This post is long but one I reference often. Edit: tl;dr = Don’t Be A Dick.
It’s a lot of stuff in a sort of web of thoughts I’ve been having and I just hope it makes some sense. Please comment to extend it further – the point of this is to be thinking and talking about it! You can skip to the end for the bottom line if you want, and some of the explanation/example-giving is in between.
The concept of offence and why it matters
When I am offended by something, I’d rather it hadn’t been said (or done), and I hope it won’t be said (or done) again with the same intentions and negative results. It’s not that I think you should be locked up for saying or doing it – offence can be a starting point for discourse around an issue. If your motive, however, was to claim offence then avoid all of those positive outcomes and shut people down, then yes, you’re being a dick. Religious people who are offended by things tend to do that, and I wish they wouldn’t.
Here’s a friend’s tweet that I liked:
“Can someone please make the distinction between not acceptable and should be illegal? Anyone?”
I think offence can be a great thing, spurring on discussion and change for the better. Loads of things offend me: from the worldwide oppression of women, religious privilege, including but not limited to Catholic clergy child abusers and their institutional protection, the sight of starving children when there are mountains of food waste elsewhere, conspiracy theorists telling me we never wanted to cure cancer anyway because it’s so profitable an industry, animal rights activists (or to give them their rightful title, terrorists) targeting researchers… right down to the disgusting hawking phlegm noises our next door neighbours make in the mornings.
It’s important to be offended by things because without that, the righteous indignation and drive to do something about it probably wouldn’t come forth. Apathy is like a disease.
I do not believe there is a universal human right to not-be-offended. Stephen Fry quite famously said (I’d encourage taking a closer look at the context of it here):
It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that,’ as if that gives them certain rights; it’s actually nothing more… it’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive,’ it has no meaning. It has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that,’ well so fucking what?Stephen Fry – Blasphemy debate with C Hitchens, 2006
And, while I agree that simply being offended by something does not automatically give you the right to have something done about it (lots of things happen all the time that won’t be acceptable to some people in specific situations, and it doesn’t mean you can go around telling people they can’t say or do things to avoid offending people, since in the end you’ll have to end up banning everything, which is just impractical) and it doesn’t tally with the whole free speech thing…
People do have the right to be offended by things, and say so. It’s just an emotion, really – telling people you shouldn’t take offence to things is kind of like telling them not to be happy about something if you wouldn’t be too. That doesn’t make sense. If you want the right to say whatever you like – to have freedom of speech – then I will retain my right to disagree with it, to find it offensive, and to explain why. As I said before, offence shouldn’t be used as a means to simply shut down debate, but don’t go around saying how important it is to do and say what you want and then start telling people they should keep their offendedness to themselves. Talk about it.
On to the first example, I’ll introduce Time to Change. They encourage everyone to “Get Talking!”, with a view to ending the stigma against sufferers of mental ill-health. They hope that conversation will increase understanding, improve lives, stop discrimination and, hopefully, prevent suicides.
With that said, a while ago a meme was prompted around some Australian “train etiquette” posters, which saw them doctored and shared for all our supposed amusement. I saw one and found it offensive:
Now, whoever made it probably thought they were being funny – because, you know, when your train is delayed/cancelled because of an “incident” or “fatality” or “person under the train”, oh my god, how annoying is that, right?? It’s just the worst thing ever. You’re trying to go about your life and some inconsiderate bastard has chosen to end theirs by hurling themselves onto the track. Why couldn’t they just go and do it somewhere quiet, so that I could proceed through my morning unhindered?
Some people will nod along vigorously to that, agreeing that it’s really annoying and selfish and “those people” should know better. Well, I’m sorry, but you’re an idiot at this point. I hear this kind of thing a lot and I’m well and truly fed up of it (I may even have said it myself in the past, to my shame).
Step back a bit here – how many people do you know who suffer from depression? Probably more than you’re aware of, given about 1 in 4 people will experience it to some degree during their lives. How many of those do you know have attempted suicide? Have contemplated it? Again, probably more than you think.
Imagine these people you know and care about getting to the point in their lives where nothing seems able to help them, when ending it would seem better because they can’t be a burden any longer, they can’t face another day. When standing on a busy platform, sometimes the thoughts take over and people succumb to the despair. It could be a snap-decision, or it could be something long-considered and enacted in a heated moment. It doesn’t really matter how or why – these people have been failed by their society, they haven’t received the care they need, to which they have a right, to live their lives. We should be ashamed of that.
