Why can’t anyone take a joke any more?

Douglas Murray was reported to the police for repeating a harmless Irish gag. We must recover our sense of humour, he says, if our society is to survive

14 August 2010

12:00 AM

14 August 2010

12:00 AM

Most people reading this will at some point have had the misfortune to meet one of those piggy-faced people who at a certain point in the conversation says, ‘Excuse me, but I find that offensive.’ Often it is someone who isn’t actually offended themselves. They have claimed offence for a group in absentia. ‘Excuse me, but I find that offensive on behalf of an absent third-party.’

Unfortunately this horrible behavioural tick is extending its reach. It is realising its power and getting organised.

You often hear the phrase ‘Why does no one ever say “X” in the media?’, or ‘Why do you never hear “Y”?’ The simple answer is that to an extent barely realised outside the business, what can be said, written and broadcast in our media today is no longer decided just by editors and commissioners but by a labyrinthine bureaucracy open to the wildest abuse by anybody who can claim to have had their feelings hurt. Orgiastic offence-takers are enjoying a peak season.

If you do not like something you hear, instead of turning off, you can claim to have suffered an offence. The Press Complaints Commission encourages it. Activist minority-interest pressure groups encourage it. And of course via Twitter and Facebook you can now be directed to things that you didn’t have time to be offended by first time round. And best of all you can threaten to use the law.

The problem is that, as I discovered recently, pointing out this problem may not do any good. In fact it can make things a lot worse. Let me give an example. But first let me cover myself by issuing a disclaimer. What follows is a joke. It is not a good joke but it is a joke. If you do not want to read the joke, then look away now.

‘A man walked into a Dublin bar and saw a friend sitting with an empty glass. “Paddy, can I get you another?” he asked, to which Paddy replied — “now what would I be wanting with another empty glass?”’

Let me be absolutely clear, it is not a good joke. I am not saying it is. But in any sane society there would be only two possible reactions. You could laugh. Or more likely, like me you will have emitted a small groan.


But of course this is no longer a sane society and so a third option presents itself — which is that you call up the police and/ or the Press Complaints Commission and report that a crime has been committed. Not a crime against humour. But a crime. Period.

Happily the above joke is not my own. Any correspondence should be sent to Councillor Ken Bamber who sits on the local council in Medway, Kent. Cllr Bamber told the above joke last year during a council event. Unfortunately another individual present was one Brian Kelly, a Unison representative. Kelly promptly stated that he had been born in Ireland and had Irish lineage and as such found the joke offensive. A complaint was launched. A lengthy legal process ensued, at the end of which Representative Kelly was awarded many thousands of pounds in compensation, paid to him by the Council and Cllr Bamber. You and I, of course, paid for the cost of proceedings.

Now, when I read about this earlier this year I had a few thoughts of my own and wrote a short piece about this madness. Among other things I reflected on the piss-poor pay given to our armed forces as compared to the munificent shell-out to Representative Kelly. I said that in my opinion there is something seriously wrong with a society in which our soldiers in Afghanistan get paid just over £1,000 a month for facing incoming fire from the Taleban in Helmand, while Union Rep. Kelly is paid many times that for the risk of facing an incoming joke in Kent.

Anyhow — I signed off in the spirit of ‘they can’t take us all’ by saying that readers should send in their own Irish jokes to defeat this compensation-culture menace. At which point I unwittingly walked straight on to the crime scene myself. I too had now committed a hate crime. Worse, I had incited others to do the same. I had unwittingly become a one-man walking crime-wave.

Before I knew it I was in the middle of what one journalist described as ‘a minor international incident’. The phone began to ring with predominantly Irish journalists wanting comment. Lead editorials were written on the case of the Scottish-sounding man who had incited jokes against the Irish. As the case dragged on I started to wonder whether I could leave the house without committing a hate crime. Apparently I didn’t have to. The Irish embassy issued a statement and the Irish ‘Department of Foreign Affairs’ proclaimed that it was precisely because of articles like mine that hate-speech laws existed.

