ON New Year's Eve, I had six guests: two men took umbrage separately at what they considered the offensive behaviour (which to the rest of us was cheery boisterousness) of another (also male) and flounced off to their respective homes. And as the clock struck midnight I realised that unless robust people resolve to stand up for tolerance in 2004, the easily-offended will take over the world and we won't be able to open our mouths.
Where we could be heading was highlighted by some admirably honest remarks last week from the excellent Lord (Alf) Dubs, on his retirement from the chairmanship of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC). Muslims, he said, were being given preferential treatment by comedians and dramatists on radio and TV. "In portraying Muslims they have held back, they have censored themselves; they are timid. I have seen them pour scorn on Christianity more than on other religions. Christianity is an easier and more acceptable target - followed, to a lesser extent, by Jews and Hindus." Even his own organisation had shown bias: "We have tried to treat all religions equally. I doubt we have succeeded. I think we have shaded a bit on the side of Islam."
A BSC board-member, the Right Reverend Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh, backed Dubs up. "There is much more sensitivity to disturbing Islam," he said. "It is partly because the Muslim community does not have a tradition of humour about religion."
Broadcasting reflects those in positions of influence: Muslims might be touchy about the portrayal of Islam, but many are bewildered by the refusal of Christian politicians, teachers and officials to stand up proudly for their own religion for fear of giving offence. They scoff at the idiots who want to rename Christmas 'Winterval'.
There wasn't much of a tradition of humour about religion when I was growing up in Ireland, but when we broke free of an oppressive church, Roman Catholicism became a satirist's playing field. Not so Islam, which is treated with exaggerated respect even more in Ireland than in the UK.
We pussy-foot, not only because we're nervous of Islamo-fascist fruitcakes, but because some Muslims are vociferous in their complaints, are afforded by the patronising intelligentsia the special status accorded those who can be given the magic label of minority and because these days the 11th commandment is "Thou shalt not offend anyone".
Rubbish. I'm not in favour of gratuitous rudeness, but I'm dead against pandering to people because they sport hurt feelings like war medals. Dear God, we recently had Sleeveen O Caolain whingeing in the Dail of the "hurt" caused by Michael McDowell's comments about IRA criminals subsidising Sinn Fein. "Hurt"! We not only have to be civil to apologists for murder, but have to worry about their bloody feelings!
In 2004, I intend to worry less about offending people and recommend to the easily-offended that they toughen up and try tolerance rather than touchiness. It's impossible to have a successful social gathering if everyone fears giving offence by smoking, drinking, eating meat in front of evangelical vegetarians, hogging the limelight, expressing contentious views, making jokes at others' expense or saying something "inappropriate".
Inappropriate! I'll tell you what's inappropriate. It's inappropriate to impose on others a nimby-pimby, politically-correct philosophy of avoiding offence at all costs that is anti-social in the truest sense of the phrase. There is no social intercourse worth having if we can't challenge, annoy, speak freely and put up with each other's funny habits. Likewise, the media are not doing their job unless they're prepared to make fun of Muslims as well as Christians, of Allah as well as God, of imams as well as priests, of the left as well as the right, of the poor as well as the rich, of blacks as well as whites, of Sister Stan as well as Bertie Ahern. No society can flourish on the premise that any of its elements are free from scrutiny or satire.
Here's the new year resolution for offenders and offended alike: "They say, what say they, let them say." Good old George Bernard Shaw. If he'd worried about giving offence, he wouldn't have a play to his name.