Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Humour Is A Funny Old Thing

Sometimes jokes aren't funny. It depends on the context, doesn't it? I have a fairly black sense of humour, and rarely pass up the opportunity for a one-liner. But I do try to retain some sensitivity to the people around me. So, for example, if I saw a terrific opening for a death joke, but I was with someone who was recently bereaved, I'd hold back.

That doesn't mean I always get it right. One of the key features of humour is that it's risky. Even professional comedians cause offence without meaning to at times. For example, some of you may remember that Jo Brand upset the BNP, back when their membership list was published, by quipping 'now we know where to send the poo'. I'm sure lots of us anti-racist lefties laughed at the time; I know I did. But if I was a BNP member, I can see that I could have been upset by Brand's joke.

A friend of mine recently texted me three jokes in quick succession which I found offensive. The first poked fun at a "Paki", the second was about an Irishman and a "nigger", and the third was based on the premise that a man could have sex with a disabled woman if he was desperate, as long as nobody was looking.

I know my friend to be kind-hearted, an active carer for her family, friends and colleagues, and not remotely politically correct (although interestingly she's very anti-ageism, and will leap to the defence of older people). She knows I've been having a difficult time and I figured she was trying to cheer me up. Nevertheless, I was upset, particularly as the Paramour and I have both talked to her about her use of the word "Paki" in conversation, and asked her not to use it in our house. So I sent her a text back, saying "Racist 'jokes',+ones at the expense of disabled people, dont make me laugh. They make me feel sad+a bit sick. Thanks4the thought but pls dont send me any more." She replied saying "Oops sorry sorry sorry many times sorry slapped wrist wont do again didnt mean 2 offend it was only meant 2 b a bit of fun sorry again xx".

She is one of only two in my friendship group who I know to use that kind of language and appreciate that kind of joke. I could say 'it's not funny', but being judgemental is too easy; it is funny for her. Maybe I should be all self-righteous and end our friendship, and part of me is tempted to do so. But if I chose only to be friends with people who think exactly like me, wouldn't I be compounding the problem rather than helping to solve it?

I think racism, disabilityism, and all their prejudicial cousins are wrong and odious. I also think that dismissing someone as a racist full stop, without looking at the whole of their personality, is over-simplistic and so runs the risk of being another form of prejudice. People are complicated and people change. I doubt very much that I'll be able to change my friend's views single-handed, but I think I'm more likely to have an influence by staying friends with her and challenging her views when they affect me than by dropping her like a hot brick. And then she can't write me off as a humourless git either, because when we meet, we always find mutually acceptable ways to make each other laugh.

I still feel uneasy, though, so I'm not sure I'm right about any of this. What do you think?


Carol and Chris said...

I think you are right!! You need to challenge the behaviour and get her to think about what she's saying (or texting). In saying that, I had a friend who did similar things...there was a lot about her personality I really liked but there were a few things that really grated...we were friends for a long time till she said shared a opinion that I just could not condone. I had no choice but to walk away!!

C x

Clare Sudders said...

I think you're right. You can't be simplistic about these things. People are complex animals and if we only ever had friendships with people we agreed with 100%, none of us would have any friends.

Also, as you say, if you believe the world, and people, can change, and are worth trying to change (and I do), then you can't write people off.

Also, there is soft racism and hard racism. Soft racism is very common and involves mild prejudice, but its perpetrators have no desire to kill or otherwise harm the objects of their prejudice, and will invariably behave completely differently when they meet them in the flesh. If your friend were a fascist with a penchance for beating people up, I'd say drop them like a hot potato. But (I assume) she's not.

And finally... the way to deal with this kind of thing is to challenge it. It made you feel uneasy because it potrays nasty attitudes. You were right to feel uneasy, and you were right to respond to it by being explicit about such humour being unacceptable. All friendships have tensions, this is the tension-source in this particular friendship, and you are dealing with it by facing it head on.

