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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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