And of course, utterly inevitably, some self-appointed harpie who claimed to be an Irish ‘community leader’ reported me to the Press Complaints Commission and the police. Hate crimes complaints, I learned, are like hydras: attempt to chop up one and you find yourself facing two.

I know I’m not the only journalist to have gone through this process. More and more special-interest groups are demanding more and more acquiescence or silence in relation to their agendas. And as a result there are now certain subjects which you are simply better off not writing about. Anything to do with race, religion or sexuality you’re better off out of. As a certain other writer for this magazine discovered, truth is no defence. What carries the day is the extent to which someone can claim to have had their feelings upset. When it happens to you, you finally realise why so many journalists spend their lives taking celebrities seriously (a state of affairs Rod Liddle bewails in this magazine). It’s easier, and people who love the limelight are less likely to complain.

Of course the principle that nobody should be able to claim or receive compensation for hearing a joke they do not like was lost in much of the Irish hullabaloo. But I was struck by something in the conversations I kept having with people. Generally my interviewers and correspondents understood the principle that the main role of the police force should not be to act as the paramilitary wing of the Guardian newspaper. And they recognised that there are real crimes that go on — rapes, murders and so on — which might better suit police attention.

But there was also a presumption — and the younger the interviewer the more prevalent it was — that there must be, there had to be, something in place in society that stopped people having to face the risk of having their feelings insulted. Particularly if it had something — anything — to do with their ethnic heritage, religion or sexuality.

My own reaction to this is fairly robust. Being offended, and learning to deal with it, is part of being a grown-up in a grown-up society. I get offended every time I walk down the street. I’m offended by very fat people, I’m offended by flashy people. I’m offended by Channel 4 News. Most of all I’m offended by super-sensitive people who think that they’re the only ones in the world with feelings. Yet I don’t try to get any of these things banned because I know that it’s not the state’s job to punish people just because they annoy me.

An increasing number of us appear to think differently. I suppose we should have seen this coming. After all, if government is meant to provide everything else in your life, why shouldn’t it be expected to police your feelings as well? It is a logical end-point of the welfare state. But it signals the breakdown of normal working society.

Perhaps conservatives have lost this round as they have lost so many others. But it seems to me that humour, like good manners, cannot be taught or enforced by the state.
They can only be learned by acquaintance with well-mannered or good-humoured people. If you do something rude or ill-mannered — including telling an inappropriate joke — people around you, who you wish to be respected by, should let you know that you have made a gaffe. The smallest of silences, a cough or an awkward shuffle of feet, will do.

A society in which authority decides what you can hear, think and say will not only be a society lacking in humour, it will be one lacking in humanity.

Douglas Murray is the Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion.

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Show comments
  • C Cole

    Superb article, but oh what a depressing subject matter.

    The vitally important question at the heart of all this is: how can those who believe in the right to free speech go about ensuring that it trumps the special interest group cretins and their perceived right not to be offended or have their feelings hurt?

    I’m no lawyer, but I wonder if anyone can advise whether some sort of legislation might be framed, perhaps drawing on Mill’s harm principle, that could act as a bulwark against the sort of nonsense outlined by Mr Murray.

    Following the robust campaign on the libel laws fought in response to the targeting of the science writer Simon Singh, perhaps there is hope that sense might one day prevail.

  • Bea Wildred

    Forgive me if my state of confusion is of little interest to the Spectator, but I must just ask: what is an Irish joke actually? Is it simply a joke told by an Irishman? Can an Irishman be prosecuted for telling an Irish joke? If the same joke is told by a Welshman, does it become a Welsh joke? Is it against the law to try and make someone laugh?

  • Tom Hamilton

    I am a public servant and frequently a victim of political correctness and self righteous prigishness by supervisors.
    A recent example, I was likened to Alf Garnet and a picture of him placed over my desk. I thought this amusing but found it had been taken down the next day. I questioned what had happened to it, I quite liked being likened to him, in some respects anyway… A supervisor chirped up that the cleaner might be offended by it or indeed anyone in the office and as you just don’t know who could be offended…, well it simply could not be permitted.

