Twit-Forks and Censorship – A Clinton Cards Christmas Special

#ukhousing is finding its voice on social media, but how do we ensure debates don't devolve into angry mobs intent on knee-jerk censorship?

#ukhousing is finding its voice on social media, but how do we ensure that voice doesn’t become an angry mob intent on knee-jerk censorship?

The Story

The phrase – and, I suppose, the song – ‘easy like a Sunday morning’ is perhaps somewhat antiquated now, a relic of a simpler time when the perpetual information engine that is internet and the accompanying ‘internet of things’ allowing said information to be omnipresently disseminated did not yet exist. Now, you are never more than a tap-tap-swipe away from the latest news…and news is often bad, as news ever was.

So it was this past Sunday, in the chilly bite of the late morning, that the latest offensive against council housing found its way onto Twitter. But this story was not one of a new proposed welfare reform or the latest governmental media gaff – Tory peer Baroness Anne Jenkin would pick up that tab the day after with her ill-considered ‘poor people don’t know how to cook’ comment. Rather, the controversy came courtesy of Clinton Cards.

In this blog, I want to talk about what the massive missive manufacturer did to earn the ire of #ukhousing, what happened next, and why this small incident opens up some rather big questions about effective dialogue.

But first, let’s talk about…

THAT Christmas Card

Actually, I don’t need to talk about it much, as Colin Wiles has already provided a succinct distillation of events and immediate aftermath for Inside Housing.

Colin is not the first blogger to gazump me on a subject – I suspect that 24 Housing list ‘blog-blocking’ me as one of their key performance indicators. (Naturally, the magazine has also written a summation of events, ensuring that Max Salsbury gets his performance-related bonus this Christmas.)

I jest, of course, and if you are not up to speed on the Clinton Card fiasco you should take this opportunity to quickly peruse both articles: Max’s article is a rather handy summary regarding the content of the card in question, while Colin is, as ever, astute, pointing out how the incident both highlights the complacency of many when it comes to the demonization of social housing and, conversely, the vigilance and commitment of the UK housing sector in mustering so rapidly to its defence.

(For those that don’t like to ‘click through’, and/or for those who feel this blog has enough tangents already, I’ve included a screenshot of the card below which should supply a metaphorical thousand words as to why a Christmas card could provoke outrage in the UK housing sector, and what quickly led to this particular product being removed from Clinton Card’s store to be replaced with a public apology from the company.)

THAT Clintons' Card - 10 Reasons Why Santa Must Live On A Council Estate

THAT Clintons’ Card – 10 Reasons Why Santa Claus Must Live On A Council Estate

My initial reaction to the card was one of sadness – when the country is approaching a season of good will and kindness, it was disappointing to see Clinton Cards sell insensitive merchandise that capitalised on judgemental, divisive myths of social housing; the UK housing sector – at least, those on Twitter – likewise reacted with disapproval.

But this was not the only response…

#Twitterstorm

As Colin points out in his article:

“…despite the opposition on twitter, there are still significant numbers of people who think that the card is just fine and that the protests are politically correct nonsense.”

This is evident from the comment sections of a number of sites – Colin highlights the Daily Mail, but it is also true of the Independent. In reporting the story, the BBC also noted that not everyone on social media shared the same outrage that forced Clinton Cards to remove the card from its store. For some – perhaps, many; I’ve no idea of total numbers – a card drawing a mocking link between Santa and council estate tenants was just a joke.

Comedy is a big subject, and a full, considered discussion regarding where the lines of decency lie – of what is acceptable and what is not – is beyond the scope of a single blog post. The whole incident did get me thinking, though. Despite my personal distaste for the card – a distaste founded on a professional passion for social housing as well as a more philosophical dedication to kindness per se – I have empathy with those who called the card’s detractors ‘killjoy’ members of the ‘PC brigade’.

Outside of housing I pursue acting at a professional level, and a significant slice of that pie is being a member of an improvised comedy troupe. I’ve done sketch shows, stand-up, and straight-up silliness, and while it’s all done in good faith – an unspoken social contract with the audience who, at least in improvised comedy, provide much of the fuel and impetus for what happens on stage – I am always wary of offending others, even if in jest. I’m also aware that humour necessarily walks on thin ice and that it can be a powerful tool of social change, capable of piercing the heart of injustices where more polished rhetoric would fail.

Given my performance background, I am very wary of comedy being censored. Further – and crucially – I don’t want Twitter to be reduced to a tool of censorship, driven by knee-jerk outrage; a place where the social media masses form mobs to brandish their Twit-forks and lynch any idea that is not wholly and universally palatable. The Telegraph recently ran an article asking whether Change.org – the world’s largest online petition platform – has now just become a means for a vocal minority to exercise intellectual fascism and ‘ban things they don’t like’.

I’ve questioned previously whether the UK housing sector needs to get angry in order for its voice to be heard; if we were on the outside looking in, would we like us when we’re angry?

