Taking offence is offensive

We are losing our freedoms of speech in the UK. I find this very scary in a country in which this freedom has been traditionally so robust. Perhaps it is not so surprising, when only recently (between 2000 and 2003) we lost our ancient right to peaceful protest, a change to a deeply fundamental aspect of our democracy that was met with little more than howls of apathy.

Regarding freedom of speech though, the law as it stands means that, online, offence is taken, not given. If you take offence at this article and the powers that be feel I’m a troublemaker, they now have an easy tool with which to lock me up. This should be a worry for all comedians, as poking fun at the people in charge is part of what we do. And in this incidence, I mean comedians in the very broadest of sense – from the Apollo headliner, to the Tweeter with a handful of followers, to someone in a Sex Pistols T-shirt.

But who takes offence? And why? I think that understanding this is to give us our best weapon against it.

Criticising someone is a power struggle, pitting the critic against the criticised. By criticising, the critic is demonstrating they have the right to do so, a bold assertion that raises their status. Positive criticism also raises the status of the person being criticised; negative criticism is an attempt to do the opposite. As a social animal, in humans, status is everything, so being on the receiving end of negative criticism feels horrible.

To take offence whilst accusing prejudice is both negative criticism and also feels very difficult to defend against. After all, the person being offended is a victim, surely a low status position. However, while to take offence is to accept the position of victim, to take offence on behalf of someone else is a much higher status move; while it raises the status of the person being offended as before, and still diminishes the status of the offender, it also places someone else, the victim on whose behalf the offence was taken, right at the bottom of the pile.

When the victim is a murdered child or a bereaved family, this is acceptable, we believe that these people deserve our sympathy. However, in many other cases this is a disgraceful condemnation of the people on whose behalf the offence is taken, because by taking offence on their behalf you are in fact saying that you are better than them, that they are weak and worth less than you, (whereas you, on the other hand, are strong and you’d be able to take the joke).

Some examples.

A few years ago, Jimmy Carr made a joke about Britain’s war injured soldiers and how good it would be for the UK Paralympic Team. He was slammed in the press. At the time I was helping raise funds for BLESMA, a military charity that helps injured soldiers. They actually both liked the joke, thought it was funny and were also grateful that it raised the public awareness of the terrible toll the wars are taking on our troops. They objected to being portrayed as victims. Disabled, yes, but that makes them no less valid members of society.

Jeremy Clarkeson made a joke about the laziness of Mexicans. This is particularly interesting because, in the US, Mexicans are discriminated against and so genuinely are victims. However, when we think of Mexico in the UK, we don’t think of them as lesser people in the same way that we don’t think of the French as lesser people. Making a joke about the French and insulting them (or them us) is fine, because, despite it being a type of racism, we believe the French to be as strong as we are. We expect them to feel insulted as equals rather than be offended as victims, because victims they’re not. That the Mexican ambassador took offence and made a grand diplomatic incident out of the joke means that he actually does consider his fellow countrymen as victims. After all, a victim is unable to stand on their own two feet, so it is wrong to attack them.

Back in the real world, these attitudes can take on a more subtle shade. For instance, recent business etiquette has tended away from the word ‘brainstorm’ as it might be construed as offensive to people with a mental illness; today, executives are more likely to go to a ridiculously named ‘brain shower’ instead. Yet there is no evidence that this has had any positive impact on the lives of people with mental illness or removed its stigma in any way. In fact, from one perspective, it looks a lot like marginalising the issue even further.

Much has been said about the sentiment with which a joke is delivered and I believe that that is true; the softest of jokes could be horrendously bullying when told by someone with the views to make it so. But so can the most violently prejudiced joke mean absolutely nothing or even be empowering, hence why it is generally accepted as legitimate to make jokes about things that you personally have experienced.

By taking offence on someone else’s behalf, what you are doing is much worse than the perceived offender, because you are confirming that the recipient of your sympathy is a victim. If they themselves see that they are victims, that is one thing, and rushing to their defence is the right thing to do. But if they do not, then it is you, not the joker who is the racist / homophobe / agist / disabilitist / misogenist.

And by the same measure, by intentionally not making jokes about a certain group, you are recognising that somewhere within you, you too think you are better than them.

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