Train suicides are shockingly common in Japan, for example, where the snap-decision seems to make the most sense. My point is, while I have complete sympathy for unfortunate drivers and clean-up teams who must carry their experience with them for the rest of their lives, your apparent lack of sympathy for someone who has died needlessly really offends me.
They have families and friends – do you think their first thought is for all the inconvenienced commuters? How about next time there’s a “human damage incident” you just e-mail in to work to apologise that you’ll be late, spare a thought for the poor soul who came to a gruesome end because of their unseen illness, and be thankful your fate is not the same.
Oh, and if you do have experience of all of the above, yet still insist it’s funny, then I will ask you why – do you want things to stay the way they are, or would you rather it got better for everyone? If it’s the latter, then maybe stop and think if you’re really helping here. If you don’t want to help, then maybe you’re not as caring as you thought you were. If that doesn’t bother you… why are we friends again?
Mental illness is no laughing matter, and pointing the finger at sufferers who end their lives and inconvenience you is really dickish.
On to comedy then, as no doubt that last comment has people up in arms saying “you can joke about anything! That’s an important aspect of free speech! Don’t limit comics!” and all of that. Sure. I love comedy, I love live gigs and comics making me laugh ’til I cry or cringe while I suppress a giggle. Comedy can be a huge force for good, challenging things other media wouldn’t go near and aiding advances in civilised society.
However, there’s a way to do it well, and there’re ways to end up being a dick about it.
Here’s a comedy flowchart that pretty much explains [Edit 2021: unfortunate inclusion of Louis CK in this, perhaps that’s why it got deleted..!]. Essentially, you can (as I said above) be doing one of two things: helping shift attitudes to create a better society and life experience for all of us, or perpetuating harmful ideas and norms.
Which one of those your comedy (or attempts at it) ends up doing depends on a number of factors that include you and your place in said society, the content of the joke itself and who or what the punchline/subject is – whether it’s funny or not doesn’t really come into it, because humour is a very subjective thing and it’s only important here in that a comic’s ability to make people laugh might pay their rent.
Funny doesn’t necessarily equal good, and comedy does not have to be edgy for the sake of it. People will vote with their wallets, but we should also talk about (and hopefully understand) what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Again, not illegal, I’m not advocating arresting people for making bad jokes.
As a specific example of an edgy subject, one that some might say “shouldn’t be joked about” (whether that’s even a valid idea is part of a wider discussion), let’s consider rape jokes.
There have been some high-profile cases of this recently, such as Daniel Tosh. Jezebel covered this very well, with an explanation of why rape jokes can be ok, and why so many are not. [Edit: topically, the Edinburgh festival is coming under fire for similar.] Where your joke is directed and where it’s coming from are such important factors, as per the aforementioned flow chart.
This leads into some news from May 2013 as Facebook agrees to tighten its policies. I’m still thinking about these issues together, and welcome comments.
On a related note, I’ve often held a deadpan expression during yet another boring “You know what I hate/love about women?” type routine. Friends and comics alike, it’s so common we tend not to notice it, or make a big deal of it.
The Olympics are on at the moment. That means all the tellies are showing images of ridiculously toned, gorgeous and talented people – men and women alike. But as is often the case, women are treated in a certain way; people wonder why it’s different if men are treated similarly. Again, balance of power, context and history, intent and reality. Sure, if you wander around in a bubble avoiding thinking of all those things, everything must be quite simple for you, but it’s not necessarily so.
“Sure, I’m all for free speech so I’m not going to have you arrested for making comments on Twitter, but free speech means I can call you a wanker, doesn’t it?”
One of my favourite blogs, the Vagenda, have picked up on the objectification of female athletes (and more widely) and calmly explained the problem. Edit: Some wonderfully articulate female athletes have taken on the trolls themselves, too. Sadly this stuff is all over the TV, too.