Walk The Line

I’m not saying the UK housing sector was wrong to express its disapproval for the card in question; far from it. Indeed, I joined the cumulative noise on Twitter, a small cog in the spontaneous movement that Clinton Cards could not ignore. I think it was right for the product to be pulled – given the attacks social housing has suffered from divisive programming such as Benefits Street, How To Get A Council House, etc. we cannot afford to ignore anything that continues to stigmatise and stereotype social housing tenants.

Taking umbrage with this Christmas card is not about being a ‘killjoy’ or being a member of the ‘PC brigade’ (although if PC means “not offensive” then I can’t necessarily see anything wrong with that – being offensive for its own sake is no freedom, but a self-imposed tyranny of the heart.) When the sector rallied against the card, it wasn’t about stopping people’s fun but about stopping people – that is, tenants of social housing – getting hurt by damaging myths that are too easily propagated by something as simple as a ‘humorous’ Christmas card.

I think this is the line in comedy, how we can determine if something is right or wrong – we ask if the joke is aimed directly at people. It is why something like the Clinton Christmas card needed to be removed and why, in my opinion, a parody Twitter account lampooning UKIP by means of Trumpton-based satire should not be banned (despite the desires of certain members): the former is pointedly hurtful to individuals, whereas the latter pokes fun at attitudes, policies, and sound-bites. To crudely paraphrase one of the life positions described by the psychological approach of transactional analysis: I’m okay, you’re okay (but your actions can be hurtful.)

I think the UK housing sector are, by-and-large, very good at taking a stand against bad policies, products (be they Christmas card or ‘reality’ television), or viewpoints, while still maintaining respect for individuals…but we need to be wary that our (often justified) outrage does not end up being focussed on individual people, at least not in a cruel way.

If we cross that line, our voice won’t become powerful and sure and influential – it will, instead, be regarded as frothing, foam-flecked fanaticism, and that is no way to engage in constructive, transformative dialogue.

Conclusion

Some have called for a boycott of Clinton Cards; I think this is an overreaction. The company made a mistake, they owned up, they publically apologised, and are now – if we are to believe their statement (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t) – reviewing processes to mitigate such lapses in the future. That’s victory enough; I see no reason to rub salt into freshly Twitter-lynched wounds.

To err is human; it’s a seven billion strong club. I would hope that if I were to make a big mistake, either professionally or personally, an open apology and declaration to make things right would be sufficient to at least give me the benefit of the doubt – that further rock casting might be stalled as my words were judged by my following actions.

What Clinton Cards does next will show whether such a reprieve is justified, and I’m sure the UK housing sector will be vigilant in monitoring its response – it knows now that it has the potential to rally support and generate action very quickly. But with power comes responsibility, and more than vigilance against further transgressions we must ensure that we use our collective power wisely, justly, and kindly, engaging not in knee-jerk censorship but instead responding with open, honest, and assured dialogue; based in fact, powered by passion.

‘Tis the season of good will – there’s no better time to make sure that commitment is on the cards.

References

Clinton Cards apologises over council estate card, BBC, Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/30368218, Available: December 2014

Clintons forced to apologise over ‘shameful’ Christmas card detailing ‘Why Santa Claus must live on a council estate’, The Independent, Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/clintons-faces-backlash-over-shameful-christmas-card–why-santa-claus-must-live-on-a-council-estate-9908540.html, Available: December 2014

Is Change.org just a weapon of censorship?, The Telegraph, Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/11229136/Is-Change.org-just-a-weapon-of-censorship.html, Available: December 2014

Red Christmas Card, Inside Housing, Online: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/home/blogs/red-christmas-card/7007257.blog, Available: December 2014

Shop withdraws ‘deeply offensive’ council estate Christmas card, 24Dash, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2014-12-08-Shop-withdraws-deeply-offensive-council-estate-Christmas-card?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter, Available: December 2014

Tory baroness slammed for saying poor people use food banks because they ‘don’t know how to cook’, The Mirror, Online: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tory-baroness-slammed-saying-poor-4767987, Available: December 2014

Ukip fail to see funny side of Trumpton Twitter account, The Telegraph, Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/ukip/11277102/Ukip-fail-to-see-funny-side-of-Trumpton-Twitter-account.html, Available: December 2014

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3 comments

  1. I don’t think there is any subject that cannot be the subject of comedy, but context is everything. A working class comedian from a council estate could probably have done something legitimate with the same idea and it have been funny & even affectionate. The Clintons card was wrong because it set out to stereotype & stigmatise council tenants in a sneering and superior way.

    Also, if the housing sector is not going to go out to bat for its tenants, who will? We know that the media stereotypes are unfair and unhelpful and there is no harm in us making this point.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. You’re absolutely right – context is key for good comedy. To make another link to my experience with improvisation, the best comedy comes from being ‘with’ the audience – together on the same wavelength and pursuing the same purpose, rather than ‘us AND THEM’. The Clintons card wasn’t an affectionate in-joke – it was divisive and pointedly hurtful.

      Also, please don’t think I want the housing sector to remain quiet about such matters – I do think we should ‘come out to bat’! – but we must always be mindful of HOW we do so. Passionate, factually-robust arguments are superior to frothing anger – we need to make sure our voice is RESPECTED as well as heard.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article and leave your thoughts, Bill – much appreciated!

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