Jeremy Clarkson, exaggerated opinions and shifting sands of free speech

I don’t really like Jeremy Clarkson very much. I never have really. Just not a fan. I am not that interested in cars, I just want a reliable one, with a boot big enough for taking the mountain of nonsense that attends going anywhere as a family and that works with whatever phone I’ve got. I have few serious car requirements. Which means I also have little interest in watching Top Gear as a bunch of fast cars I can’t afford and wouldn’t buy even if I could are driven round by middle-aged men. I didn’t have much time for the bantz on that programme either. I admit not liking Top Gear wasn’t uniquely down to Jeremy Clarkson – I didn’t start watching it after he got replaced when he punched that bloke on set – but it bears saying he didn’t help.

But I haven’t been drawn to his farming programme on Amazon either. I am marginally more interested in farms than I am watching middle-aged men driving expensive cars. But I’m not that interested in farms. They’re fine. But I don’t like Jeremy Clarkson enough that a potentially interesting programme about farming is not interesting enough to draw me in when it is fronted by Jeremy Clarkson. So, there it is.

I don’t hate Jeremy Clarkson. Certainly not enough to feel the need to write a blog post about my feelings towards him. I am just making it known that I don’t especially like him, his programmes nor his assumed values. Which is to say, I am not a friendly witness for him. But it seems lots of other people have decided they do hate Jeremy Clarkson. Mainly, it seems, for an article he wrote about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Now, it bears saying, Jeremy Clarkson is employed to write opinions. He is specifically employed to write opinions that are not well-researched, reasoned pieces of argumentation. He is employed to write over-inflated opinions that are (potentially) passionate, but more likely written mainly for laughs. His whole schtick is writing outrageous things, writing over-the-top things, for comic effect to make whatever point he is actually trying to make.

It also bears saying that Clarkson has a long history of doing exactly what he is paid to do. He has previous said that he thinks everyone who goes on strike should be shot. Now, look, I don’t think he actually thinks that. I suspect Jeremy Clarkson is a Tory, not an actual Nazi. He clearly said that to express his opinion that he objects to strikes, but said it in an over-inflated way for comedic effect. I’m sure there were some people, somewhere, who found it funny. I neither agree with his opinion nor found the way he expressed it very funny. But one thing seems certain, he clearly didn’t mean it literally. But examples of this can be found all over his writing. It is literally what he is paid to do. it is interesting when he was ragging on working class people, the backlash was less severe and he never felt the need to apologise.

For some reason, however, the backlash against his comments on Meghan, Duchess of Sussex have led to an apology. I cannot say why comments – similar in nature – against a member of the royal family were deemed worthy of opprobrium, but not so much when they’re made against working class people. I cannot say whether there were threats of “consequences” that might have landed in this particular instance that made the hit to one’s bank account more worthy of an apology. I can’t honestly say.

What I can say, however, is that I am surprised by the pushback. I don’t think the comments were particularly nice. But since when have the over-inflated opinions in a Clarkson article been anything other? It seems apparent that the comments were clearly hyperbolic and not intended literally. It is palapably obvious Jeremy Clarkson was not actually advocating the specific things he said. He was exaggerating for comic effect for the sake of his opinion. It may not have been very funny, it might not be very kind, this style of writing is precisely the reason Clarkson is employed to write anything at all.

Truth be told, I don’t really think what he wrote was as bad as all that anyway. Plenty of people have printed far worse. But when it is understood as an exaggerated opinion, that he doesn’t think literally, which is what almost every opinion he ever writes is for, I find it hard to understand the opprobrium it received. As I read it, a middle-aged man expressed the view he doesn’t like the Sussexes very much and offered that opinion in a marginally colourful, over-exaggerated way that only a cretin would take literally. Frankly, I just don’t get it.

One doesn’t have to like Clarkson’s opinion. You don’t have to agree with it. You may prefer he couched it in different language. But if you don’t like it, don’t buy the paper in which it is written. Clearly the paper think such opinions help them shift enough copy to make it worth paying him to say these things. Throw away your subscription if it is so offensive to you. If you don’t have a subscription, just don’t read it.

But I find it disturbing when we are quick with the outrage about things, quick with the threat of consequences, because someone advocated an opinion we didn’t like. So many of us seem not to have cottoned onto the fact that the opinions and the ways in which we share them may be fine today, but if we press on with this, many of the things we might want to say in future may just get us in schtook. If we are so driven by offence and outrage that we cannot tell someone voicing an opinion in terms that are over-stated for effect, there are only two credible conclusions. Either, we’re exceptionally thick and cannot tell the figurative and emphatically over-stated from the literal or we’re dishonest, pretending to take offence at hurtful words when we know they didn’t mean what they said in those specific terms, we just didn’t like the opinion they expressed. Which, as I say, is dim of itself because the culture of shifting sand you create now may just swallow you and your views later.

It is, of course, your prerogative not to like the opinion. It is fair enough to say so. But it is dishonest to take offence at stuff that you know wasn’t meant in the way you’re taking it just because you don’t like the actual opinion being voiced. You can find Jeremy Clarkson even less likeable than I do and see it is so.