IN DEFENCE OF OFFENSIVE HUMOUR

This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 16/2/2012.

Censorship is an extraordinarily useful political tool. Almost all governments – fascist, communist, democratic, monarchist and theocratic alike – have embraced it to an extent at some point in their history. Morality, national security, childhood innocence and the protection of the vulnerable have all been called upon as justifications for censorship over time. In liberal democratic societies such as Australia, some minority advocacy groups have successfully campaigned for restrictions on perceived oppressive or harmful expression, resulting in what we know today as anti-vilification laws.

Freedom of expression has, of course, never been absolute. Even countries with a strong history of protecting freedom of speech, such as the United States, have traditionally recognised the need for some regulation of communication – anti-libel and slander laws being the most obvious examples. All but the most ardent libertarians accept this as reasonable.

Equally, freedom of speech – as a nebulous concept – is a value that many of us hold dear. In many countries, the absence of that liberty can entail criminalisation of dissent, restrictions on political reporting, limitations on artistic expression and, most worryingly, control of information flow. It is appropriate that protection of these rights is seen by many as fundamental to the maintenance of a free state.

A freedom that seems, however, to be taken less seriously today is that of humorous expression. While government intervention in the matter – at least in countries such as Australia – is minimal, the commercial sector has increasingly embraced a tendency to respond punitively to humour deemed (potentially) offensive. Such actions have tended to be prompted or endorsed by advocacy groups or the media and, often, condoned by the general public.

Last year, popular US sex blogger Violet Blue reported on the success of various feminist internet users in pressuring Facebook to remove its so-called ‘pro-rape’ pages. Most of the offending pages mentioned in her article were, in fact, single statement rape jokes, two being “Abducting, raping and violently murdering your friend, as a joke” and “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alley way”*. Given the article’s polemical nature, it is reasonable to assume these were considered among the more ‘shocking’ pages campaigned against.

Both can be filed fairly comfortably within the category of black humour, however tasteless or unfunny they may seem. In this case, they were eventually deemed sufficiently offensive to be removed by Facebook.

Responses such as this have become commonplace, particularly here in Australia. ‘Offensive’ humour tends to have serious repercussions. Age columnist Catherine Deveny found herself out of a job over jesting on Twitter that “Bindi Irwin so needs to get laid”; The Chaser’s War on Everything was taken off air for two weeks for a skit involving children with cancer; the Collingwood Football Club directed one of its players to apologise for making an obscure sexual hand gesture in a team photograph; and so on. While the punitive actions themselves tend to be taken by employers or sponsors, they only come after aggressive talkback radio and media campaigns designed to stir up public outrage. The public response to these outcomes usually ranges from vindication to ambivalence: “rape/paedophilia/terrorism/cancer shouldn’t be made light of” is a common sentiment, as is agreement that the joke in question has “crossed the line”. But what line? Perhaps the position of the ‘line’ – presumably, that which the majority of the public finds tasteful – is less in question than what the response to such a transgression ought to be.

Two consecutive leaps in logic appear to be made in these cases. Firstly, that what one person finds offensive is what everybody finds (or should find) offensive; secondly, that such jokes should actually be banned from the public forum. For, in the end, censorship is the result of all such cases, with a heavy deterrent in place for any who would make the same mistake in the future. It matters little that the government or law enforcement often have little to do with it; rather, it is fitting, in this age of corporate/mass media dominance, that society’s censorship should also be facilitated by commercial forces.

It’s easy to see why there has been little public outcry about the way these cases have been handled: jokes, after all, are never going to be defended as ardently as freedom of political or artistic expression. Humour is seen primarily as entertainment; disposable. Ironically, one of the main defences against this kind of censorship – that a joke is just a joke and, as such, inherently harmless – actually aids that perception. It also misses the point entirely.

Jokes are no more meaningless than any other form of human expression. They have the power to be hurtful, malicious, slanderous or reckless. People can be genuinely and rightfully offended by what someone else perceives to be (or chooses to defend as) humour. In the case of the Facebook pages, there may well have been sexual assault victims who would have been distressed if they had seen them. Likewise, some people may be distressed or seriously offended by jokes about murder, AIDS, shark attacks, September 11, Sarah Palin or Christianity. How should that knowledge be dealt with? Ought the public have the right to be protected from jokes that might be offensive?

The answer must surely lie in context, place and self-regulation. If one’s friend is sensitive about their sexual performance, it will probably be insensitive or hurtful to make a joke about impotence in their presence. If one is giving a lecture to a local Muslim association, one might steer clear of blasphemous religious jibes. We do not, surely, require laws or formal disciplinary action to reinforce these principles: the alienation of a friend or audience dissatisfaction will surely be sufficient deterrent.

On a global forum such as the Internet, however, the social rules are different – likewise, television or a stand-up comedy show. Those who don’t like what they read, see or hear can switch off, write to the writer/presenter expressing dissatisfaction or discuss the incident critically in a public forum. This is, to quote former Media Watch host David Marr, the “right to be offended”.

We all have the right in this society to express our offence in any way we choose, short of damaging property or injuring people. However, to demand that a particular writer, television programme or comedian be censored (or punished to the extent that others will be deterred from following in their footsteps) is a deeply problematic response. To do so asks for a topic to not be joked about publically in a particular manner; says that it is, and must remain, taboo. Such is the ultimate goal of the anti-‘rape joke’ campaigners; of those who consider ‘crossing the line’ to have no place in our society.

To cater to that mentality is profoundly dangerous. Humour is not just a throwaway, meaningless form of entertainment. It’s a way we express ourselves, deal with our experiences and communicate with other people. The humour that is most likely to offend often tends to deal with subjects that we as a society find uncomfortable; and that, in many ways, is among its most positive functions. To surrender to taboo rather than allow it to be challenged makes us a more reticent, less open society. Censorship isn’t inappropriate in every case; but if we truly value free expression, we must be wary of any attempt to control it. Humour is no exception.

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