So the Brick Lane protest happens, and there's a bit of shouting and general grumpiness, but it's all a bit pointless really, since the film-makers have pulled out already. Maybe it's because it's the silly season, but some commentators are desperately trying to lump this one together with all that unpleasant Rushdie business back in the olden days; Sikh protests against Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti; Hindu protests over MF Husain's paintings; the highly amusing career death of Mel 'Sugar Tits' Gibson; the 40th anniversary of Lennon vs Banjo-Pluckers, Inc; and, for all I know, my late and dearly beloved grandmother's crestfallen face when I announced that I was a vegetarian, and would no longer be partaking of her delicious chicken soup (with or without matzo kleis).
This one is slightly different however, in that it's not a religious protest. The locals are complaining that Bangladeshis - particularly Sylhetis - are being portrayed as unkempt bumpkins. Leave aside the fact that the most damning remarks are made by a character in the novel, and thus to accuse Monica Ali of propagating such slurs is akin to accusing Shakespeare of supporting rape, mutilation and cannibalism for writing Titus Andronicus. Leave aside the fact that I've had the same stereotype related to me over and over again by South Asian acquaintances of all backgrounds. (It's what the English say about the Irish, the Americans about the Poles, the Japanese about the Koreans and the Bangkok Thais about the Isaan [North-eastern] Thais.) Leave aside even the fuckwitted protestor who lived up to the groundless libel by admitting that he'd read bits and pieces of the book and had other bits "explained" to him; or the fact that only two of the 120 protestors were women. ("This event was organised at short notice and obviously our families have children," said a man protesting at the book's allegations that Bangladeshis have a somewhat restrictive view of gender roles. "So who looks after them?")
No, the core of the problem is the protestors' polite request: "If you're going to write certain things then don't upset people."
Have you ever experienced art or media that has "not upsetting people" as its top priority? Think content-free Vegas pap like Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group. Think Jack bloody Vettriano. Think Coldplay. Look at the censored films and anodyne music available on international airlines. Next time you're in a hotel, check out the news from CNN or BBC World. In the interests of fairness and balance and sensitivity - all good things, don't get me wrong - we're left with bland banalities, polite evasions, and endless repeats of Larry King, the dullest journalist on the planet. Or maybe just get a job on a magazine in Thailand, where direct criticism is taboo. (I once wrote a book review that was not entirely complimentary about some ghastly you-can-be-a-better-salesperson tome. The managing editor couldn't understand why we would want to draw our readers' attention to books that were not good.)
Or, if you care to cast your mind back that far, consider the Millennium Dome. Because they didn't want to "exclude" anyone, however dim and/or thin-skinned, the whole experience was like an infant school open day. Stephen Bayley (whatever happened to him?) was mocked for suggesting the best thing they could do with it would be to leave the structure empty, and let the punters walk around. But effectively, that's what they did. I actually paid real cash money to get in, and half an hour later I couldn't remember a bloody thing about it.
The bizarre thing is, when I first read Brick Lane, I thought it was a similar, empty, pointless experience: Zadie Smith for daytime TV viewers; second-rate Catherine Cookson with a light dusting of stale garam masala. But no, even this dull, vacuous novel is just too edgy for some people. Now, I'm all for restrictions on expression if they'll really prevent hatred and violence and lynchings and gas chambers and genocide. But restrictions on taking the piss? That's just taking the piss.
Of course, this whole quandary came up earlier this year, with the Danish cartoon saga. I thought all the pictures should have been junked because they were exceedingly poor, but that, apparently wasn't the point. Art Spiegelman, one of our greatest living cartoonists, wrote a superb overview of the whole thing in Harper's a couple of months back. Proving himself to be an equal opportunities offender, he included historical cartoons that were pretty vile about Catholics, black people, capitalists, Boss Tweed (who he?), King Louis-Philippe of France and many more. He also analysed all the Danish cartoons, awarding each a numerical score for offensiveness; and reprinted an Iranian cartoon denying the Holocaust, as well as some cartoons entered into an Israeli competition intended to show the Iranians that however anti-Semitic the goyim can get, Shlomo and Saydie can go one better. It was meaty stuff, some of it downright nasty, but Spiegelman was careful to set the whole thing in context. "As a secular Jewish cartoonist living in New York City, I start out with four strikes against me," he wrote, "but I really don't want any irate Muslims declaring holy war on me. Although I'm not at all religious, I am a devout coward."
However, as Spiegelman and Ali discovered, however careful you are, someone's going to get upset. The cartoonist's most famous work is probably the astonishing graphic novel Maus, which retells the story of Hitler's Germany with the Jews recast as rodents. Apparently, moggie-loving zoologist Desmond Morris complained because the Nazis were represented as cats. Still, at least he bothered to read it. Or at least have it explained to him.