When is a rape not a rape?
When it’s a metaphor, of course.
Everyone knows this. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of sense, at least. They know, say, that when your victorious village rugger team boasts down the pub after the match that they “raped” the opposition, it doesn’t mean that any of their players anally violated the rival fifteen. And they know that if a City trader complains about having been “raped” in the markets that day, it’s his shares he’s talking about, not his sexual modesty. And they know that when some earnest green campaigner tells you the Amazon is being raped the logging industry, he doesn’t mean that weird men in hard hats are going round sticking their wotsits into all the trees…
The reason everyone knows this is because English is a language rich in metaphor and if you don’t grasp the significance of these metaphors fairly on in life, you’re going to be lost in any colloquial conversation. “I got slaughtered with my mates last night.” (No. This doesn’t mean “I was killed”) etc
Apparently, though, the category of people with “half a brain and an ounce of common sense” does not include the following:
- Minister for Women – “Nicky” Morgan MP
- The Chief Whip
- David Cameron.
All the people on Twitter who took umbrage at a perfectly harmless tweet by Austin Mitchell MP regarding the attempted Pfizer takeover of AstraZeneca. It said:
Cameron dare not stop Pfizer because he dare not offend the US in any way. Roll up rapists
Shortly afterwards, Mitchell decided to delete the tweet, perhaps prompted by this tweet from Nicky Morgan.
@avmitchell2010 – withdraw your tweet now about Pfizer & rapists – hope @ed_miliband suspends you from Labour Party for offensive words.
Well, I suppose if you’ve got a job as utterly pointless as Minister for Women you’ve got to do something to make a name for yourself. But surely this was never going to be a story with legs, was it? Surely we haven’t yet reached the stage where a shrill, bullying, nasty, professional-offence-taking, politically-motivated tweet by some desperate MP on the make gets taken so seriously it could cost a man his job?
Apparently we have.
Yesterday, the media was all over the Austin Mitchell story. Mitchell was bullied into issuing an apology, for fear of being suspended from his party. The Prime Minister himself weighed in, declaring through a spokesman that it was “quite wrong” for Mitchell to liken Pfizer to rapists.
Why is it quite wrong? There’s a perfect reasonable case to be made that Pfizer’s takeover bid is inimical to the interests of both AstroZeneca and Britain. The fact that Mitchell chose to make his point using the rape analogy ought surely to be entirely unremarkable. He was simply doing what articulate, educated, English-speaking people (you know: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, everyone) have been doing since time immemorial: employing a powerful metaphor in order to give their rhetorical point maximum force.
Mitchell should never have had to apologise for his tweet. Indeed, if anyone should be apologising for this grubby business, it’s the dismal Nicky Morgan. She is – I had to check, but it’s true, apparently – a Conservative. That is she belongs to the party which, on the whole, is in favour of free speech rather than against it; a party which knows that professional-offence-taking is a game that the left indulges in all the time, but which the right traditionally strives to avoid because it recognises it for what it is: a weaselly way of trying to circumvent open debate by closing down the argument.