Monday, 17 May 2010

Sniff the Corpse of Bernard Manning pt3

Anyone here been raped and do standup?

I once heard a comedienne say in an interview that you can only make jokes about rape if you're a woman who's been raped. I gamely tried to think of a few gags on the subject but I couldn't come up with any. However, if a woman who's been raped has found a way to make the experience funny I find that admirable and I don't think anyone should try to stop her. But I don't think they should try to stop me, either. As it happens I don't want to make jokes about women and rape but I don't want to be told I can't, either. I can understand why some people might be offended if I did, and I'd be wary of doing the routine at hen parties, but I don't think anything should be taboo for a writer or performer just because they haven't experienced it. Shakespeare wrote about rape, torture, and people accidentally eating their own children, which he presumably hadn't experienced. Those topics tended to crop up in his tragedies, admittedly, but murder and mayhem have never been off-limits in comedy. So why can't I tell jokes about women being raped?

There doesn't seem to be a problem with jokes about men who've been raped. It's taken for granted that a comedy which even mentions men in prison will include jokes  about proctology and not bending over in the shower. But a man who's raped is no less damaged by it than a woman. Why is one experience a legitimate subject for comic treatment while the other isn't? This is part of an argument about 'offensive' comedy which, in turn, is part of a much larger battle about free speech, censorship, and human rights. Offensive comedy is beginning to look like the front line in a cultural civil war.

Everyone's angry and we hear about it all the time. The media tells us about the angry people, and the rest of us get angry about how angry they are. And in a world of instant electronic response where debate is replaced by assertion, I'm always right, and you're wrong, end of story. People get angry about a joke on the radio, or a play about a sensitive subject, or a TV programme that offends someone's beliefs. Some people don't get offended themselves but they get angry on behalf of other people who they think might be offended. Some of us believe we've got a right not to be offended, because that's what respect means. Some of us think we've got a right to be offensive because that's what free speech is all about, and we get angry if people try to stop us.

Of all the anger that's aroused, nothing makes people angrier than religion. Since the established Christian church lost much of its authority in Britain we've got accustomed to people telling jokes about religion in public. There's sometimes been some debate about whether people other than Jews should tell 'Jewish' jokes, and most people agree that they shouldn't, but only because they're funnier when Jews tell them. And when we talk about Jewish jokes we include jokes about both Jews and Judaism - the doctrine and the faithful. Similarly, everyone tells jokes about both Christians and Christianity, and Jesus and God both show up as a characters in gags, TV shows and films pretty regularly these days. And Muslims tell jokes about Muslims. Some very funny Muslim comediennes have emerged recently. And now non-Muslims are telling jokes about Muslims, too, like Chris Morris with his film Four Lions. But the difference is that while jokes about Muslims may be acceptable, no one makes jokes about Islam. 

Of course, you'll find jokes about Islam on the internet, because you'll find anything on the internet. I'm talking about what's in full public view. And in this context the actual doctrine of Islam is considered taboo, unlike nearly every other major belief system. In this it's exceptional because, broadly speaking, it's the smaller religions or sects that are the most sensitive. Most Hindus can make and take jokes about their religious beliefs, but Sikhs, like Scientologists, tend to take up arms or attorneys if they think their religious faith or doctrine is being mocked or criticized.

However, if we really believe in free speech, shouldn't we be able to say what we want about people's religious beliefs? The western liberal view in this respect derives from the sentiment attributed to Voltaire, "I may disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This seems a pretty straightforward proposition. But Voltaire said nothing about respect, and in the last few years a lot of people haven't been able to shut up about it. The problem is that respect means different things to different people: one thing to a rabbi, another to a rapper. Arguments over respect, like feuds over honour, seem to generate exceptional levels of aggression, and the biggest casualty in the confusion over the meaning of respect has been free speech.

Many people believe that in a society which embraces different faiths and cultures, we have a duty to respect the religious beliefs of others. No thanks. Why should I respect your beliefs if I think they're misguided, repressive, misogynistic, destructive or just plain silly? However, I respect your right to believe whatever you want, provided it doesn't harm me. That's a different idea, and in a society that truly supports free speech, it should be enough. It might permit unpleasant and malicious insults to be expressed by one person about the beliefs of another person, but so what? What's so terrible about being offended anyway? Where does it hurt? Isn't your precious belief sufficient to sustain you? 

If only it was that simple. And it might be if we lived in a world where no one felt vulnerable or oppressed or powerless. Because we can't consider any of this without considering the issue of power. Which brings us back to the question: Why can't I make jokes about women being raped? My answer is, I can, but at a price, and I won't even know what the price is unless I understand why this whole conversation is about power.

Comedy often comments on, reflects, subverts or reinforces power relationships. In many cases comedy derives its whole impact from a power dynamic. A lot of comedy is about status and its reversals, and this tradition stretches back to the earliest stage dramas, with the figure of the wily servant who outwits the master, and beyond, back to the inclusion of subversive comic elements in ancient rituals and ceremonies. And power is inseparable from violence. We're always reminded of this by the language that comedians use about their craft. The stage comic talks about slaying the audience. The weapons are the killer joke, the side-splitting gag, the punch line. And  every comedian knows that you have to dominate the audience because if the power dynamic changes and the audience gets the upper hand, the comedian begins to seem desperate and runs the risk of  'dying' onstage.

Power plays another part in the dynamics of comedy, and is reflected in the different attitudes to jokes about male and female rape, along with the different meanings that both 'offence' and 'respect' have for different people. If you don't hold strong religious beliefs, or any at all, it's sometimes hard to comprehend the anger of those who feel their beliefs have been offended. If you identify yourself as a modern European liberal humanist you may be inclined to condemn such anger as a symptom of intolerance or as the ignorant rage of primitive bigots who don't have the breadth of mind to understand the gifts and responsibilities of freedom and plurality. But you're just as likely to encounter ignorance, intolerance and bigotry in people who profess no faith as you are in religious believers.

