Tuesday, 8 June 2010

yeah, i heard it and it wasn't funny

so i'm still recovering from queen's birthday weekend, which turned out to be a lot busier and more stressful than i'd expected. and i had been expecting a reasonable amount of stress. but i had some positive outcomes as a result, so i wouldn't say that it was totally worth it, but almost.

it certainly made me think about how much of my life i spend actually begging for money. not for myself - i'm personally doing just fine, thank you very much. but for the various community groups i've worked with, a lot of that work involves sucking up to funders, and taking a lot of crap without dishing it back, just so the money will come in to keep the programme going. i'll tell you one thing, a result of all of this is that you lose all sense of pride. no room for egos when it comes to the begging thing. but then i look at something like shama and the number of women who are getting some benefit from the programmes we run, and i know in my heart that it really is worth it. even when things don't work out and even when i'm dealing with people who will question motives and ability. it's just hard to know what to do with all the frustration and that desire to hit back and to give as good as i got, which i know i can do, but which i also know will be massively counterproductive. i guess that's what a blog is good for! therapeutic - i can pretty safely rant here in my own space and get it out of my system.

i had been wanting to continue with the theme of my previous post, around freedom of speech issues. i don't know if i'm quite brave enough to take on brian edwards, particular after what's been going down here over the last week, but what the hell. and now that i've taken a quick look at his blog, it seems like he's out for a few days, so no time like the present!

when i added mr edward's to my blogroll, i said that he was a progressive who actually gets it. and generally he does, really well. but this post didn't sit well with me, and it's going to be difficult to explain why, given that he's put his side pretty well. it's about racist jokes, and he uses the fact that he's irish to compare with jokes about maori. he sees no difference in the two, and given that the general theme of irish jokes is that the irish are a bit wanting in the brains department, they are hardly complementary. but he laughs at irish jokes, and thinks it should be ok to laugh at maori jokes. nothing should be safe from comedy.

one of the important distinctions he makes is this:

It’s a viewpoint that fails to distinguish between a racial joke and a racist joke. A racial joke depends for its effect on our accepting that Race X has certain amusing or unflattering characteristics. They may have these characteristics in whole, in part or not at all. It really doesn’t matter. You can still make an Irish joke without actually believing that the Irish are stupid. The purpose of the joke is to amuse, not to theorise.

A racial joke becomes a racist joke when its purpose is to denigrate rather than to amuse. It’s the perspective of the teller that makes the difference. Racists tell racist jokes. The rest of us tell racial jokes. The distinction is between good-will and ill-will.

which is all very well. but there are a couple of issues. first, how can you be sure of the good-will or ill-will of the person telling the joke? in some cases you can, in others you can't.

but more important is the context. what are the prevailing conditions for the target of your joke and how does it add to those conditions. see, it's one thing to tell an irish joke now, when ireland has found stability and peace, and some economic prosperity. it's not so bad, when no-one is going to deny you a job because you're irish, and no-one is going to stop you from renting a house, nor is anyone going to be cat-calling you on the street simply for being irish. but how was it when english people were telling irish jokes in ireland a couple of centuries ago, at a time when their land was occupied and there was considerable poverty and suffering? would it have been so funny at the time?

i don't think the two situations are exactly the same. the crux of the issue is the position of power that one had over the other, and the prevailing hatred and othering of a group of people that allowed that exercise of power in a destructive way. if the jokes add to that prevailing culture, if the jokes make it that much easier to keep abusing/marginalising an oppressed group, then i'd say it wasn't a good idea.

the trouble is when we talk about one individual joke. of course an individual joke doesn't make that much of a difference. but just melissa mcewan's rape culture 101 post describes so eloquently, it's the continuous, insidious, draining little things that add up to become a huge big thing that is significantly damaging to a group that already feels powerless. and until we fight against each little thing, and point out that it is not ok, we will never change the bigger picture.

i'm not saying that i think all racist, sexist, ablist, bigotted (or whatever) jokes should be banned. but i'm saying that it's fine to take someone to task for a joke, whether it's racial or racist. because even the racial joke will be one of those little things that add up to the bigger picture. it's ok to point out to a person the impacts of their words, and what the laughter might mean. and if that person is in a position of power and privilege, then the impact will be that much greater.

i know that many (if not all) comedians think that people have no right to be offended. and there is the prevailing view amongst a lot of people in general that others should be so thin-skinned, so politically correct, so humorless (oh yeah, we feminists do get that a lot). the funny thing is though, that most of those people suddenly don't find it so funny when the joke's on them. then there all like "if i'd said something like that about your demographic, you'd call me racist/sexist [whatever]", and suddenly be all offended and defensive.

mr edwards doesn't do that however. he is happy to be laughed at for being irish. that doesn't mean that everyone has to be happy about being laughed at. i go back to my last post - everyone has the freedom to respond as they see fit (as long as they do it without abuse or violence). if you're going to tell a joke, then you have to be prepared for the response. and if you're going to be all sensitive when people criticise your joke, then best you don't tell it in the first place.

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