Why does Jeremy Clarkson get me so angry?
A friend has, quite reasonably, observed “people seem to hate Clarkson out of all proportion to him being a presenter of a show about cars”. It’s a fair point. While I don’t “hate” Clarkson, he does make me very angry. Why is it that this man, whom I can quite simply ignore by switching channels, squats on my emotional world in such a colourful way?
For me, Clarkson is the intersection of several political ley-lines. This makes him more prominent as a symbol than it should.
He enables and emboldens xenophobia to a significant degree and, each time the BBC stood behind him, it felt like they were cool with that. He seemed to be the entertainment equivalent of Nigel Farage. I know many of you don’t see the fuss about calling Mexicans “lazy, feckless and flatulent”, or going to Argentina and making fun of a conflict in which over 900 young soldiers lost their lives, or calling his black dog Drogba, or using the word ‘n****r’, or calling a Thai man a ‘slope’, or travelling through India on a train the side of which reads “Eat English Muff”, or calling Romania ‘gypsy country’. But cumulatively this stuff has an effect. As does making fun of murdered prostitutes, attacking a politician because of his disability, making Nazi salutes at a German car and joking about killing Albanians.
I don’t think, unless you have been at the receiving end of someone screaming “paki go home” from a car window in the street, of some sort of mindless discrimination or bullying like that, there is any way to actually describe the fight-or-flight feeling people like Clarkson create in someone who feels “other” in any way. Clarkson, in this way, becomes emblematic of every bully. At work, at school, in the street. That there are people defending him, even after the details of what he has done have emerged, is a source of profound concern. Somehow “the right to offend” has assumed larger significance in some people’s minds than “the right to go to work and not get punched”. I can only put it down to a worrying lack of empathy – a million people able to only identify with the aggressor, rather than the victim.
But it is more than that. It feels like he is at the vanguard of a reaction by those who are privileged in every way – race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, background, wealth, platform, position – against losing what is, objectively, a tiny bit of their privilege. He felt like the epitome of the Farages, Littlejohns and Moores of this world using their soapbox (usually in the form of a weekly column in a national paper) to somehow claim they are the real victims, the voiceless majority, the disadvantaged; to say: “now ENOUGH you darkies/women/perverts; we gave you a little equality, but don’t push it”.
And still, none of those things caused him to lose his job. His final misstep at the BBC seems representative of the bullying, imperialist, old-world attitude he represented. Sending a junior colleague to hospital, after racially abusing them, over a steak dinner. An old drama teacher of mine used to say: “Ego is absolutely necessary for survival in the entertainment industry. But it must never outgrow talent. When the ego starts to be bigger than the talent, you’re in trouble.”
In the end, it wasn’t “righteous Guardianistas” and “humourless Feminazis” that got Clarkson sacked. He was entirely the architect of his own downfall. This, it seems, is the thing his fans are most bitter about. They thought, I’m sure, that he would be the victim of the “do-gooder, lefty brigade”; that he would become their cause’s martyr. And he fucked it up. There is only one reason he was sacked: his own consuming anger. His inability to control his temper. His sense of entitlement. And that is a lesson over which the many people who despised what he stood for, will reasonably crow.
I am largely, however, trying to intellectualise a primarily emotional reaction. I hope it is helpful in explaining my reaction, at least. What gets me even more agitated is that those who defend him, do so on the basis of “freedom to cause offence” – that’s an interesting phrase for people who deny that words have power, isn’t it? They think they’re somehow being “edgy” and rebellious by supporting the dullest, most humdrum, tiresome, archetypal establishment figure. You know what is “edgy”? Kindness. Because it is extremely rare and often has a personal cost. Any arsehole can offend. And does.
I leave you with this thought: the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was a big fan of Top Gear. He described it as “one of the very few programs at the Burka Broadcasting Corporation still worth seeing.” He then goes on to quote extensively from a Sunday Times piece by Clarkson entitled “We’ve been robbed of our Englishness” in his manifesto.
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting a writer bears responsibility for ways in which any wicked person might misunderstand his words. But I think it is also foolish to deny that people are propelled into action by a thousand spectral hands. If I discovered I had become the busty centrefold inside the door of the hate-locker of a murderer, it would give me pause for thought. I would search my soul very deeply.
Words matter. Words hurt. And the higher your profile, the bigger the responsibility not to pour venom into people’s ears. I think Clarkson consistently did that: He poured venom. Dangerously, he poured venom disguised as humour. Worryingly, he did so within a format popular with young people. How exactly do you laugh with someone making fun of people with disabilities, then explain to your child that they mustn’t do that at school?
I am very glad my license fee is not paying for him any more. I know he will go on to other, very lucrative pastures new. But it won’t be on my buck. I wish him luck and success. I hope he learns from this. I hope he gets help. I hope he grows less angry. We are all capable of change and worthy of kindness.