It’s similar to why it’s very different to have a man do a striptease for a room full of giggling ladies, compared to a woman sliding semi/entirely naked up and down a pole in a divey bar. They hit the nail on the head; so many of these problems relate to a lack of empathy. Plenty of lesser and more atrocious things stem from this, too, I believe. It’s so important to be able (or at least try) to put yourself in someone (or something) else’s place. Actually that’s why I’m bad at horror films, I do it a bit too much.
When people have an epic failure in their empathy circuits, have accidentally or deliberately ignored the important factors of context, history, privilege, targets and realities, various things can happen.
Lots of people get ragey when the people they offended have dared to criticise in return. They’ll vehemently defend their actions/words, deny any wrongdoing and refuse to change their ways or in any way take it all back.
Sometimes that’s alright – it’s good to be passionate about things you believe in and stand up for yourself and your views, but more often than not this reaction happens when it really shouldn’t. It’s not coming from people defending an ideology and a belief that what they’re doing is the right thing, but from people who don’t want to be proven wrong. They don’t want to be a victim of stupidity, of error, of ignorance – they’ll refuse to accept the possibility. That’s not alright.
A shining example of someone who did the opposite: listened to criticism, worked to understand the issue and apologised like a decent person is Jason Alexander, after he referred to cricket as a “gay” sport.
my building a joke upon the premise I did added to the pejorative stereotype that they are forced to deal with everyday… And with my well-intentioned comedy bit, I played right into those hurtful assumptions and diminishments. And the worst part is – I should know better– Jason Alexander, 2012
It’s all good, I recommend reading all of it, but that’s my pull-quote. Further to the privilege/bullying/throwaway comments point, here’s Rhys on being respectful and not calling people transphobic slurs. I’ve written a bit on trans issues, courtesy of Juliet Jacques’ fantastic SitP talk.
Exploring how causing offence can be a very bad thing is this article by Gary Younge, on online racism.
The caveat is that the right to offend is not the same as an obligation to be offensive or a duty to disparage… Why, generally, don’t we? Because to do so would be antisocial, diminish us in the eyes of others (including those we don’t know) and eventually leave us isolated.Gary Younge, 2012
The internet is often held up as an example of what happens when people don’t have to take responsibility for their actions; a strange sense of duty to be as rude as possible tends to crop up often. Sure, we’re allowed, but when and why is it a real problem? Trolling is another topic for another time, mind.
The general principles explored in the article apply to all the problems discussed above and more; when free speech is used as a defence for bigotry, the alienated individuals and communities are driven further away. People don’t take responsibility for their actions and the problem is widely felt but often its very existence is denied.
This is what a lot of it comes down to. Different people in different situations hold certain amounts of power – whether they’re aware of it or not. Privilege. It’s a commonly used word in the feminist and general anti-bigotry circles, but it’s an important one. People can say and do what ever they like, but some have more ability to get away with it and cause harm. With great power comes great responsibility, no?
Context is so important. When you’re ignorant of context and history, you might not understand why something is offensive to some people. But that doesn’t then give you the right to try to shut them up if they complain. Maybe they’ve got good reason to. Maybe they haven’t, but if you don’t listen, you’ll never know and nothing will change. That’s kind of the problem with privileged groups – it’s difficult to accept change if you think that change will undermine your position of power. Like the MRAs. People are also likely to avoid thinking of themselves as a victim because victimhood is perceived to be a relatively powerless situation – au contraire, if you accept an injustice, you can fight it from an informed perspective.
The bottom line
I used a lot of ‘being a dick’ type phrases in here; it’s gendered language, but serves as a sum-up of ‘people doing/saying things I consider inappropriate/unacceptable and would rather didn’t happen’ – it’s for space and time-saving purposes. And men aren’t routinely belittled as women are, so don’t argue that it’s the same as ‘being a c***’ or something, it’s not. Another post entirely. But substitute for your preferred phrasing as needed.
You’re free to be offensive. Sometimes it can be a really effective way of starting important conversations. I like to think of myself as a basically decent person – I’m always trying to assimilate new ideas to allow me to live my life better, help people out (including myself) and find nice people to be friends with. I do believe my friends are also decent, responsible, caring folks – that’s why they’re my friends! I also expect my friends to educate me when I fail to live up to my own standards.
But if you’re just being offensive for the sake of it, because you think it’s funny or really important that you exercise your right to be a dick to people for no particular reason – expect me to be offended and express that, because I am free to, and if you don’t want to think about it any further, I’ll probably stop being your friend.