Oh, and another thing. She responded by apologising. She realised she had overstepped the mark. If nothing else you have helped her to act with more sensitivity in future, which is no bad thing. You were right to challenge her, and that challenge had a positive outcome.

Go you. You rock!


Clare Sudders said...

P.S. Surely Jo Brand's offence wasn't unintentional? I'd quite happily offend BNP members, although I wouldn't actually post poo to them. I might get my hands dirty.

Queenie said...

Carol and Clare, thank you! Clare, you're absolutely right; if my friend met an Asian person, or someone with a disability, she would treat them like a human being. I suspect Jo Brand's comment was intended to get a laugh from her audience, rather than to upset the BNP. I think some comedians are intentionally offensive but I don't think she's one of them. Pity you're not into posting poo - you've got such a great source of it at the moment, surely there's someone you could send some to? No? Oh well!

Kirsty said...

I think you are right too, and know in the past I haven't dealt with such things with the grace you did. Having said that I'm not convinced the person I'm thinking of *would* treat someone they saw as different in any kind of generous way. And as a wheelchair user, I perhaps am differently sensitive?

Queenie said...

Kirsty, you might well be. My sensitivity is on behalf of others, as I'm able-bodied and white. I suspect sensitivity born out of direct and regular experience of discrimination is different again.

Clare Sudders said...

I may have bent the stick a little as well. What I'm thinking about is poeple who are basically all right, and may well treat people badly based on their prejudices when encounters are superficial, but when they get to know people they can quickly become all right. And then there are those whose minds would be a lot harder to change and have a much harder edge to their prejudices.

But of course we nearly all have prejudices to some extent. I make all sorts of negative assumptions about rugby players, for instance.

HelenMHunt said...

Two people that I no longer count as friends used to find it very amusing to make anti-semitic jokes in front of me. I'm not Jewish myself but have a very close friend who is - so as well as finding these 'jokes' distasteful I also found them personally hurtful. I asked them several times to stop and was totally ignored. The interesting thing is that the two people concerned are both gay and would be the first to be up in arms about any form of homophobic comment. I just couldn't make them see that racism is just as offensive and discriminatory as homophobia. I don't know what the answer is I'm afraid.

Queenie said...

Clare, and I make positive ones about Polish people - that they're likely to be hard-working and reliable - which is just as much prejudice.
Helen, it's weird, isn't it? I can't make my friend see that racism and disability-ism are as offensive as ageism. In fact she doesn't understand why I think she's racist and disability-ist, just because of her jokes and language, when she's sure she isn't and that those things don't make her so.

LadyFi said...

All racism is unacceptable!! Even if it is 'soft' racism - there is still no excuse for it. And if it offends, then you should say so.

The only way to stop racism is to stand up and say that you will not accept it. Even if the person is just trying to be helpful, or knows no better, we should still point out that such an attitude is discriminatory.

As a mother of two African kids, I am saddened and sickened when I hear these kind of jokes...

OK.. sorry about the rant. Going to hide out at my place now!

Queenie said...

LadyFi, rants are welcome in my comments box. Especially rants agreeing with my posts!

PI said...

I have problem with Jo Brand; she seems to have one rule for her and one for everybody else although she can denigrate the BNP to her heart's content for all I care.
People of my generation have to be extra careful as things have changed so much over the years. It was the norm to have a 'little black 'Sambo money box' and 'n----- brown was a colour that we never - in our innocence - associated with the colour of a person's skin.
I was passionately concerned with the injustice during the apartheid years but now am more chilled and am happy to see some of the awful wrongs corrected. Nevertheless my grandchildren will berate me if they think I say something they deem racist - it is just a generation gap.
I'm sure you know not to watch Ricky Gervaise.
BTW we had a discussion about how I would feel if my grand-daughter married a black man and after a great deal of thought I concluded that I would prefer her to marry a good kind black man than a lout of a white man.