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I’m being IRONIC: Offensive humour and oppression

March 2, 2015

Freedom of speech, freedom of speech. Who doesn’t believe in it, to some extent? People who complain about people’s use of it as an excuse to say what they like regardless of the consequences (i.e., me) still believe strongly that we should be able to say what we like – but we should exercise self control about it. In order to make the best of saying what we like, we must be very aware of what we like in the first place.

One thing we do undoubtedly like is offensive humour. It’s a thorny issue, as it provides humour to many and concern to a growing number. First of all, let’s not get into the question of whether or not X or Y offensive joke is funny. Then we’re getting into a discussion about taste, which is besides the point. Your enjoyment of something does not prove its virtue any more than your lack of enjoyment proves its harm.

To be clear, there isn’t any shame in laughing. Even laughing at something inappropriate. When we suggest that there is, when we behave in a knee-jerk fashion to people’s physiological responses, we lose the ability to talk directly with those who have laughed at inappropriate things, because people who feel judged at not usually the most amenable to what they will go on to perceive as an assassination of the character, even if that is not how it is intended.

Laughing, as a reflex, is not something that can be helped. We do it when we’re surprised or relieved, to ease tension or because we’re bonding over something silly and personal, perhaps a bit illicit. While we’re laughing, we don’t analyse why we’re doing it. Which is just as well, because the answer to that is more to do with nature and the relationship between the psychological and the physiological, which is besides the point.

What is more interesting is what we tolerate. Many times I have laughed, then considered. I laughed, because it gave me humour. That doesn’t mean I ever want to hear that joke, or see that person ever again. Holocaust jokes are surprising. If they caught me off-guard, they might make me laugh. They are also sickening and if I heard them a second time all the surprise that made me laugh the first time would be gone and replaced with anger that people who tell such a joke over and over.

We do, because a laugh is rewarding to hear in response to something that was intended to cause one. When you get a laugh, it might convince you that what you said was very much funnier than you thought it was at the time. Why would you over think it? You would probably just parrot it out in a few different contexts with different people, hoping for a repeat. Often, you’ll get one. To the extent that the one time you don’t, you’ll convince yourself that there’s something wrong with your audience, not your joke.

Suddenly, these people with sense, awareness and self control are over-sensitive, humourless sour-pusses. Because they did not succumb, perhaps because they have heard jokes in that vein before and now know better what kind of effect these jokes have on our culture. No one has the right never to be offended, as I and others have said before, but who gets offended is very significant. I and similarly minded people are ready to turn blue in the face from all the times we’ve talked about systems of power and how they are misused. If it makes it any easier, take the Chris Rock view on the matter: short guys can say whatever they want about tall guys [etc], but not the other way around. “That’s just mean.”

Having a go at governments, conglomerates and organisations are not the same as hammering disorganised, fractious social groups who are not an organisation with an agenda and a union, but rather just a collection of hapless individuals trying to go about their own business but encumbered by other people’s stupidity. When someone attacks an organisation, at worst the employees get annoyed because it may hamper their progress dealing with daft questions or assumptions. Such is the world of work; typically, people get over it.

When there are so many groups you can have a go at without it mattering it at all, I have to conclude that the repeated baiting of people known to be on the back foot is due to nothing except a tendency to find bullying funny. If anyone doesn’t remember, bullying was always more hilarious the more people joined in laughing at someone else’s misfortune. Is it a manner of being that we wish to take with us into adulthood?

The problem is, however much we seek approval, we forget that we are not the centre of our own special universe and our words and actions don’t rebound off of a shiny surface safely back into our memories without making contact with anyone else. There’s no use-by-date on words, which tend to bounce around for some time after the event. No joke exists in isolation. No comment, no thought, no attitude. If it is thought by one, it is thought by a thousand. If it is thought by a thousand, it is said by at least 500. If it is said by 500 today, it will be said by 700 tomorrow and up and up until the unusual becomes the norm.

Sometimes, this is the start of serious and important social change. Sometimes, this is the start of serious and widespread prejudice and unfair mythology. It matters not a bit how much it was said in jest. For every 20 people who gets that something is a joke, probably one person doesn’t, doesn’t want to, doesn’t care, or wants to use it for his own quite different agenda.

We are not responsible for other people’s prejudices. But we are responsible for allowing other people to feel that they are free to share and act upon their prejudices by being permissive, tolerant or even rewarding in the face of them. Social pressure forces the hand of many people with unpopular views, sometimes for the worse but often for the better.

