“Censorship, like charity, should begin at home. Unlike charity, it should stay there.” – Dorothy Parker
So the new song by Amanda Palmer has been refused air play by every TV and radio network in the UK.
It’s been described as “making light of rape, religion and abortion”. Here it is.
Understandably, Ms. Palmer had a few things to say about this…
She says, in part;
“i’d be HAPPY to know that the song out there is going to offend some people….not because i have any interest in making people upset, but because i think it’s better
to talk about these things, argue about them, be upset about them, push them out into the open air, stir the pot around. better that, always, than to sweep them under the rug.”
These days that’s a pretty controversial position to take. There’s a real trend towards people declaring their being offended by another’s point of view and using this as justification for censorship.
It makes me wonder, as so many things do, just where the line is drawn – and who decides that. Where is the distinction – if there is one – between humour and cruelty, being genuinely hurt by something said or written and just being annoyed. Why someone can be truly hurt by something they perceive as an insult to their beliefs, and how they react to this. And the difference, if there is one, between doing this and deliberate racism, sexism, homophobic speech and so on.
Are there things which should never be looked at lightly, humorously?
How about Nazis?
Does ‘getting offended’ have a basis in one’s culture, one’s class, one’s political and religious views? Unquestionably.
Consider, for example, the Gay Daleks:
That’s full of quite offensive stereotyping. I am sure some queer folk were offended. But most of the gay and bi people I know find it pant-wettingly funny. Or get creeped out by the “WHITE!! WEE-WEE!!” bit – but still laugh.
How about race? White men in blackface is considered offensive now, certainly. But is Papa Lazarou ? Is it acceptable to have blackface if the thing being mocked isn’t black people but white people in blackface? Or do I only think that because I find The League of Gentlemen funny? Or because I’m white? Is Papa Lazarou more or less acceptable than Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled‘? And if so, is it because Spike Lee is black? Or that the actors in blackface are also?
How about murder? Drug addiction? Paedophilia? Chris Morris had plenty to say about all these, most of it hilarious (and some of it playing non-white people).
“…these killings are obviously ironic“.
Is finding something funny an excuse for insulting someone? Is doing so ironically a justification? How about if a group of predominantly white, middle class people dress in Klu Klux Klan robes to protest a perceived injustice? Does their outrage trump the outrage they use as a symbol?
Does it matter if the person making the mockery is a victim of what they mock or not? Amanda Palmer doesn’t think so:
“i could try to win points by talking about how i’ve been date raped (i have been, when i was 20) or how I have every right to joke about this if i want to because i’ve had an abortion myself (i have, when i was 17), but i actually DON’T believe those experiences should lend me any credibility, any more so than i believe the director of “life is beautiful” had to have been an auschwitz victim in order to direct that film.
i should be allowed to write about, sing about, joke about anything that moves me.
so should you. so should everyone.
an artist’s (and a human being’s) freedom to do that, without fear of retribution, is the cornerstone of what keeps the world moving forward, not backwards, not standing still.”
Is the important difference whether you are trying to give offence or take it?
Is it just about bad taste? Who decides what bad taste is – and is that enough reason not to say something? Isn’t most comedy about bad taste, crossing lines of taboo?
Definitions of acceptable subject matter change. Like most Brits of a certain age, I can remember when the racist, sexist, homophobic comedy stylings of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, TV shows like Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrel Show, were acceptable prime time entertainment. Fun for all the family.
We’re getting perilously close to that horrible phrase “Political Correctness” here. (Take a look at this post – and the comments – for a very good perspective on the term.) I don’t think it’s a good thing to force people into linguistic strait-jackets wantonly. But neither do I think that casual or deliberate insult is a good or acceptable thing – and sometimes there’s damn good reason for objecting to the things someone says.
But also there is the inevitable point that as soon as something is declared taboo… artists and writers will be irresistably drawn to that idea.
In an ideal world, the good and worthwhile ideas would just outcompete the bad and damaging ones. Unfortunately, ideas don’t seem to work that way. Often a bad idea – such as that women, non-white people and those not considered sexually ‘normal’ deserve to be treated as inferior – becomes hardened, enculturated. Fighting this matters – mockery and irony are vital tools in doing so. But any tool can become a trap.
I’m rambling here because I really don’t have an answer. I think that using humour and irony to mock is a necessary thing – but one best used by the less powerful against the status quo. When used by the powerful against the relatively powerless it’s just cruelty – and, as far as I can see, not funny (witness the po-faced results when right-wing satire is attempted). Mockery also works when the participants are roughly on an equal level (as in playing the dozens). But as to who deserves to be mocked and by whom… that’s tricky.
I’m fine with mocking those I dislike – I think that’s true of most of us. Those are, for me, mostly the powerful forces of politics, wealth and religous orthodoxy. I don’t usually find racial or sexual mockery either funny or acceptable. (Except, as noted above, Papa Lazarou and Gay Daleks.) I do find some mockery of people who are like me (mystical types, geeks) funny when it’s accurate, when it’s a well-aimed jibe at the cliches. But not just mocking because, for example, I’m fat and wear glasses.
I’d rather see humour that subverts stereotypes instead of reinforcing them, because the former is a tool of change and the latter is a tool of control. When used to deflate pompousness, arrogance and self-righteous behaviour, it works. When it’s just an expression of “you’re different from me, so I hate you” or just crass sneering at the Other, it doesn’t.
That modern tendency to treat someone with a different perspective than yours as giving you insult is overshadowing so much, perhaps the very things that need to be mocked or resisted. Especially when those complaining about the mockery are in the majority, or wield far more power than those doing the mocking. There is something ludicrous about white middle class Christians picketing a musical they don’t like, or Muslims in a Muslim-majority country holding mass-burnings of a cartoon. It seems to me a sign of very weak faith – if their beliefs are so flimsy that a joke or a book or a story can stir such rage, it does not speak well of them.
I’ve said it before – some things deserve scorn. Some things are best dealt with by laughing at them, because that’s the only thing that works. Nothing scares a monolithic power structure more than someone pointing and laughing at it. But at the same time, a bully teasing someone they overpower is only funny to the bully and their pals.
These days, there are certain groups who wield enormous power over what we are allowed to say and do, which ideas are acceptable and which are taboo. But no matter what they say or do, whether they scream “that’s blasphemy!” or “that’s hate speech!” or “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you in England!!” or threaten new laws or restrictions or even murder, there will always be those who will (in the other meaning of the phrase) take the piss. Because it’s necessary. Because sometimes it’s the only weapon we have.
Because sometimes, you gotta laugh, ain’t you?
“When you cannot joke about the darkness of life, that’s when the darkness takes over” – Amanda Palmer
(Thanks to my esteemed colleagues Daniel Peacock and Jon Swabey for their perspectives.)