Controversy (n): sanity

Radio presenter John Humphrys sparked controversy yesterday by suggesting that perhaps Hitler was on to something, that the idea of guillotining a queen could work in Britain, and that the Labour Party ought to be outlawed.

Girolamo Savonarola, new chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority

Got you going there, didn’t I? Actually, the controversy was caused by something even more heinous: talking about baby care, Mr Humphrys dared suggest that women “by and large do a better job of it than men.”

He could have dug even a deeper hole for himself by insisting that women also do a better job of giving birth and breastfeeding, but the hole he did dig was deep enough.

The subject came up during a Radio 4 discussion of two TV commercials, one for Volkswagen, the other for Philadelphia cheese, both banned for ‘gender stereotyping’. One commercial showed men being hopeless at baby care; the other depicted women being good at it.

The delinquent Mr Humphrys (far from a conservative, by the way) first defended the ads and then showed no repentance: “To whom is it causing harm if you show a woman sitting next to a baby in a pram? Lots of women sit next to babies in prams. How does this sort of advertising harm people?”

If he has to ask, he doesn’t belong in civilised society, as defined by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and all other progressive bodies and individuals. ASA’s Jessica Tye made that abundantly clear.

Such offensive advertising, she explained – as if patently obvious things needed an explanation! – could lead women astray by affecting their aspirations and career choices.

Implicitly, the danger is that women will start bearing children and looking after them, rather than leaving that task to men or, better still, transsexuals, while they themselves seek rewarding careers as fighter pilots or boxers.

Following a groundswell of indignation at the grassroots, ASA simply had to ban those affronts to humanity. Or perhaps ‘groundswell’ is not only a cliché but also an exaggeration.

All in all, just one person objected to the cheese ad, and a whopping three to the Volkswagen one. But, as I never tire of pointing out, numbers shouldn’t affect a principle.

However, they could perhaps elucidate the principle, as they do in this case. The insanity pandemic infecting our society spreads from top to bottom, not from bottom to top; it’s institutional, not individual.

ASA pulled the commercials after just four cretins found them controversial – out of millions of viewers. Thereby that watchdog caused commercial damage to the advertisers, along with their various agencies and TV stations, but they have only themselves to blame.

The juggernaut of modernity rolls on, and one can’t get into its wheel spokes without getting crushed. All we can do is await new developments with trepidation.

Or else, even better, propose them. In that vein, I think the Arts Council should take a good, long look at all those Virgin and Child paintings befouling our museums. If that’s not gender stereotyping, I don’t know what is.

Such offensive canvases ought to be expurgated and, ideally, burned in a new, progressive Bonfire of the Vanities. Girolamo Savonarola, call your office.

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