Anyone noticed all the racists crawling out of the woodwork in response to the rise of UKIP? That’s not because every politician in the anti -EU party UKIP is racist. It’s because their rhetoric on immigration appeals to and is accessible for misuse by people who are. I hold them responsible for that, because for all their talk about not being racist, they do little to tell their crazy supporters not to be racist, because it would lose them popularity inside the only circles where they have it. This should tell them a lot about themselves and how they come across, but does not seem to.

Anyone else who watched the BBC 2’s Blurred Lines: The New Battle Of The Sexes will have sat up and paid notice to one academic’s observation that, among groups of differently thinking men, collective laughing at sexist humour gave rise to more instances of misogyny in men already identified as misogynistic. It doesn’t much matter what that humour meant originally, where it came from or the intent and background of the person who came up with it. Nor is it significant who laughs, or how many, to understanding the extent of the harm jokes cause. It creates a subculture of misogyny in a permissive society, which in turn imprints firmly onto mainstream culture. A minority of people will take that humour and turn it into abuse. That number is still greater than if that humour was never there in the first place.

And does it need to be? Is a cheap laugh worth this abject lack of consideration for our fellows? We forget how cheap laughs are, and how easy. The species that laughs when someone falls on their face is hardly so sophisticated that it needs “ironic” offensiveness in order to be amused. People go to such lengths to make humour, to the extent where they make things that aren’t funny into a humorous form so that they become funny. There is skill to that, but no virtue.

The most mysterious thing is that there are people who think that being offensive regardless of the consequences is actually a new, inventive, witty idea. Bernard Manning did it. It wasn’t witty then, he was just bigoted. To listen to him, it seems obvious, yet the modern “ironic” counterpart scarcely sounds any different. Thus, the effect is much the same.

We aren’t really shocked any more. Our familiarity with offence, for the sake of humour, desensitises us completely from real offence, intended to that effect. No one knows what to say, because a person can so easily make us and our protestations sound silly by saying: “It was just a joke. Jeez!” The correct response should always be: “It doesn’t matter.”

There are so few satirical points being made, and made obviously, these days. Few people pull it off, preferring it to be unclear what their motivations are, perhaps purely in order to appeal to more people. Those who try their hardest to be clearly and purely satirical have their efforts undermined by the enigmas and are forced to compromise the subtlety of their humour and make it less effective. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of out-and-out shock continues unencumbered, to the extent that it does not even have to be attached to any important sociological point. No point has to be made in regard to a contentious issue. All that is needed is shock, until there is no point, only needless crassness at greater and greater levels.

Having a pop at the odd person is usual. If it is an observation of people in general or something which an individual said which is a bit daft, it’s fair game. Balance is the friend of any anthropological humour. In the case of observations, a touch of humility or self-effacing goes along way to showing that you are not so arrogant you think you’re right about absolutely everyone. The surreal, too, can indicate that you are not entirely serious. Characters can help, if there is more than one, if they are in different dress, with different voices, intended to be ridiculous. When people believe characters are the same as the people performing them, they become confused about what can be said and what can’t. Comedians are a group of people who have licence to speak as they find and we admire them, so copy them. Sometimes in inappropriate contexts.

What seems to be acceptable, even admirable, to say honestly on stage gets taken elsewhere in less forgiving circumstances. Those with the power to change perception and patterns of communications should be wary of how they use it, for themselves as much as anyone else. If I made an observation that transmen tend to pick themselves ridiculously macho names like Spike or Wolf, I would hate for people to think that was licence to be prejudiced against transmen. The fact is, I move in those circles.

Should people who don’t know me find what I say funny, they won’t necessarily have the same motivations for doing so, and might parrot it around with an extra, scornful context that wasn’t there originally. My intimate knowledge and fondness of the trans culture fuels my sense of the people within it and the way they sometimes behave. An audience, not contractually bound to know my entire social history, are free to be offended and are free to be amused unaware of the context. This is why I often give context when I make such a joke. Perhaps our major stand-ups, in their haste to deliver the punchline, forget that other comedians don’t lose their audience by speaking as themselves, by giving their view and the context for what they’re saying.

Everyone who works as anything is a human first and their career choice second. We should be able to see that humanity, not a joke machine that churns out words. If they really want to be original, they should try making something which is popular but not offensive. People who manage this are accused of being soft, “pop” kinds of comedians with no real bite to their work. Yet, they do less harm, they are loved, they do the job they’re hired to do. So, on all accounts, they’re winning. Keeping that up is very much harder than pandering to human desire for groupism and a continued, established pecking order.

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