If you don’t care about that – well, it’s win all ’round, isn’t it.
- “The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended” – Brute Reason
- Kenan Malik on the right to offend
- Frankie Boyle: Offence and free speech
- 2011: Steve Coogan on the Top Gear lads‘ attempted humour
- 2014: “Robin Williams’s death: a reminder that suicide and depression are not selfish” – Dean Burnett
40 thoughts on “Offended? Good.”
I like the flowchart, it works- look where Daniel Tosh ends up. Incidentally, the punchline to the one about the black guy, the gay guy and the feminist who walk into the bar is “perfect night out” and that’s one of John Thompson’s!
Aww, you beat me to the punch(line). Here’s mine: But by mistake that had walked into a meeting of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose member’s, upon seeing the trio, heads exploded.
Nice post noodlemaz.
Personal beefs aside with anyone here. Marianne how on earth can you think this about people who kill themselves via throwing themselves under trains? Your sympathy is lying entirely with them when they’re being more than selfish, you only briefly mention the drivers. Believe me, I understand being suicidal, having depression and psychological issues but who can be so selfish as to make someone else responsible for their death? Any train driver who kills someone like this has their life wrecked! That selfish suicide no doubt starts a new cycle of someone else’s depression!
I don’t think it’s appropriate to cause people who are not just suicidal but actually killing themselves ‘selfish’. They’re very ill – how much do you think a couple of people’s experiences are on their mind when they have come to the conclusion their own is pointless to continue and they must remove themselves from the world?
I suggest you read the link I put in, anyway: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/05/jeremy-clarkson-rail-suicide
What’s shocking and awful is that so many people with severe depression go untreated and unaided, because in our society being ‘mental’ is just dismissed and actively stigmatised by so many. Who’s really the selfish one, when those people on the train are complaining that they’re a bit late, hmm?
If someone can pay for a train ticket and throw themselves on to the track so that someone else kills them and so that their body is ripped to shreds so their famiy has to have a closed casket, they can easily pay for 3 packets of head ache pills and kill themselves that way, so no one else suffers except them. People who kill themselves are selfish
Three packets of paracetamol will just put someone in hospital for a few weeks before they die of liver failure. How many suffer as a result of their use of that limited resource?
Depressive episodes have a terrible habit of obscuring even basic rational thought – the only goal when you’ve reached rock bottom is to try and end things as quickly and reliably as possible. It’s impossible to think about anything other than that when everything has been twisted by negative ideas and intense self-loathing.
The idea that we are selfish and should just concentrate on ending our lives with the least possible inconvenience for others suggests more concern about other people being irritated rather than someone losing their life to an often treatable, yet badly misrepresented condition. Why not try to imagine what we’re going through rather than calling us selfish? That just adds fuel to an already vicious cycle of negative thoughts which push someone over the edge to this state in the first place.
Thanks for your thoughts on this, Marianne, that subsection was a great summarisation of what’s wrong with that poster (and better than my current idea of ‘just stop being a dick, okay?’). Plenty of interesting ideas to consider in the rest of the article too.
Completely agree, thank you for articulating that point.
>People are also likely to avoid thinking of themselves as a victim because victimhood is perceived to be a relatively powerless situation – au contraire, if you accept an injustice, you can fight it from an informed perspective.<
Where we see injustice, we must speak.
My greatest regrets in life have been not standing up against injustice.
i think "victimhood" is itself reflexively despised by most, as they think that these victims may be overly compensated by simply whining louder than everyone else…
therefore there is a hidden resentment for those victims of injustice.
This is a complex subject, fraught with paradox and irony (itself a wellspring of humor)..
what this does is create a convoluted mess which is difficult to sort out.
The way we use words is continuously changing..and it is a slow process.
Right now, in these United States, teenagers only role models seem to be inner city thugs…
that you are more "badass" than everyone else, and that your force of will shall prevail.
This invites a constant state of "dickery"…
Compassion and empathy are very out of place in this barbaric scenario.
So from that perspective, we are losing ground.
i used to be MUCH more of a dick than i am now.
The intent was to SHOCK..to do something completely unexpected.
This is the most vulgar form of humor,
and does little except stimulate the basest and darkest human impulses.
it is a form of mesmerizing ugliness..
