Growing up in Glasgow I saw the word ‘Paki’ spray-painted on to the metal shutters of corner shops across the city. I was called a Paki. It was whispered, spoken and occasionally shouted, as I was pursued through the streets, running in terror from yobs. Those more attuned with the socio-geographic affairs of the Indian subcontinent would note my turban and be aware, therefore, that I am not Pakistani in origin. Actually, the jibe was all the more hurtful for its inaccuracy. In later years I was grateful for the rise of political correctness and the protection from racist and vicious language it affords. But now even I get the sneaking suspicion that things have gone too far.
As a writer and performer I have noticed a trend whereby audiences seem to stop themselves from laughing at jokes that are perfectly funny but might not be PC. On stage in Edinburgh I told a wee story about buying a pound and a half of ham from Somerfield (I’m an edgy, dark and dangerous stand-up). I mentioned the bizarre uniforms that supermarkets make their deli-counter staff wear: I referred to their ‘tabards’ as health and safety niqabs. It’s not the funniest observation in the world, but the clothing does resemble that of orthodox Muslim women who cover themselves floor to ceiling in black — but I could see the confusion on the faces of the audience. They didn’t know if they were allowed to laugh at the word ‘niqab’.
In another show I have been working on we make mention of the Twin Towers. We don’t mock what happened, merely refer to it as an event that was statistically highly unlikely to occur. We ran the joke for the first time last Wednesday and while our audience laughed, they clearly weren’t at all sure that they were meant to.
You can witness this kind of peculiar self-censoring across the length and breadth of the country, evidence that political correctness, far from assisting us, is creating confusion. What began as an attempt to control offensive language seems to have become a weapon to control thought. People cannot tell the difference between acceptable comic references and racism. The mention of minority cultures and observations of how others live is part of the process of trying to understand them: it’s not racist. Sometimes people make misjudgments. But that’s to be expected — comedy exists on the boundaries between the familiar and the weird, the acceptable and the unacceptable, the funny and the cruel. Increasingly however, these boundaries — which had previously been a matter of personal taste — are dogmatically enforced.
The Thought Police don’t even need to have been in the room to judge your comments and tarnish your name. Thanks to Twitter, blogging and Facebook, jokes can be repeated and reported instantly — out of context — by those who object to them. So when, last year, Jimmy Carr joked that the positive side of service personnel coming back from the Middle East with missing limbs was that the medal chances of the British Paralympics team would improve, he was branded a traitor. Complaints flowed from every direction. But the servicemen themselves delighted in the joke, as Carr well knew — he is a regular visitor to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and the rehabilitation unit Headley Court, where hundreds of disabled servicemen and women receive treatment.
Should enough angry people take offence at a comedy routine, your career can be over before you leave the stage. Frankie Boyle — arguably one of the finest comedians of his generation — recently told a joke at the expense of Down’s Syndrome sufferers and ended up in an exchange with Sharon Smith, a mother of a Down’s child. Smith later posted a review of the gig admitting: ‘I knew what to expect. I put myself in the situation.’ But a storm of Twitter protest by people who had not been at the gig resulted in calls for Boyle to be sacked from the BBC. How bizarre. How utterly wrong-headed.
These cases, I fear, are just the start. In June, police successfully prosecuted a Bristol councillor for referring to a female colleague as a ‘coconut’ (meaning she had disregarded her Asian roots — brown on the outside, white on the inside). The comment was no doubt offensive and ignorant — just as those boys who shouted ‘Paki’ at me were — but to use the full force of the law to restrict nothing more than rude words threatens our freedom very fundamentally.
While the politically correct vigilantes no doubt cackled with delight as the Bristol judgment was passed, they should reflect that the laughter will die away. If this trend continues, we comedians will find ourselves under police investigation too. And as we step into the dock, those who sought to outlaw the giving of offence will suddenly discover that they have also killed comedy.