  • Dan

    I think, perhaps, the point is being missed here.

    The joke revolves around a misunderstanding on the part of an apparently stupid man who gets the wrong end of the stick when his friend offers him a drink.

    If the names were changed to, say, Tom and Cedric, would it still be funny? If no names were mentioned at all, would it still be funny?

    Fundamentally, the inclusion of the fact that these gentlemen are Irish is of no consequence to the outcome of the joke whatsoever. So why is it included?

    Perhaps, and I’m going out on a limb here, it’s because the inclusion of Irish characters is a comedic shorthand which demonstrates very quickly to the listener that the people involved in the joke are intrinsically stupid and will drop a clanger at some point.

    This would, so it seems, fall into the extraordinarily narrow world-view that Irish people are, by their very nature, thick and prone to making logical errors.

    Now, bearing that in mind, do you see how it could be offensive to the Irish?

    What if we changed it from two Irishmen to two black people, two people with disabilities, two Muslims? Would we suddenly view the joke differently? Would it miraculously metamorphose from a rather jolly one-liner to a rather more distasteful and uncomfortable one?

    Just some food for thought.

  • Sean

    “Irish Department of Foreign Affairs proclaimed that it was precisely because of articles like mine that hate-speech laws existed”


    As an irishman I am offended by the existence of fascist hate speach laws. The state has no right to stifle free speach and the expression of ideas.

  • W van der Lande

    The trouble is that it is much harder to convince a neutral that Free Speech is a much more valuable entity than an affront to an individual’s feelings.

    The argument is far more subtle and requires a certain depth of thought and understanding, which in this busy, time-lacking world we live in many people are unwilling to commit.

    Nowadays people are so scared of offending people, and have taken to an extreme the old English attitude of “I don’ want to cause a fuss”. This spineless notion must be counteracted by a virtue still possessed by the English, but quashed as can be by those who fear to offend those who react badly to offence.


    Once we regain our pride and self-assurance and stand up to this kind of nonsense, then we can start bringing back a bit of sanity to the world, as well as a bit of humanity.

  • Ed

    I think Mr. Murray is disingenuous. The real problem arose when he invited readers to send in examples of such humour, specifically about Irish people, to his blog in the Daily Telegraph. He claimed to be making a stand about racial and minority humour in general, but he did not ask people to send in racial jokes in general, say with reference to Poles, Welshmen, Jews, Arabs, Slavs, black people, gays etc, or even god forgive Scotsmen (yes that does sound like a Scots name). No he again singled out Irish people. It was a spiteful and silly thing to do , and he must have known that the subsequent blog would attract the sort of mouth frothing xenophobes who use humour as the thinnest of covers for their outpourings.

    Mr Murray’s comments would be more plausible if he were on record as occasionally saying something positive about Irish people. But strangely enough such statements by him are hard to find.

    No, there is no need to prosecute individuals like Mr. Murray: the freedom to be offensive is an important freedom; but the freedom to point out in return that sometimes the offenders are malicious hypocrites is also important.

  • Paddy

    Well this is all fine and dandy, but no one has answered the question at hand here. What would I want with two empty glasses?

  • Fifty

    You, sir, are a genius.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    Irish jokes are just lazy, told by thick idiots to be honest. There are plenty of jokes about a nation’s inhabitants that some may tell but it normally requires some form of funny insight, cultural knowledge etc to work.

    Most Irish jokes are just crap variations on ‘ook that Irishman is thick’.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    “Most people reading this will at some point have had the misfortune to meet one of those piggy-faced people who at a certain point in the conversation says, ‘Excuse me, but I find that offensive.’ Often it is someone who isn’t actually offended themselves. They have claimed offence for a group in absentia. ‘Excuse me, but I find that offensive on behalf of an absent third-party.’”