Thanks for your comment, some really good points there 🙂
“Inviting a constant state of dickery” is a phrase I must incorporate into everyday use.
some very important observations, it’s certainly important to acknowledge positive outcomes that can come out of offence, and certainly in a world where people really need to change the way they are thinking and to challenge beliefs they hold. Particularly those beliefs which have such a negative impact on the lives of others, although. Congrats on finishing PhD!xxx
Oh, I forgot, being offended by stuff also indicates to me that you give a shit about things – I like that quality in people.
I’d just like to add this from A C Grayling:
‘ “Feeling offended” is no defence against attack on your political or religious views by those who do not share them, and indeed it is a vital feature of a healthy society that over matters of choice there should be a vigorous debate, of which satire and humour are a welcome and often revealing part.’
Agree with a lot of what you’ve said here, particularly the point about empathy or lack of it being the key driver of the behaviour you’re talking about. Rape jokes are a perfect example- male comedians envision rape to be something like murder, horrible but rare enough to not be ‘real’ to an audience, whereas women listening to the joke would obviously not see it that way. A bit of empathy (though coupled with some reasoning) would end this problem.
I was very intrigued by this bit though:
“That’s kind of the problem with privileged groups – it’s difficult to accept change if you think that change will undermine your position of power. Like the MRAs.”
I’m not sure MRAs are powerful- they seem to be mainly drawn from the US middle and working classes, where traditional masculine roles like well paid manual union jobs have been outsourced or downgraded. They are also victims of the upper middle class, the culturally dominant class in America, who use this group as a scapegoat on which to deflect any criticism of their own struggle to hold onto power (similar to middle class chav-bashing here).
This is why the New York Times features plenty of articles about anti-black racism- It’s the sort of discrimination practised by the people from whom their readers are keen to distance themselves. They’ll almost never write about things like the way US universities bias their application processes to exclude Chinese and Indian students in favour of, well, the children of people who read the New York Times.
Interestingly the offensiveness of the train poster depends a lot on who the target of the humour is. Taken at face value, as an attack on the suicidal, I don’t like it at all; but it could also be taken as a parody of incredibly stupid railway signs, in which case it would be an attack on the railway company’s crass attitudes and would seem (to me at least) to be not quite as problematic. That’s all tangential to your blog post, except for the fact that I think there’s another dimension to all this – power.
A lot of the people who try to shout down people’s right to be offended do so from a position of relative power in public discourse: the classic example would be a comedian on stage attacking someone offended by crass jokes. At the risk of heading into Spiderman territory: I think people in a position of power, and the ability to communicate to a wider audience than most, have a responsibility to think about the impact their words have.
That’s not the same as saying that journalists or comedians or public figures should be censored, but it does frustrate me when they fall back to the default argument of “Wah! Free speech!” If you can’t justify what you’re saying beyond screeching “I’m allowed to say what I want,” then perhaps you should stop and think about why you’re saying it in the first place.
And while complaining or asking people to think is not the same as censorship, shouting people down and aggressively attacking or belittling them in response can be. A comedian may have the same right to free speech as his audience, but he has a far more powerful voice with which to exercise it, and it’s very easy for powerful people to create an environment – whether in a comedy club or online – in which smaller voices don’t have the same freedom or ability to speak as they do.
If you offend people, and the most intelligent reason you can come up with is ‘because I can’, then I reserve the right to call you an idiot. If you’re in a position of power, but you’re clueless about the impact your words may have, then I reserve the right to call you a dangerous idiot. I don’t think you should be censored, any more than I think it should be illegal to fart near someone: I just think people should have the good decency to think about what is coming out of your arse.
Cool closing line I can’t think of right now. *swishes away*
Yes, Alex G brought up the point of the poster possibly being used for positive things (like raising awareness of mental health) and I agree – it does depend very much who or what the target is. If it’s mocking whiney commuters, sure, I’m all for it.
But, it’s ambiguous, the point of it isn’t clear, and I took it as a complaint about the suicidal, which is why it offended me. I’m happy for the maker of that image to correct me if they wish to.
