As far as I’m aware, ‘Gay Cake’ isn’t slang for some tricky, non-missionary position, but I bow to the wisdom of any readers who know otherwise. The phrase first appeared in the context of an actual cake when a message of support for gay marriage was requested as the icing on it at a Belfast baker’s several months ago – alongside (don’t laugh) an image of Bert and Ernie from ‘Sesame Street’. The request was rejected on the grounds that the message promoted something the baker disagreed with, and the disgruntled punter with the sweet tooth decided he was the victim of a discriminatory act; he happened to be a member of a group calling itself the ‘Queer Space Collective’ and he brought the incident to the attention of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission. The hysteria that has subsequently arisen will climax in the courtroom, but in the meantime the moral battle-lines have been drawn.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has been the most prominent voice opposed to what the contested cake represents, feeling that the baker being found guilty of discrimination would be to unfairly curb religious freedoms. Whilst Ulster’s Catholic community tend to get the credit for playing the faith card when confronted by any deviation from Adam and Eve, the Protestant community are arguably even more conservative in such matters. Robinson is, of course, Protestant, and his 60+ wife once notoriously voiced her moral concern over the spread of depraved deviation – coincidentally whilst she was engaged in an extramarital affair with a teenage boy, which clearly didn’t count. Ironically, the furore has united some on both sides of Ulster’s sectarian divide in the anti-cake camp, with unlikely bedfellows also featured in the pro-cake camp such as Sinn Fein and gay activists.
That the baker at the centre of this bizarre affair has been targeted by the all-too familiar agents of the online inquisition is perhaps the most significant aspect of an ongoing saga, even more than the fascinating clash between conventional old Ulster and the new liberal Northern Ireland. What strikes me as especially interesting is how a persecuted minority eventually takes on the tactics of its persecutors. Gay rights lobbyists have a long history of aggressive activism, stretching back at least as far as demonstrating outside US cinemas screening ‘Basic Instinct’ and telling cinema-goers queuing up to look up Sharon Stone’s skirt how the film ends; they probably failed to see parallels between what they were doing and the Christian protests outside US cinemas when ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ was on the circuit in 1979, but they’re essentially the same – a small group within society attempting to dictate what the far larger numbers beyond it can or can’t see.
It’s not that long since Sikh protestors besieged a theatre staging a play they regarded as offensive and managed to force it off the stage; a few months back, an exhibition on the contentious subject of the slave trade was pulled following similarly intimidating opposition. And the more the self-righteous zeal of such groups hijacks the media, the louder the calls of ‘It’s political correctness gone mad!’ In a sense, the impact is ultimately counterproductive for those who have fought and achieved a ban on something that they consider offensive, for it immediately gives the green light to old-school bigots to pose as the voice of reason by dusting the cobwebs off a few vintage prejudices; and anyone who doesn’t actually believe Bernard Manning was an unfairly marginalised working-class hero, but who dares to voice an opinion questioning the pro-censorship stance of pressure groups, is immediately lumped in with the likes of Kelvin McKenzie.
On a daily basis, one is confronted on social media by another petition to ban this or that because it is offensive, to demand so-and-so be sacked for saying something that cannot be said in public, to play judge, jury and online executioner. The people who engineer such campaigns probably regard themselves as libertarians in favour of equality for every perceived minority group they speak on behalf of in an incredibly patronising manner, and would no doubt be insulted should anyone suggest that their efforts are actually no different from those who once demanded the killers of James Bulger be hanged. But I see no difference; the message is implicitly the same – sign this or you are in bed with the scum we’re against. Had the man who ordered the gay cake wanted its icing sugar message to read ‘Niggers Go Home’, the outrage would have been reversed and it would be the customer rather than the baker who would now be branded Public Enemy Number One.
Personally, I find it remarkably immature to scream and scream something be banned merely because it offends one’s own point of view. While there are naturally some fundamental shared decencies that form the foundation stones of civilisation, go beyond these basic beliefs and nobody has any right to censure anyone else on the basis that they express an opinion contrary to their own unless it is written in law. As you grow up, you learn to accept (or should learn to accept) that some people are actually going to disagree with you. This very blog is a forum for the healthiest kind of debate, somewhere there is no consensus other than that of commentators refraining from personal attacks; and when these occasionally happen, the guilty parties are taken to one side and quietly advised to behave themselves. A consensus, or the desire to enforce one within society at large, is a far greater threat to our democracy than, say, Radical Islam, however.
From Dapper Laughs to Clarkson-gate, the past few months have seen an upsurge of this kind of trial-by-social media, and the longer it goes on the more hesitant those in the public eye will become of speaking their mind if it happens to contradict this consensus and will instead say what everyone else says if only for a quiet life. Politicians with power in their grasp have already mastered this bland Newspeak, which is yet another reason why those who don’t subscribe to it, such as Farage, Galloway or Bo-Jo, have captured so much attention in recent years.
A perennial subject on here that I’d rather not mention at the moment is a classic example of successfully silencing deviations from the consensus, of threat by intimidation and of interpreting any opposition as a case of sympathy for the Devil. Both are prime examples of the new Puritanism that has sprouted from the seeds planted by those who were once victims of virtually identical bullying; rather than triumphing over their one-time enemy by attempting to establish a more tolerant and socially enlightened society and learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, they and those they have passed on the torch to have instead gone from poacher to gamekeeper in the space of a generation.
And where does this leave us? A society in which people are wary of saying anything in public that might be deemed ‘controversial’ for fear of a twittering flock flying overhead and raining down a shower of cyber-shit until the comment is retracted and a shame-faced apology issued before a blinding blizzard of epilepsy-inducing flash photography? Perhaps some of the affordable housing Gideon has promised the homeless masses if they vote for his party should include priest-holes as part of their design; then at least those who instinctively rebel against any consensus will have somewhere to run and hide should the urge to say something that might cause offence suddenly afflict them. As long as they keep it to themselves and don’t tweet it, they should be safe.
Welcome to Airstrip One – where they bake exceedingly good cakes.