    I don’t understand this ‘logic’ Murray, why do you have to be part of a group to be offended by something? If I hear someone go off on an anti-semetic rant am I not allowed to be offended because I’m not one of the Chosen people? If someone is making ignorant asides about Americans my lack of an American passport prevents me from responding? It’s a silly way of looking at things if you think about it.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    ” If you do something rude or ill-mannered — including telling an inappropriate joke — people around you, who you wish to be respected by, should let you know that you have made a gaffe. The smallest of silences, a cough or an awkward shuffle of feet, will do.”

    Unless they aren’t the subject of the joke at which point they are prevented from taking ‘third party offence’?

    That said, although one of the younger generation I do think there is something unhealthy about people having recourse to police resources because they were offended. Whilst I don’t accept that ‘Y’ or ‘X’ subjects cannot be discussed anymore (I think individuals may decide to self-censor but they are not censored, most ‘controversial subjects’ are readily covered by the press) I think people should grow up and realise that being offended is not the job of the police, and also those who live to cause offence shouldn’t complain when others react negatively. Like the colleague you mentioned who had his wrists slapped for inaccuracies, not for stating an unsayable truth (which is said pretty much everyday, everywhere, whilst people complain they can’t say it.)

  • John

    Dan and Ed – I think you are missing the point here. The point is not that the joke may or may not offend someone. I can practically guarantee that someone will be offended by almost any joke. The point is that it is not a matter for State intervention into peoples lives. The State is not (or, given how things are going, should not be) in the business of protecting people’s feelings. This is not what the State exists for.

  • Bejesus

    From now on, every time I hear an Irish comic make a statement which generalises about the Irish, particularly their apparent love of booze, I am reporting them to the police.

  • Sir Graphus

    As a leader of the quarter-Scottish community, I would like to thank you for not suggesting that Scottish people are tight-fisted (and by inference, that we quarter-Scots are perhaps less than averagely likely to get the 1st round in but usually wait until a couple of people have gone home).

  • becca

    Everyone that says this joke was offensive clearly can’t take a joke! Get a life. I’m irish and I find these jokes funny.

  • Dave Short

    Stupid article. Stupid joke. Stupid argument. Stupid magazine for printing them all.

  • larkjd

    it’s very easy to minimize the effect of ethnic “jokes” when you are the teller and not the victim…i am an american working in boston as a cpa (chartered accountant) and had the distasteful task of preparing u.s. taxes for u.k. expats of ici chemicals…these expats were the most arrogant, thankless folks i have ever had the misfortune of meeting…they were touted as the cream, so to speak, of the british crop…anyway there was an irish scientist on their staff who was brilliant…a fact begrudgingly conceded by his “superiors”…in a meeting one day the irishman happened to leave a meeting we were having at which point two pathetic, jealous englishmen began telling ethnic irish jokes…directing them squarely at the scientist…i’ve never witnessed a more disgraceful, unprofessional display…it was clearly evident that the cream had sunk to the botton of the barrel…this poor irishman, who could run mental circles around these two clowns, now had them deciding the path of his career…anyone that claims ethic jokes are harmless is a liar, or an idiot…you decide

  • David Phipps

    To those commenters who are vilifying Murray I an only say ‘get a life’! All races have jokes told against them by another race.

    Unfortunately, it boils down to a quote by Ayn Rand

    “The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws”

    Unfortunately, by our tacit acceptance, we have allowed all this to happen!

  • Dan

    At 5:46 on August 16th, John wrote “Dan and Ed – I think you are missing the point here. The point is not that the joke may or may not offend someone.”

    You’re absolutely right. The point of the article certainly is not about whether anyone might be offended. With a title of “Why can’t anyone take a joke anymore?” and a sub-heading including the phrase “a harmless Irish gag”, the writer has made it very clear indeed that it’s OK to paint an entire nation as pig ignorant, but any sort of legal action resulting from this is simply not cricket…

  • Christopher Chantrill

    Sorry. I think the joke is a very good joke. It shows the native cunning of the Irish at its best.

