I refuse to watch every word I say, carefully vet every joke in case it offends some sensitive soul. The other evening I was in a restaurant with four friends, members of a Speakers’ Group who are supposed to be able to discuss all subjects intelligently and without animosity. We politely listen and clap even if we don’t agree with the speaker’s political or other views, because it is an exercise in speaking and listening.
So I was very surprised indeed to get an email after the meal from one of our number, an Indian guy, who said he didn’t enjoy a harmless little joke I told about his ethnic community. I could just as easily have told it about my own father’s ethnic community - the Greek-Cypriots.
It was the joke about the Indian guy living in Watford who went to the local railway station and tried to buy a ticket to a little village station in India. The booking clerk said it wasn’t possible to book thru; he could only get a ticket as far as Euston. He’d then have to get a Eurostar ticket, and so on, buying tickets in stages till he reached his final destination.
After spending some weeks visiting friends and family in India, the guy goes to the village railway station and asks for a ticket to Watford. The booking clerk asks: ‘Junction or High Street?’.
What on Earth is wrong with that joke? I know some people might regard it as ‘racist’, but all it is saying is that a lot of Asians live in Watford, among other areas, and that Indian railways are more helpful than the British ones. Would this guy have taken offense if I’d changed the country to Cyprus, and made it a Greek-Cypriot guy booking a thru ticket to Haringey? Well I’m half Greek-Cypriot and I wouldn’t have taken offense, nor to harmless jokes about gays, Spiritualists or other labels which apply to me.
‘How many rockabillies does it take to change a light bulb?’ is one variation on a standard joke. The punchline being ‘Two, one to change the bulb, and the other to say it isn’t as good as the original.’ (Rockabillies are fans of this 1950s genre of music, country-based rock’n'roll, who tend to seek out original recordings and artists. Ageing former garage mechanics hauled out of retirement because they once made a rockabilly record 50 years ago are hailed as idols by European rockabillies when they pick up a guitar again and try to remember their old non-hit which sold a few records in the Deep South.)
So is this joke out-of-bounds because it offends rockabilly purists? Is there ANYTHING we can laugh at nowadays? Mothers-in-law, women in general, gay men, lesbians, short people, fat people, thin people, tall people, people who are slightly short-sighted or deaf (I’m both) - for Heaven’s sake is ALL this now ‘non-pc’? Then no wonder comics are no longer funny, and most sitcoms don’t even raise a titter from me - ‘titterless, titterLESS’ as Frankie Howerd might have said. He’d be declared non-pc presumably for being camp and denegrating women and those not quite the full shilling: ‘Funny woman, ooh she’s a funny woman. No, no don’t laugh. Don’t laugh, missus. It could be one of your own, no don’t laugh!’
This type of humor is now out of fashion, declared non-pc along with the really hurtful racist jokes told by the likes of the late Bernard Manning, so I believe. But perhaps he was done an injustice too, I never actually saw him on stage and he was rarely on TV.
Meanwhile, it seems you can get away with almost anything if you call it satire. ‘Little Britain’ has some very blatantly racist material which is most definitely offensive to ethnic and other minorities if taken seriously, but being satirical it is accepted. It is also extremely funny, one of the few modern sitcoms which are. ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ was a similar program - denegrating ethnic minorities and women (’you silly old moo’) but Johnny Speight got away with it because Warren Mitchell, who played Alf Garnett, was really a leftie poking fun at mysogonist racists.
Whether satirical or just plain funny, I don’t see why jokes and sitcoms should be censored just because they feature certain minority and, in some cases, non-minority groups. Surely we can all laugh at ourselves. I laugh at gay jokes, or jokes featuring gay men, even gay stereotypes. So long as there is no real malicious intent, I don’t see why all comedy should be censored in this way. Of course we know the stereotype ‘nagging wife’ or ’hideous dominating ugly mother-in-law’ is not to be taken too seriously - they are jokes, to make life bearable, to lighten our daily load.
But it is not just comedy and jokes which are censored. This Christmas I received two cards from America. It is very noticeable that all references to Christmas or New Year have been censored there for fear of offending non-Christians. I’m a non-Christian myself, but I still send and receive Christmas/New Year cards without getting offended. I would be a sensitive soul if I dropped down dead just because someone wished me a Merry Christmas. Yet these American cards say either ‘Happy Holidays’ or refer to ‘holidays’ rather than Christmas or New Year. ‘Season’s greetings’ is the increasingly fashionable British equivalent I guess, but it all seems rather silly if we are going to quibble or get upset over words like this.
Santa Claus is apparently still considered ‘pc’, but the British ‘Father Christmas’ has been declared persona non-grata. So what are we supposed to call this character - ‘Person Mid-Winter Festival?’ Have you decorated your mid-Winter Festival tree? And ‘Santa Claus’ is a corruption of St Nicholas, and so presumably offensive to non-Christians as well.
From America come such ridiculous ‘pc’ expressions as ‘visually challenged’ for the short sighted, or ‘vertically disadvantaged’ for those short of stature. And it is not as if the various ‘pc’ words and expressions stay the same. It is very confusing for older people when ‘black’ was once a derogatory term for a person of African descent, and they were taught to say ‘colored person’, but now that is considered offensive and ‘black’ the correct term.
The same with ‘queer’. Once considered very offensive towards gay people, it has now apparently been reclaimed by gays and we read about ‘queer culture’ and ‘queer history’ in the gay press. People of a happy disposition, or who just like bright jolly colors presumably will one day reclaim the word ‘gay’ for themselves.
The deciding factor in all this politically correct terminology and censorship should be whether the word, the joke, the sketch or whatever is malicious, really hurtful, or refers to events which are too awful and recent to joke about. Even this last one is difficult, as it was apparently laughter which got people thru World War II, and there is a long tradition of so-called ’black humor’ (which has nothing to do with people of African descent of course.) Laughing about death and tragedy is how some people deal with it.
All these things are very subjective. When my partner had just died, I made a joke to the doctor who came to sign the death certificate. It was the worst moment in my life so far, and to lighten the mood I joked.
So it is very difficult to make hard and fast rules. But generally speaking, I am against censorship unless it is to prevent really malicious humor or indeed anything said, written or performed with real malicious intent.
There was once a Jewish drag queen called ‘Auntie Flo’ (Marc Fleming) who always said something topical in her weekly Sunday appearance at The Black Cap, Camden Town. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was paying a visit to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and Marc Fleming quipped: ‘Of course she only went to pay the gas bill’. Some of the audience walked out, and never came back. But Marc got away with it because he was Jewish, and it was satire, i.e. ‘how could an Israeli PM visit Germany of all places?’ was what Marc was saying.
So it is very difficult to draw up hard and fast rules. But I certainly feel we should all lighten up and be able to laugh at ourselves, and even terrible events such as that, if it helps us cope with life.
Any writing, speech, joke or sitcom, etc. which encourages someone to physically harm someone else or certain group of people should be censored. Anything which deliberately pokes fun at someone else’s religion or sacred writings, prophets, etc. likewise if it is going to cause real offense. But it is so hard to lay down rules - Catholics have always joked about their own religion, Moslems presumably don’t. But it will be a sad day when all jokes about various people meeting St Peter at the Pearly Gates are all banned for fear of offending someone or other.