like sentences. But when uttered, when made concrete in a particular context, they can be offensive. And, I would say, this particular utterance of the advert, immediately following the utterance of that scene, is offensive.

    Maybe this is just another way of saying what you already said. You suggested that the juxtaposition of the two things is what generates offense. I say that this specific utterance of the advert, given this context, is itself offensive. Depending on how we parse the conversational event, these may turn out to be the same claim.

    However, I think my formulation helps a bit in making clear the ethical issues here. I think that we all have a moral responsibility to pay careful attention to the contexts in which we use language. In particular, we have a responsibility to consider the effects our speech acts may have on audiences, given the context in which they occur. In this case, Channel 4 had a responsibility to consider how their utterance of this advert would manifest. They failed to do this, so they are negligent – and thus they are morally responsible for giving offense. I agree that they are less responsible than if they had done this on purpose, but they are not cleared entirely by the lack of that intention (just as I’m not cleared entirely of responsibility by the fact that I had only intended for the poisonous snake I just released in a crowded lecture hall to scare people, not bite them.)

    Anyway, that’s what I think. Thanks for posting this – it’s given me something to think about! (And, I should note, my thoughts above are definitely influenced by Rae Langton’s work on pornography as speech act, though surely I’ve made the points far less clearly than she would have.)

  2. I agree with what i think the above comment is saying, in that I also believe that context can make something initially inoffensive offensive. For example, few would say that a clip of a man slipping on a banana peel is offensive, but if played at the funeral of someone who died doing so (you can slip on them, I’ve done it) it would be seen as very poor taste. By playing the two clips next to each-other, it showed the lighthearted take on a women not enjoying sex after the more serious one of a women being raped. Similar subject manner in that way. While I know some who would always dislike the second clip due to its implications, for anyone who was deeply affected by the scene in the film, and especially if not able to distance themselves again during the ads, the context (not the juxtaposition per se) would make the second clip offensive.

  3. This is one of the reasons why I’ve drifted away from popular media sources such as TV for watching films. Films are (often) intended to be watched in one go, but in this case they are littered with “breaks” in which corporations try to lure your attention and encourage demand for goods and/or services. Not only does this detract from the experience of watching the film (a combination of different media and arts), but makes it more difficult to even attempt to enjoy the show by stimulating parts of the brain that aren’t needed (at that time). Of course, I don’t blame Channel 4, I realise this is an optimal way of broadcasting these days, I’m just saying that maybe they shouldn’t be surprised when inevitably viewers migrate to internet streaming, where they have more control over what they are shown. /digression

  4. I don’t really think Regina’s ‘I agree’ analogy quite works here, because the juxtaposition in question clearly forms part of an agreed conversational narrative, and draws its significance from that. Hannah’s point, if I understood it correctly, was that there is no such agreed or intended narrative flow that would render the juxtaposition significant in any moral sense in either the ad example or the song example.

    Nevertheless, I think both Regina and Steve are on to something, and this for two reasons.

    Firstly, it is by no means clear to me that labelling something ‘offensive’ necessarily implies that it is morally wrong. If not, then this obviously raises the question why Ofcom had any business making an issue of it, but then Ofcom is not, as far as I am aware, supposed to be a moral guardian so much as a regulatory authority with a regulatory mandate. It may well be that Ofcom overstepped its authority, but it would be a bizarre piece of legislative drafting if the criterion had to do with morality per se. (One of course hopes that laws are designed with moral principles in mind, but even that tends to be indirect. Morality should come in at the level of political decision-making, and thenceforth should presumably play only a rather minor role, the main emphasis being rather on faithfully applying the law.) and as for the song, it appears that no regulatory authority was involved, and the radio stations (and songstress) were just taking their listeners feelings (and, of course, their own reputations) into account.

    And this brings me to my second point. Why would the feelings of the viewer/listener not be relevant in determining whether a juxtaposition is to be considered morally defensible or not? Obviously we cannot say that a speech act is immoral (let alone worthy of censorship) because somebody somewhere might be offended, but just as (in Steve’s example) you would not joke about banana skins at the funeral of someone who had died slipping on one, so it seems reasonable to disapprove of gratuitously screening/playing light-hearted reminders of a recent trauma (be it a rape scene screened a few seconds ago or a massacre that took place a few days ago).

    And I think this raises a more general issue, which has become something of an obsession for me, namely the extent to which emotion and aesthetics play a legitimate role in our normative calculations, and the extent to which they tend to be undervalued by ethicists because they see emotion and aesthetics as somehow inimical to reason. Once we understand that reason and fact alone cannot determine what we should value (Hume’s insight, but one which many ethicists, and others of course, seem to have great difficult really grasping), then we can see more clearly to recognise the crucial role that emotions and aesthetics must indeed play, and we can further understand that they are only inimical to reason to the extent that they become so strong that they overwhelm our capacity to reason, and we have not developed the mindfulness skills to ensure that they don’t. I would certainly be interested to see more attention being paid to this issue on this blog.

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