ONE of the characteristic features of colonial societies is the 'not in front of the children' syndrome. This states that a comment which would be uncontroversial in the mother country is a matter for stern condemnation if made before an audience of foreign subjects. A corollary states that topics which are legitimate matters for levity back home should be treated seriously in the Empire, especially by the 'natives' themselves. When I first came to Hong Kong I inadvertently caused a small riot by penning an anonymous editorial which predicted light-heatedly that Prince Charles' marriage would be the biggest mistake of his life. My (Chinese) editor, who was wise in the ways of expat outrage, calmed several irate callers with the line that the piece was all right because the author was an Englishman. The outcry last week about the 'Hitler ad' was not a display of superior occidental sensitivity. It was an unconscious exhibition of these old colonial attitudes. I realise that for some people this ad was acutely painful because of personal experiences. But the local residents in this category - who lived as adults in mainland Europe in or before 1945 - are a minority so tiny that they could all get into one minibus. Similar-sized groups are undoubtedly offended as deeply by such common features of Hong Kong journalism as rude coverage of Saddam Hussein, flattering coverage of Lee Kuan Yew, or almost any coverage of abortion. They do not seek to impose their preferences on the rest of us. It is worth considering carefully, in view of some of the wilder accusations, what the ad meant. It did not say that Hitler was admirable, or even nice. The humour was the humour of extreme contrasts, of the kind you get from the picture of a very small and very short man together. A monstrous force for evil was juxtaposed with a tiny force for banality. The inappropriateness of the comparison was the point. There are not many places where it would be acceptable, I hope, to say that Hitler was a Good Thing. There are many places where it is possible to mention Adolf and related matters in less than serious contexts. There was a Mel Brooks film which included a musical on Hitler. There was a Fascist variation on the Twelve Days of Christmas which used to be popular with progressive folk groups. In the 70s I recall the dance group Hot Gossip had an interesting line in neo-Nazi costumes. Time and distance dim all things. Emperor Wilhelm II, once an international ogre for whom hanging was considered too good, had by the 60s become a colourful piece of pop culture in I was Kaiser Bill's Batman. Hitler is still a long way from that, but he does not, in Hong Kong, loom as he does elsewhere. Local people have their own paragons of evil, no worse but perhaps in their way no better. The point is that standards of behaviour are universal, but standards of taste are not. Hong Kong has its own taboos. People who wish to be spared violations of taboos prevailing in Washington, London, Berlin or Jerusalem have a simple solution, which is to go and live in those cities. Instead we suddenly have a liberal lobby for self-censorship. This is distressing because any arrangements made to screen out Hitler ads are likely to be put to other purposes. It is a good principle that the advertising columns of newspapers should be open to any customers whose copy is legal and decent. No doubt it is a pity that people should abuse this freedom by publishing items which are offensive, but a freedom of expression which does not include offensive speech is not freedom. While sensitivity to readers' feelings is a wonderful thing in a newspaper, those publications which have promised not to err again have left themselves with an interesting and intricate policy on advertising. You may advertise products which kill their users, like cigarettes. You may advertise booze, junk food or gambling. Fast cars, fraudulent commercial opportunities and bogus educational qualifications are acceptable. Caveat emptor. We have not had a second-hand nuclear submarine in the Boats and Launches section recently but if you want to try your luck the Classified ladies will happily accept the ad. Oh, but no pictures of Hitler, please.