Private Eye editor Ian Hislop pens a rare article of defence of offensive jokes in The Telegraph, but if this is the best that can be said in favour free speech in comedy, then we’re in trouble.
There is a wave of earnestness about at the moment … people saying jokes about certain topics aren’t acceptable, saying humour isn’t helpful, saying “I am offended by this, and therefore you should shut up.” It’s all rather puritan.
I’m inclined to disagree. No topic should be out of bounds, so long as you can justify the point behind it. I have spent most of my life joking about serious things, and I believe humour can be helpful, especially when important issues are at stake.
Okay, but what about when humour isn’t helpful?
It might not bring a government down, but mockery can crystallise an opinion. Daniel Defoe said the end of satire is reform. He didn’t say it’s revolution, or armed protest. Rather, he thought you could make people behave better by laughing them into it, and that’s still an aspiration.
This is starting to sound like “offensive humour is acceptable, so long as it has a moral purpose”.
I don’t defend all jokes. There was a phase when it was popular for stand-up comics to have a go at disabled people. As an audience member, I thought, “I don’t understand that. Why is that funny?” You’re meant to be punching up, not punching down. It’s that universal desire to punch up – to blow a raspberry at the powerful – that unites everything from the defaced Babylonian brick to the fake British banknote.
It was HL Mencken, the great American satirist, who said we should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. So long as you try and do that, you have a licence to joke about almost anything.
Now, I don’t like jokes about disabled people myself, at least not if they’re cruel. I’m not saying that we should give TV shows to comedians (bearded Scots or otherwise) who do this. But this defence worries me. (It also worries me that Hislop can’t think of any more original way to finish his article than to make the same tired reference to that same old quote of Mencken that a million other writers have made — the whole thing reads like a reheated version of one of Hislop’s school newspaper article from the 70s — but that’s an issue for another day.)
The reason Hislop’s defence worries me is that it’s very close to saying that jokes are okay as long as they’re the right sort of jokes, directed at the right sort of people, for the right sort of purpose. Which is pretty much what a lot of powerful people are currently saying about Boris’s Johnson’s mild little jibe against current female towelhead fashion. And who decides what the right sort of target is? At the moment it’s the progressive Establishment and their sidekicks, the SJW Twitter mob, who are busy trying to assert their right to decide that. So what we end up with is a justification for mob bullying, and an excuse to suppress jokes.
What’s missing from Hislop’s moralistic justification of humour, which is fine as far as it goes, is that it lacks any notion of freedom. Let’s change “So long as you try and do that, you have a licence to joke about almost anything” to “As a free citizen you have a licence to joke about almost anything”. That doesn’t mean other people have to like your jokes, or that they can’t criticize them. But it does mean that other people shouldn’t try to ruin your life for a little mild bit of religious humour.
Hislop also remains silent about the fact that Have I Got News For You made the same jokes as Boris Johnson did. (Well, the real purpose of Hislop’s piece is that he’s shilling for a museum exhibition he’s curating; he’s not really interested in mounting any great defence of humorous speech.) Are those jokes no longer acceptable? Or are some jokes only allowed to be made by the right sort of people? What we’re seeing now isn’t so much as a clampdown on free speech, but clampdown of speech by people on the wrong side of the political fence. The recent attack on Johnson, for instance, is a naked partisan political attack, and nothing more.
Meanwhile Hislop’s self-aggrandizing defence of humour, the sort of defence you’d expect from a man lionised for decades for running an over-praised satirical magazine that’s now very much a part of the Establishment, helps the powerful, and does nothing to afflict it.