I have a section on Power, so I do agree with that point, obviously 😉
As someone on the comedy circuit, I see a lot of the examples cited here, from my ‘fellow’ acts. The shock jocks, your Carr’s and Boyle’s, have made deliberate offensiveness a very profitable . And this has lead to numerous copycat moves from lesser, newer and frankly inferior comics. The debate around offensiveness in comedy is an ongoing and complex one, but in my experience, it seems like a lot of young male comics (pretty much always male) go for deliberate offence because it get’s a reaction from an audience, and if you can make the audience react to your words then you are in ‘control’, and can tell yourself you’re being successful at t. I believe there’s also, paradoxically, and element of cowardice in it too, “I’m not too confident in my material, so if I’m deliberately offensive, it looks like I’m making them not like me ON PURPOSE”, and thus the ego is salvaged.
These are just my theories, but I’m fairly sure it applies to many. The upshot is that a lot of these comics end up saying offensive things that they don’t actually agree with, it’s offence for it’s own sake The fact that some people may be genuinely upset by this is ignored and explained via the ‘it’s only a joke’ cop-out. This suggests the lack of empathy also cited in the piece.
I basically agree, is what I’m saying.
I very much like your theory, and I think it’s similar to what Gunther (anonymous -well, not any more!) was saying above.
Excellent to have a comment from you, being a comic yourself, Dean – ta muchly.
As someone who had a stab at stand-up in the dim-and-distant, I’d say that’s precisely what’s going on.
However, the worst thing a comedian can do is stand there not being funny. I don’t really get the concept of being ‘offended’ by jokes, regardless of the comedian’s intent. Either people find something funny, or they do not.
If a comic tells a joke that has everyone roaring with laughter except us (because we find it distasteful), it doesn’t mean they’re funny and we’re humourless; nor does it mean we are righteous and they are ignorant or unsophisticated (or whatever other term best describes how our cogntitive dissonance accounts for the fact that we’re not laughing along with everyone else) – all it means is their tastes and ours are different. I don’t think we can read any more into it than that.
Comedians can be vicious, cruel and tasteless (I get annoyed by the ones who pick on people in the audience; hecklers get what they deserve, but not people just there to watch the show), but as long as an audience finds them funny, they will get away with it.
I think the crucial thing to bear in mind is that tastes change. In the UK, the BBC in the 50s showed music-hall comics telling jokes about Jewish sterotypes with no sense of irony, and people laughed. 70’s stand-ups on TV who came out of the pub circuit found themselves relegated to hosting game shows when tastes changed in the 80’s by more ‘right-on’ comics.
When tastes change, when enough of us decide that certain subjects aren’t fit to joke about, then the comedians cease to be funny. That’s all that matters, surely? Offence doesn’t have to come into it.
I think the problem with that is that you are in the privileged position of being able to call hateful/prejudiced jokes a matter of “taste”.
It is not “taste” to be racist; it’s just being racist, and it’s that racism was acceptable, now it isn’t – and for good reason. There are, as I tried to cover, ways to make controversial jokes that do not play into the oppressive structures in place in society.
If you are part of a group that is oppressed and people like you are committing suicide and being murdered simply for being in that group, then comedians perpetuating the ideas that laying into those people is OK can have a real impact on you. Just as comedy can push boundaries in a good way, it can maintain damaging ideas in a bad way.
People have to take responsibility for their words and actions. Offence is the mild end of the problem scale here, but one exists; I certainly wouldn’t wave it off as ‘a matter of taste’.
Obviously there will be specific situations that require different considerations, but talking in broad terms, that is my issue. You’re thinking about it from one angle alone.
By referring to taste, don’t think that I’m trying to wave off or trivialise these issues; I’m really not. (Also, I hope you’re not assuming that I’m speaking from a position of ignorance when it comes to being on the receiving end of prejudice, but that’s just by the way…)
One example of divisive humour can be found in Jimmy Carr’s one-liner, “Throwing acid is wrong… in some people’s eyes.” It’s uncomfortable because it immediately brings to mind images of sickening brutality from Turkey to Pakistan, but does so with wordplay. Does it make light of of these attacks? I don’t think so; at least not that I perceive – it makes me laugh, uncomfortably. I experience horror while I’m laughing. It makes me think.