You might object that you're not an angry atheist or an enraged believer; you're simply a decent, broad-minded person who believes in tolerance and understanding. Well, that's a belief right there. And have you ever written a letter of complaint? Have you ever lost your temper with the person on the line from the call centre? Have you ever felt that you've been treated with contempt by an official, or a system, or a driver or a pedestrian or a cyclist? Have you been angered by the behaviour of a stranger or a friend, a spouse, or a member of your family or of the human race in general? Have you ever felt hurt, angry, vulnerable - have you ever felt powerless? Of course you have. You had a belief and it was offended. You believed that you were entitled to something - consideration, respect, compassion, understanding - and you didn't get it. And it hurts. It doesn't matter whether you can argue that you're justified in feeling the way you do because you've got a good reason, whereas another person isn't justified because they haven't got a good reason. You believe they haven't and they believe they have. All indignation is righteous indignation. It's not about what's rational or justified. It's about how you feel. And it's acceptable to express that feeling, and to complain if you feel offended. The problems begin when someone tries to rationalize what they feel and make it into a doctrine or an ideology, and then use that ideology to enforce their view. We have to accept that two individuals may think and feel differently about the same subject. But we have to resist any attempt by one of those individuals to insist that the other one thinks and feels the same way as they do about it. 

More about this soon. 


  1. "Why can't I make jokes about women being raped? My answer is, I can, but at a price, and I won't even know what the price is unless I understand why this whole conversation is about power."

    You are spot on about this. Chris Rock does a bit in his latest stand-up special where he talks about who can and can't make certain jokes. He says, for example, that short people can make fun of tall people but not vice versa, overweight people can make fun of skinny people but not vice versa, and it's ABSOLUTELY about power. Rock says that for a skinny person to make fun of an overweight person is just too mean, but the fat guy making the joke about of the only ways he gets his power back.

    Or something like that...

  2. This is powerful writing PBD. A vein of golden thoughts.

  3. "All indignation is righteous indignation."

    Absolutely agree. I employ it on occasion. However, there is one glaring omission that you don't address: initiating use of force as a way to express indignation. That is never acceptable. Period.

    For instance, losing one's temper at a call center representative or a inconsiderate neighbor, and plunging a knife into someone's chest are very different responses. And one who uses the latter as an excuse to defend their beliefs shows how utterly weak their spiritual foundations really are.

  4. Your comparison between a man getting raped and a woman is interesting. It instantly made me think about Hot Tub Machine *spoiler alert* where a man is forced to give a blowjob to another man. It's one of the funniest moments in the film and you're right - your post made me think what if the character were a woman who was forced to give a blow job. It wouldn't be funny but rather Blue Velvet.

    It's interesting what people feel comfortable with and don't. Sometimes I even surprise myself with my reactions. For instance, I really didn't enjoy Four Lions and I'm really not sure. Sure, my father is Muslim and I have a Pakistani friend but I keep telling myself that my uncomfortable feeling with the film is more than the subject matter. I guess I just didn't understand the point of the film - I couldn't see where the story was. Apparently Baddiel's The Infidel is a comfortable watch. I really want to see it to see why. It might help me understand my reaction to Four Lions.

    Looking forward to hearing how tomorrow evening goes. This is an important debate.

  5. Interesting article, especially the stuff about power.
    "But the difference is that while jokes about Muslims may be acceptable, no one makes jokes about Islam[...]And in this context the actual doctrine of Islam is considered taboo, unlike nearly every other major belief system."
    I think that's oversimplifying it a bit. I'm sure if you go to the right places in the Middle East you'll find some riotously funny Imams. But non-Muslims don't make jokes about Islamic doctrine because non-Muslims don't get jokes about Islamic doctrine. Most of us don't know enough about it to understand the references. That's why Americans make more and more obscure Jewish jokes than British people - they get them better. It's why nobody makes jokes about Zoroastrian doctrine, because they'd utterly bomb. I've written about this myself if you're interested.

  6. Thanks, Paul, I really enjoyed this, and agree entirely with you about the power dynamics of comedy. I wrote something related on the Spectator Arts Blog last month: I'd be interested to know what you thought.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. I found this via your comment on the Spectator Arts Blog. Good post!

    However, I think you go too far in the last paragraph. I disagree that indignation is just "about how you feel", with the implication that all feelings of offence are equally valid, all have an equal right to expression and none have a greater right than others to demand respect from the party who has caused the offence.

    I think what is giving me the difficulty is your categorisation of offence as manifested by letters of complaint (perhaps in relation to a party's failure to fulfil its contractual obligations), anger at maltreatment by officials, etc, simply as "you had a belief and it was offended".

    Such matters will often go beyond the mere failure to respect a belief and into the territory of infringement of a right, where, in my view, offence can be said to be objectively valid, as opposed to 'mere' belief where offence is entirely subjective.

    In the one case we do have the right to insist that the other individual thinks and feels the same way as we do; in the other, we don't. As with many things, it will be in identifying the margins - what is a right and what is a belief (and when does respect for beliefs become a right) - where the difficulties arise.

  8. I agree that jokes about Islam shouldn't be "off limits" per se. But I do also empathise with Dara O'Briain who, in his latest DVD, talks about how he used to do a lot of Catholic jokes and often found himself approached by Catholics after each show saying "Well you'll make jokes about Christianity but I bet you wouldn't make jokes about Islam" to which he would reply: "No I wouldn't make a joke about Islam and there's two reasons for that. 1.) I don't know fuck about Islam and 2.) Neither do you."