Category Archives: General Topics

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.

20 Seconds

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I have been putting off my writing all morning. I’ve sent a few emails, I’ve made a few phone calls, I’ve brought wood in for the fire (I know, how rural!) and I’ve had many cups of tea. And now I must write.

I am staying in a cottage that is shared between my mother and her sisters. It’s very well stocked, sort of like a normal house with everything you might need, except that checking the use by date is more important than usual. For instance, my lunch comprised of delicious tinned tuna. So what if the best before date was 2006…

The thing is, I am in deepest, darkest County Fermanagh. About 10 miles from Enniskillen, I am in a small cottage, in a park that last year was determined to have the greatest biodiversity in the whole of Ireland. Not bad. I’ve not seen that much of it, mainly because looking at a bat flying over my head I can’t tell if it’s a common pipistrelle of something much rarer.
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Legacy: The Grandchildren’s Party

I am looking out over a frost covered morning, the sun dappling through the arms of majestic stalwart giants, onto a lawn that twinkles with its spiky light. The brown of scattered leaves gradually increases towards the garden’s edge, where the sun’s heat is melting the cold from the trees, and the green sheetlets that still cling to the branches drip with tears for brethren already fallen or for themselves that they will soon be joining them. A windless morning, framed by the sounds of a multitude of birds and the steady flutter of nature’s paper as the oaks shed their clothing as if in preparation for a winter’s dip. Nothing like a cold spell to make the trees want to get naked. And we’re not even in Scandinavia.

Life’s most fulfilling pleasures, they say, come from experiences rather than the expense; good deeds over goods; and a sense of achievement more than receiving a cheese. Even an unpasteurised Stilton. The expense, the goods, even the fungal blue veins growing on solid cow juice, these are all the passing pleasures of life. Satisfying for only an instant. Because we are of nature, and our nature dictates.

The real question is how do we want to be remembered? When we fall, like the leaves from the trees (if we’re lucky – how cool would that be, “Grandpa died aged 86, when he missed his footing climbing out of the treehouse. It’s how he’d have wanted to go”), what will we leave behind?

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I wouldn’t start from here…

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Last night I arrived in Belfast, and instructed my phone’s Google Navigation to direct me to Enniskillen, about 90 miles overland due west. Now, I know that historically Northern Ireland hasn’t been the safest place in the world, but even if Belfast’s Europa Hotel holds the slightly dodgy accolade of being the most bombed hotel in the world (I once abseiled down it – for charity, it wasn’t a one man assault on the place), and notwithstanding the four letter bombs that dissident Republicans have sent to the Stormont parliament in the past fortnight (over here, “Pass the Parcel” is considered more of a training exercise than a children’s game), to be instructed by my sat nav that my best route was to take a ferry to Liverpool, go to Wales, take another ferry to Dublin and drive up from there, did seem a little extreme.

Continue reading I wouldn’t start from here…

Standing Up in Chicago

Tonight I performed at an open mic night. A microphone attached to a small amp and speaker, in the back of a bar with loud music and chat leaking through. As the last act on on a night with 20 plus comics, I was not surprised to be playing to a room with only 6 in it, however I was surprised that 3 of them were genuine audience.

Making the best of a bad lot, I chatted bollocks to them and had fun. Lots of laughter, a couple of moments where I discovered a line through having crossed it, and the evening organiser was happy. The audience were too; it had been a long night, but the couple from Oklahoma were effusive in their praise, I was their favourite act and worth the wait. I hope that was thanks to my comedy rather than purely my being exotic.

All I did was chat to the audience, riff on an idea or two, comment on the room and on some of the other things that had been said. I did no material at all. What I did do was to have fun, and I had fun with them.

I suppose what I take away from this is that I can harvest laughter out here just by playing, possibly even more easily than at home; the wordplay and the improvisation of ideas on the hoof are both skills I’ve worked on and developed at home, but out here this style seems to be less of cultural standard within stand up than it is at home. If I can build material into this, I will have a reliable set that will wow a local audience, while at the same time feeling very natural.

Maybe I should find myself a room to run a night in and compere. Maybe I have enough on my plate already. But it is tempting…

Windy Spasms in a Windy City

Wow, I’ve not blogged in nearly a week as I’ve had so much on my plate. Things are now calming down, although I fear that is before the storm… I lie, I don’t fear it at all, it is extremely exciting, and the fever of anticipation is a welcome itch after the past week where the majority of fever was of trepidation.

Continue reading Windy Spasms in a Windy City