How deeply we look at jokes – maybe second-guessing the comedian’s intent – can decide how funny or clever we find them. The tabloid press tried kicking up a storm about Chris Morris’s Brasseye Special in 2001. Jokes about paedophilia – funny and clever, or not? Depends how you look at the show. There are those who understand what he was doing – aiming at the media – and found it matched their tastes. Others saw him only making light of paedophilia, and found it tasteless.
I think there’s a difference between making light of the serious issues you highlighted, and making funny jokes about them. I’m not convinced that jokes about them should automatically be seen as dismissive. (Sometimes, jokes can make them easier to cope with if, say, you’re a medical professional or social worker who needs to let off steam in the staff room after a long, heavy day?)
There are certain topics on which jokes are made that I find ‘offensive’, because it feels like they’re attacking aspects of my character. Sometimes these jokes reinforce certain negative stereotypes; I’m trying to understand why the author of them said what they did – lazy cliches? hoping for an easy laugh? because these stereotypes are still ‘acceptable’ to make fun of? How can I respond to them? Offence doesn’t seem like enough, somehow. Instead, I’ll just going on proving them wrong by simply carrying on doing my own thing, hoping to change the attitudes of the people I meet, hoping they’ll realise that those jokes and lazy cliches simply aren’t valid any more, hoping that those jokes fall out of taste. But there’s still room for other jokes; the humour that’s affirmative, not derogatory or dismissive. How to tell the difference, though? For that, I can only refer to my own sensibilites – my ‘taste’.
It’s a mess of nuance and subtleties that will probably not be untangled in a blog comment, but I at least hope you can see I’m not dismissing mental health, racism or misogyny when I talk about ‘taste’. People do have to take responsibility for their words and actions – on that, I agree competely! – which is why I hope I’ve made myself clearer in my intent (especially since I’m posting under my real name, and not my alter ego…)
*I do apologise; this turned into a rambling jazz odyssey which was not my intent!
**This whole discussion is providing food for thought for the blog I write under my alter-ego’s name; so for that you have my thanks!
I agree with a lot of what you say. Probably the majority. But there is a lot here to take issue with. Starting in the second paragraph:
“I’m going to use a lot of ‘being a dick’ type phrases; sorry for the gendered nature of that, but… ”
This seems a little confused; why are you sorry, and if you’re sorry why did you use it?
Well, personally I love swearing. I don’t tend to find gendered insults inherently offensive unless they’re used in a pejorative manner towards someone in a sexist sort of way. For me, ‘being a dick/twat’ is an acceptable turn of phrase – I just wanted to acknowledge that I know for some people it isn’t, and apologies for being lazy and not thinking of something better.
But also because “don’t be a dick” is just quite a good mantra, I was wanting to allude to that as well – because basically my entire point is, if you think you’re a decent person and want to conduct yourself as such, then how about thinking about things before you say them, and if someone pulls you up on something, listen to them?
As decent people surely we want to improve things, and ourselves, and that involves avoiding saying certain things if you give two shits about people. What’s been annoying me lately is that supposedly good folks are really banging on with the “you have no right not to be offended so shut up!” type thing – and I wish people would remember what they’re about a bit more.
Yes, I see where you’re coming from (I think at least) and agree. Agree with regards to offense for offense’ sake; as if posting that Stephen Fry quote somehow gives a person carte blanche to be an enormous nob.
I think the other extreme is problematic also though: treading on eggshells, not knowing what turn of phrase or regional colloquialism could ‘set someone off’.
I don’t think you should apologise for using a phrase that you know some people find unacceptable if you think their reasons for doing so are wrong. Personally, I think people offended by phrases like “being a bit of a dick” are… being a bit of a dick.
I blame it on americans and their identity politics 🙂 [did you know that ‘twat’ is some sort of crazy sexist insult to some of them?]
That last parenthesis may have sounded off. To conclude: what I find offensive is hypocrisy.
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The problem that I see with offence and comedy is that comedy often tries to make a point indirectly, and in doing so is open to mis-interpretation, and then meta-level comedy plays with this ambiguity, leading to an overall confusion about any attempts to validate offence in anything more than than the most blatant instamces.
