I straightened my Union Jack tie and looked straight down the lens. Was I really going to do this? Today? Well, there was only one way to find out…
Did you hear the one about the Woolwich murder? Probably not, comedy’s been a little quiet on the subject for the last week. Even Twitter, where paedophilia, death, and genocide can provide punchlines mere moments after they’ve happened* seemed muted.
Usually, a tragedy is the time at which Twitter divides (roughly equally in my timeline) between those making puns about it, and those saying “Hey! A man / woman / Thatcher just died here people! Show a little respect!” Last week, half of those people suddenly seemed to discover that discretion was the something part of whatsit, and decided to stay quiet.
When a Dutch show included a cheap reference to the murder in a sketch about Eurovision, the hyperventilation of the British press (who, lest we forget, are staunch defenders of freedom of speech) became a constant, high-pitched whine capable of shattering snail shells. All of the coverage mis-characterised the sketch as ‘mocking the murder of Lee Rigby’. All of the headlines named Lee Rigby, who wasn’t referred to in the sketch at all, as the butt of the sketch. It’s pretty clear from watching it that they weren’t mocking Rigby at all, they were using his murderers as a stereotype for all of Britain, the same way they were using German stereotypes for the Germans.
But any joke which contains reference to the Woolwich murder is – in the eyes of the British press – a joke that mocks Lee Rigby.
In character as Sir Ian Bowler, a corrupt MP, on the Thursday morning I tweeted a not-hugely-amusing joke about MPs resenting being recalled to Parliament every time they went away on holiday. I was surprised by the fact that someone was hurt by it. I’d actually made someone cry with a joke. And not in a speaking-truth-to-power way, in a you’re-probably-an-inconsiderate-dick way.
So I decided to ask social media whether or not I should do an Ian Bowler video that day. There was a lot I wanted to say about the responses of politicians to the incident, and the ways in which they were spinning it to suit their own agenda. I was cross that the half-truths (which are equally half-untruths) of a whole swathe of people from Theresa May to the EDL weren’t being challenged in the media’s narrative. I was angry. And when I’m angry I tend to put on a blue suit and bellow into a camera.
Like during the riots.
But I’d been brought down to earth by that tweet. Should I say something that I knew would upset a lot of people? Should I say it that day?
The responses were interesting. The advice from most comedians was to leave it well alone. Most people who like watching the videos wanted one. Family members (mine) politely suggested that holding off might not be a bad idea, at least until they had had time to board up the windows.
One comment, however, completely took the wind out of my sails.
I think Sir Ian should be thinking about the victim’s family, not his own career.
I’ll deal with the issue of respect in a minute, but the accusation of careerism was particularly painful. I don’t know what sort of career the commenter assumes talking into a video camera in a shed comprises (My wife could tell him. “Not much of one.”) but it was a point I couldn’t answer.
As someone whose career is his jokes, and often his jokes in response to the news, I can’t help but be something of a vulture, picking at the carrion of current affairs. It’s what I do, it’s the way I communicate. Some people write columns in newspapers, some people write plays, some people go and nod at each other on news programmes. I write jokes. They are the way I work out what I’m thinking.
When it comes to respect, of course, I don’t think it’s the satirist’s job to offer respect. Quite the reverse, when the whole country is united in feeling something, it’s the satirist’s job to point out the ways in which we are blinding ourselves to the truth. Or to what they see as the truth.
Even if it’s wrong, especially if it’s uncomfortable, there should be someone taking an unpopular position.
Someone should always challenge the prevailing media narrative, especially when a consensus is reached as quickly and completely as it was last week.
If a satirist has a duty it is not to show respect, not to defer to the social norms which are being used to silence and ensure conformity of word and thought.
There was a survey recently, which scientifically proved (did not scientifically prove) that there was such a thing as ‘too soon‘. Distance in time allows us to see the violation of social norms as ‘benign’. However, in a country where we are all more than happy to work ourselves into a group-think lather at the drop of a people’s princess, one must wonder whether our humour should be ‘benign’.
Gawker recently lamented the fact that ‘too soon’ had apparently disappeared from the world with social media. The response to the Boston bombing showed, they thought, that Twitter had killed the concept of ‘too soon’. What they might have seen in the Woolwich case is the way in which Twitter is used to police ‘too soon’.
There have, of course, been jokes. Sickipedia has 5 pages of jokes about the Woolwich murder. Most of them gleefully taking the opportunity to be openly racist.
The left has also found its outlet: the EDL. From the EDF gags to the ‘Never Submit to Aslan’ photoshops, the EDL are the one thing the country is letting itself laugh at. The anarchist blogger who pleads with his audience not to laugh at the EDL may well be right that the problem they pose is serious and imminent. However, in a culture where the central tenets of the narrative are not open for mockery, we latch onto the next closest thing. Sorry, EDL.
In their responses to the Aurora shootings both Dane Cook and Chris Rock had different experiences. Cook used the tragedy to make a tired joke about how bad the film was; Rock used it to raise issues of gun control and joke about them.
One used the moment to joke about the issues, his anger, and what he felt was important, and was rightly praised for so doing. The other used it to trot out some hack material, and caught the rage of the Internet.
There is no such thing as too soon. There is, however, such a thing as too stupid.
I’m a great believer in the fact that not all self-censorship is wrong. Taking the impact of what we say into account when we say something is not a betrayal of free speech. Taking responsibility for our words and the effect they have on others isn’t always a bad idea.
However, we shouldn’t frame all of our discussions as if they are likely to be beamed directly into the faces of grieving relatives, even though, with the Internet, they can. And we really shouldn’t let concerns about what people will think our motives are govern whether or not we speak out.
Ian Bowler will be back tomorrow. Some of the things I wanted to say still need saying. Other seem tired now, or trite, or just like I couldn’t pull them off as my rage has matured. Look forward to that. Some slightly stale material that feels like it would have been more relevant last week.
Because I didn’t do it. I switched the camera off, took off the tie, turned on the News, and felt awful. Awful that I was conspiring in silence, awful that I hadn’t had the courage of my convictions, awful that I hadn’t said something deeply offensive to right-thinking individuals. Just awful.
* For those unaware of Twitter, it’s a system used to ensure that Frankie Boyle gets pretty much blanket coverage by The Daily Mail.
- Sick Dutch TV sketch mocks Lee Rigby murder (thesun.co.uk)
- Attacks on Muslims soar in wake of Woolwich murder (ramyabdeljabbar.wordpress.com)