Cambridge Union was debating the motion: ‘This House Believes There is No Such Thing as Good Taste’.
400 students were in the audience to hear art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon, present his view, ‘Bad taste and Bad Morality go Hand-in-Hand’.
To make his point, he parodied Hitler, in a bad mock-German accent he said,
“Zis modern, horrible art zat vos promoted by ze Jews… it vos cubist – inspired by ze art of ze negro. Zis tribal art, urgh, how horrible is zat? Ve must expunge it from Deutschland. Ve are pure, Aryan people. Our genetics is pure, our taste must be pure.”
Not a terribly witty speech maybe, but obviously a piss-take.
It went down quite well, in fact he won the debate.
But the next day the Cambridge Union received a large number of complaints.
At which point Cambridge Union President, Keir Bradwell, decided to take action.
He said, “We will create a blacklist of speakers never to be invited back to the Cambridge Union, and we will share that blacklist with other unions. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s name will be on that blacklist.”
Graham-Dixon then did the typical thing for someone who sees their livelihood threatened by cancellation, he immediately issued an apology,
“I apologise sincerely to anyone who found my debating tactics and use of Hitler’s own language distressing; on reflection I can see that some of the words I used, even in quotation, are inherently offensive.”
So far, so normal: joke – offense – cancellation – apology.
But then an unusual thing happened, instead of taking the cancellation seriously and being terrified of it, someone decided to ridicule it.
John Cleese sent the following tweet, he has 5.6 million followers,
“I was looking forward to talking to students at the Cambridge Union this Friday, but I hear that someone there has been blacklisted for doing an impersonation of Hitler. I regret that I did the same on a Monty Python show, so I am blacklisting myself before someone else does.”
He followed it with another tweet,
“I apologise to anyone at Cambridge who was hoping to talk with me, but perhaps some of you can find a venue where woke rules do not apply.”
By cancelling himself, John Cleese completely turned the tables.
Louis de Bernieres, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, immediately demanded to be put on the blacklist as well.
Being put on the blacklist suddenly became a badge of honour, young comedians wanted to be included on it, Ian McEwan and Tom Stoppard expressed their support.
Suddenly the situation was reversed and Keir Bradwell issued another statement,
“The Cambridge Union does not have a blacklist, I mis-spoke and should not have used that term. Further guests may say what they wish in our chamber, and absolutely never need to fear that anything they say will put them on a list of any sort.
Obviously announcing a U-turn looks silly. I was just a 21-year-old who tried to make the situation better. There is no policy to ban anyone for what they say – it’s a free speech institution. If there is a dichotomy between free speech and offense, I will defend free speech. I don’t want to create an impression that the Union is against free speech.”
What that demonstrates for me is that, just because someone objects to something, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically right, it doesn’t even mean they’ve given it much thought.
This includes any critics: trade publications, ASA, IPA, Clearcast, planners, account men, clients, other creatives, even sometimes yourself.
It also demonstrates that taking the piss is often more powerful than taking it seriously.
So we may not need to issue an automatic apology.
We shouldn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to a knee-jerk reaction.