    And without the tradition of jokes about drunken lazy Irishmen how would we have got to enjoy Seamus Finnegan, the supposedly useless Irish labourer on Reginald Perrin that turned out to be a management genius?

    “There is no harm in an allowed fool though he do nothing but rail.”

  • Herbert Thornton

    “A complaint was launched. A lengthy legal process ensued, at the end of which Representative Kelly was awarded many thousands of pounds in compensation…”

    Nobody has told us what tribunal or court awarded the many thousands of pounds in compensation, nor the name or names of whoever it was who made the award. Why not?

    Something is clearly very seriously wrong. Whether the defect is in the law itself, or the fitness of whoever composed the court of tribunal is unclear – but the award is both manifestly unjust and an example of very sick tyranny. Is there no means of appealing against the award?

  • ed hall

    Am I alone in finding it amusing to see so many people throwing a paddy over an irish joke ?

  • Matthew Attard

    I must admit that it is very depressing that such a pathetic attitude prevails in a country like Britian: that is more liberal and accepting than most parts of the western world.

    I’m from Malta which, despite it’s magnificent historical and geographical heritage, is plagued by a very sophisticated form of state sanctioned censorship in the form of a censor board and years of enshrined self-censorship of (holding your tongue) during one’s childhood which of course is primarily based on ignorance, a lack of respect and understanding for other people’s different opinions.

    In Malta, there have been several which cases in which a play has been banned from being performed on stage because it offends the “public morals” of a supposedly “catholic” society. The play includes some profanity and a scene in which abortion is mimicked to symbolise the character’s state of depression. The playwriters ended up in court and the judge arrogantly stated it was unacceptable in a “democratic society founded on the rule of law” for any person, no matter what they did, to be allowed to swear in public – even in a theatre as part of a script. In seperate cases an art gallery was prohibited from being shown because the painting featured nude art and university students and magazine editors being taken to court for writing and publishing “sexually explicit and profane” articles and many more cases follow on.

    Having mentioned all these cases as examples, i must point that various figures from the British art community have openly critized all the censoring mentioned, which should be a positive sign that there is hope for reason and humour to prevail in a diverse 21st century British society.

  • Aberdeen Angus

    Dan – “but any sort of legal action resulting from this is simply not cricket…”

    It’s called freedom of speech. Douglass Murray wasn’t having a go at Irish people, he was having a go at self righteous PC types like you.

    “What if we changed it from two Irishmen to two black people, two people with disabilities, two Muslims? Would we suddenly view the joke differently? Would it miraculously metamorphose from a rather jolly one-liner to a rather more distasteful and uncomfortable one?”

    How uncomfortable we felt is irrelevant. In a country with anything approaching freedom of speech people should be able to make jokes about Irish, English, black, white, disabled, christian or muslim people without any legal action resulting.

  • Dana

    Everyone can still demonize Israel and no-one will be offended. They will probably cheer you on.

  • Mary


    The joke wouldn’t be funny if the two characters in the bar were Muslim, since Muslims don’t drink. The Irish on the other hand provide a useful backdrop for stereotypical hapless drinkers. I say that as a person of substantial Irish extraction. If it were two people named Bob and, say, Dan, then it could work but it would be less funny. If it were two people named Muhammed and Osama then it wouldn’t crack a smile.

    Moreover if you watch any Irish comedy you will see that they like to laugh at their stereotypical drunkenness themselves. It forms some of an Irish comic’s best material. Rent a Dylan Moran DVD and see for yourself.

  • HairyNoddy

    The English are (or were) known for their p!ss taking, they are easily the most p!ss taking country on the planet. P!ss taking is in fact an integral part of our culture, and by demanding that we cease taking the p!ss, the so called ‘victims’ of said p!ss taking are showing themselves to be anti English, and therefore racist. Ergo we should sue the b@st@rds.

