25 February, 2009

What's funny?

Hazel Blears MP got in an early plug this morning on the Today Programme for a speech she is giving this evening (remember when news was reported only after something had happened?). However, she was speaking of the sound notion that by improving communication and understanding we can reduce misplaced beliefs that some things we say, or do, will be offensive to other communities. When asked if Irish, English, Scottish jokes are OK, she struggled a bit. Who wouldn’t? It depends on context, intent etc, on which it’s nigh on impossible to be certain, let alone to legislate.

Now, off down a tangent. What is funny? Answer: anything that makes us laugh. Is it possible to laugh at something we shouldn’t? Answer: of course it is.

‘How dare he?’ said Billy Connolly, when hearing a fellow comedian list a number of issues that he deemed as ‘off limits'. The Big Yin had a point.

Take just one of the myriad subjects about which we would not wish to hear jokes and then tell us a joke about it. If we find it funny, then it
is. We may be ashamed of ourselves moments later but our immediate reaction can’t always be considered and our ‘appropriateness filter' may not be in place in time to stop a smile.

To claim that something offensive cannot be funny is nonsense. However, it
can be wrong. And if it is, we must be prepared for the social or legal sanctions that follow.

Were we to end up in court and to be found guilty, we can hope (vainly, I suspect) that the magistrate’s comments would relate only to the misdeed, not to its laughter quotient. To say that the offence wasn’t funny would be irrelevant; just as it would be to say, ‘I find you not guilty because what you said was an absolute hoot.’

Improving our antennae to pick up the sensitivities of others has to be a good thing, and it doesn’t need to involve a slide into PC. Miss Blears is bang on to suggest that understanding each other better will help us to avoid shaky assumptions born of unwarranted fears about giving offence. To this end, her speech rightly refers to, ‘a need for moral clarity, a dividing line rooted in our overriding sense of what is right and wrong.’

In the meantime, the rightness or wrongness of ‘English, Irish, Scottish jokes, won’t prevent them from being found funny; and saying ‘it was only a joke’ will never be an excuse for hurting others.

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