Boxing Day, 2014, three thirty in the afternoon.
My ginormous family is sitting around the dining room table, poking at the remnants of the ginormous dessert that followed our ginormous lunch: meringues and mince pies, Dundee cake and plum pudding, cream and custard and chocolate. We have just finished listening to the Queen’s Christmas speech, during which my grandmother sat bolt upright, quivering as if in religious ecstasy, and the rest of us wondered whether she would kill us in bloody and creative ways if we made any noise while the queen was talking. (Answer: yes, pretty definitely.)
My grandmother’s accent is impossible to categorize because it isn’t so much an accent as an audible mask. When my grandmother was growing up in a tiny town in Scotland- oldest daughter of an alcoholic lorry driver, who was himself the bastard son of a servant girl- she would have spoken with a thick Scottish burr, I suppose. But my stiff, proper, upright, upper-class English grandfather got her pregnant when she was nineteen, and they had the stiff, proper, English equivalent of a shotgun wedding, and she had to adopt a new way of speaking to try to fit in with her stiff, proper, English in-laws. When she talks now, it sounds like a parody, an Oxfordshire accent by way of Monty Python.
“Deeeeeaaah?” she says again, prodding me. “What do you think of this movie business? The business with the movie and North Korea?”
There are few absolute truths in life, but one of them is this: It’s a bad idea to be drawn into political debate with your grandparents at Christmas. Across the table, my sisters are trying to remind me of this by grimacing painfully, making little stop abort gestures that look almost like jazz hands. But I never was any good at shutting up.
So I tell my grandmother what I think about The Interview being pulled from theatres, a highly abbreviated version. I tell her that I can understand the distributor’s decision to pull the movie- that it’s admirable to champion free speech, but awkward to be forced into the role of champion without any warning.
I get that far, and my grandmother looks at me as if I have just suggested something truly horrifying, like butchering schoolchildren for shoe leather.
“Benedicta, daaahhling,” she says sternly. “That movie has to be censored, don’t you see? This is exactly why we need more censorship, to get rid of this kind of tripe. You can’t go around ridiculing heads of state. Especially not heads of state from Asia, or Africa! These countries aren’t…aren’t sophisticated enough to deal with that kind of thing!”
We have reached the “weapons grade racism” portion of this debate. I ask my grandmother what she means by “sophisticated.”
“Oh, well, you know,” she says, flapping a hand, and then veers off in a new direction. “Anyway, if someone were to ridicule Queen Elizabeth, I would be furious! I would be absolutely incensed!”
I think about my study back home, which is decked practically wall to wall in drawings of Her Majesty the Queen, and make a mental note to hide them before my grandmother comes round to tea.
My grandmother is fuming now, letting out little annoyed pants like a boiling teakettle. “This sort of thing never used to happen. People never used to have such terrible manners.”
“This sort of thing has always happened,” I say, and I list a few examples. Aristophanes, mocking the waste and the pointlessness of the Peloponnesian War with a mixture of witty wordplay and dick jokes. Seneca, going after the emperor Claudius. Gilbert and Sullivan, painting the nobility of England as too terminally dumb to step in out of the rain.
“But where does it end?” my grandmother asks. “What does it lead to?”
Neither of us know, of course, that in a couple of weeks, twelve people will be gunned down at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris- gunned down precisely because they were so terribly bad at shutting up. If we had known, my grandmother would have been even louder in her denunciations. But it wouldn’t have changed my attitude.
We spend a lot of our lives being told that when someone tries to provoke us, acts in a way that’s vicious or cruel, we should just ignore it. Don’t try to debate white supremacists. When someone whistles and catcalls, walk on by. Yes, I know, it’s no good getting locked in a heated discussion with people like that. As lawyers say, you shouldn’t wrestle with a pig- you get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.
But there’s a cost to keeping your lips pressed shut and forcing down the anger. Hatred, irrationality, cruelty- even if they only manifest in words, they suck the energy and hopefulness right out of you, like little paper vampires.
If you can’t talk down evil, what can you do? You can point right in its stupid evil face and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Evil hates that.
Like Alison Bechdel, the god of lesbian comics, skewering the war in Iraq. Like Tara Flynn and Kevin McGahern in Ireland, deftly demolishing opposition to gay marriage. Like Maurice Williamson in New Zealand, in a speech that spun vicious stupidity into comedy gold.
So I think to myself that I won’t take down my pictures of Her Majesty Lizzie Two before my grandmother comes to tea.
Because I’m no good at shutting up.
And I don’t see why anyone else should, either.