  • Ian Stewart

    As far as I can see, the quoted joke stands not on national stereotype, but on the grounds of “category mistake”. Its not that good, true, but it is wordplay – something the English language lends itself to.
    Soldiers pay is a disgrace, for the junior ranks anyway. Free speech should be a given, and in the natural play of ideas and debate, objectionable attitudes should be rightly pilloried and held up to ridicule.
    There is, however one important thing to add: Much of our fabled comedy heritage has, at its best, been about poking fun at those in power, when jokes are aimed at the powerless, they are less funny, and much nastier. This is true whether you are Jimmy Carr or Jethro.

  • Gordy

    Stephanie, get over yourself. You’re clearly one of the ‘piggy-faced’ crowd referred to. I’m a Scot, and if I were to be ‘offended’ by every ‘mean Jock’ joke I get told, I’d either be a very rich man or beaten to a pulp many times.

  • Gunner Retired

    Whilst it is generally true that there are in abundance those whom would take offense at any slight (however imagined), it is also true there remains one sect of society that is still fair game for any derision, sleight or defamation: men (in general, fathers in particular), It remains quite safe to hurl upon men the vilest of derision with impunity. Indeed it is the norm even to accost divorcing men with accusations of marital rape, wife battering, etc… even child maolestation… and do so with utter and complete impunity.

    In fact there are Solicitors whom will not take a divorce seriously until such castigations have been hurled into the fray.

    Remember this the next time some Dame complains “I just can’t find a decent man to go out with” (because all the decent men… aka smart men… have learned well the mountainous hazards associated with interacting with the female gender, and have learned to stand clear of women in general!).

  • Still sane

    I’m a lunar-martian-newborn-metaphysical entity, and I found this article offensive because it uses paragraphs – something that is forbidden in my culture, under penalty of solar flares.
    Now where can I file my lawsuit?

  • Guy Leven-Torres

    To destroy a culture-destroys its religion. To destroy freedom and responsible behaviour kill its humour! History proves it every time. This country has had it!

  • ed lancey

    Paddy was unemployed and had few qualifications, so he decided to apply for a job as a labourer at a local building site.

    The foreman wasn’t too sure about Paddy’s experience, so he decided to ask him a simple test question: ‘What is the difference between a girder and a joist?’

    ‘That’s easy,’ replied Paddy, ‘Goethe wrote Faust and Joyce wrote Ulysses!’

  • dean

    great read bang on the money.i`m a red head and has the piss ripped out of me pretty much,who do i complain to?not that i would i love the crack but imagine i was a super sensitive leftie liberal who got offended,or maybe they would`nt choose to be offended for the gingers.anyway Mr Murray brill article.

  • Heikki O’Larry

    Against a common believe Jesus was actually Irish. 33 year old unemployed carpenter who still lived with his Mother. He hung around drinking with his friends all day and Mother still thought he was god.
    Sue me.

    • g1

      give me your name and address

  • Dennis

    I used to work for a company where racist jokes about Pakistanis were regularly stapled to the lunchroom bulletin board. My first thought was, how would I feel about that if I were Pakistani? My second thought was, people must feel certain the company would never hire any Pakistanis, or they wouldn’t post such things.

    Did I say anything? No, because the president of the company ate in that room every day, knew very well what was posted on the board, and never moved to condemn or remove it – a de facto endorsement. Calling out the problem would be calling out the president, and that would be bad for one’s career. So racism was an implicit part of the social contract of working there. That’s poisonous.

    The point here is that with authority comes responsibility. If you’re in a position of power in business or government, your responsibility to model appropriate behavior is greater, because your impact on others too is greater.

    I’m not saying the lawsuit was justified, by the way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.jarvis3 Andrew Jarvis

      That is an example where almost anyone would be offended, and people are being done actual harm. It’s a very bad analogy for 99.999% of the times people make jokes.

  • Andrew

    Isn’t it a little ironic that each of these posts (relating to a mighty fine article) are accompanied to the left with a note inviting the reader to ‘report’ any offence? … or is that just me?

  • Sarah Sukumar

    Well said as always

  • oldmanrivers999

    Report from the trenches: Sorry about not getting back to you earlier, Douglas, my bus was running late but the situation has worsened considerably – send three and fourpence.