In particular, when Private Eye have a cover about the media reaction to the death of Princess Diana, or BrassEye satirise the way tabloids attempt to whip up a profitable-for-them storm of outrage about sex-crimes, or Al Murray presents a satire of commonly held attitudes regarding sex, nationalities, and personal pride via his “Pub LandLord” act, there are those who take offence but they don’t see the real target behind the indirection, and there are those who take offence because they see the real target intended by the indirection, but fear that the indirection itself is too subtle or poorly executed or whatever, and in fact the satire is actively encouraging the attitudes it is meant to be mocking. (And of course those who “get the joke” and applaud loudly, and those who get the joke but have a position to defend and so manufacture outrage based on one or other of the above positions).
In such cases, determining whether the offence is valid or not, intended or not, harmful or not, is non-trivial.
Semiotics distinguishes between the message intended by the person creating a symbol or communication, and the message as received by each recipient of the symbol or communication, as interpreted by their own personal contextual interpretation of the message, without designating either message (intended or perceived) as being “more valid” than the other.
[Phew, this wasn’t mean to to sound so “dick-ish”].
This cuts both ways of course, if Chris Morris can claim to be using hyperbole to ridicule tabloid attitudes to sex-crimes, what’s to stop [generic-old-school-comedian-you-know-the-ones-I-mean] from similarly claiming that his comedy act is in fact a satire intended to .. well.. you can fill in the rest from the claims made in recent times.
No answers or solutions from me of course, but I hope to have made the point that the problem with offence is more complex when comedy or satire is involved or allowed as a defence….
That’s a very good point, and well said.
I love BrassEye, it’s spot-on, hilarious and makes serious statements about problems. Also shows up a lot of people, which is always fun. But again, also important.
I didn’t used to like Al Murray, because I thought people were laughing with him rather than at him – then I ‘got it’, and I saw him live (OMG CRYING, brilliant). The tragedy is that he is, as you said, misinterpreted and hijacked by the very people he exposes. I think that still does the job, really, because you can say – look what’s happened here, and it proves his point.
Misinterpretation does happen all the time – we’re all human, fallible, we make mistakes. The thing is how you deal with that mistake; as I said, too many people get angry at their critics because they’re being critical. But you have the Jason Alexanders who look at themselves and what’s happened, learn from it, apologise or whatever’s necessary – move on. That’s a good way to do things, I think. How you deal with the situation and conduct yourself is what really matters. Which is why it’s stupid to call for arrest every time someone starts behaving like a fuckwit – it happens, context, please.
And, yes, the comedy/satire/I-was-only-joking-guv-get-a-sense-of-humour defence is widely mis-used. Only this morning I’ve seen a defence of something utterly disgusting with “It’s called taking the mic, lighten up” – ffs.
But that’s also where discussion is important, for those who can be bothered – clarification, getting to the bottom of motives, exposing the real wrongdoing. If there is any.
It’s very complicated, but I guess one of my issues is this newfound glee in telling people ‘well if you’re offended, I don’t give a shit really, I can say what I want!’ – really decreases my respect, that kind of attitude.
I never even thought of that rail joke that way. I’d always thought the joke was in the selfishness of the punchline, not the death of the other person.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts on some of Li
sa Lampanelli’s comedy; lots of racist jokes and some pretty insensitive comments about rape. Are you familiar with her? Though she does often fit with the “not a dick” area of the flow chart, her comments about rape are still pretty outrageous and I don’t think being a woman gives her an automatic pass on making them.
OMG NBC’s coverage of the Olympics was just awful this year. The female gymnasts were pulling off these impossible and skillful moves, and the commentators were focusing on their hair and outfits. I was like REALLY?!?!
Oh your bit on racism speaks volumes to me. VOLUMES. I have had no contact with my brother in over a year due some horrible racist remarks he made to one of my best friends on Facebook. I’d like to think things wouldn’t have gone that way if it had been a face-to-face discussion.
I’ve always been strongly of the conviction that any subject is potentially an appropriate subject for a joke, given the context. e.g. You wouldn’t make Holocaust jokes at an Israeli rest home, but they’re fine if you’re hanging out with mates (provided you’re not actually condoning/promoting racism/antisemitism, etc). The Daniel Tosh thing prompted a fair bit of introspection, as I double-checked to make sure that my views weren’t horribly wrong. I think I was more or less on point, although I like the ‘harmed/harmer’ distinction and have incorporated it.
eep, gtg! tbc maybe.
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