Sorry, I'm just too politically correct
I'm amazed how common the belief is that we are secretly amused by jokes about blacks and poofs
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 10 September 1999
A fat, bald Scot is pulled out of the audience on stage, largely on the basis of a fancied resemblance to Barry out of EastEnders. He seems to be quite enjoying the stream of harmless insults, but, as the drag queen takes a pause for breath, suddenly decides to tell a joke of his own. "What do you call a field full of black people working?" he says, beaming. "I," the drag queen answers, lip curling, "have no idea whatsoever." "The good old days," he says.
The crowd makes a sort of automatic joke-response, a kind of mock-tired groan, but they are glancing at each other, and, in a second, someone at the back shouts "fuck off." And then the audience takes it up, shouting "Off, off, off, off."
The Scot goes off, and the cabaret moves on. "What did he say?" my friend, who is French, asks me. I translate. "That's incredible, no?" he says, not tempted by laughter.
I wonder about political correctness. It's almost always treated in the press as something imposed on the ordinary decent majority by an over- educated and paranoid elite. "Politically incorrect" is, in a lot of quarters, an automatic nod of approval for someone's views, and seems to encompass pretty well anything that might offend any other person, from someone prepared to describe Vanessa Feltz as fat to the lunatics who deny the Holocaust ever happened. Being politically incorrect is a quality to be ascribed to anyone or anything you approve of.
It's been striking, reading the obituaries of Alan Clark, how he was always being described as a beacon of political incorrectitude. In reality he was at least as unimpressed by the pieties of the right as by those of the left, and was a vegetarian. He also happily referred to "homophobia", and deplored it.
Political correctness, we are led to suppose, is automatically a bad thing, and something that is imposed on people's behaviour. If you don't think that racist jokes are funny, for instance, that is always assumed to be because you have some political agenda to follow; if you do find them funny, on the other hand, that's just because they're politically incorrect. It's amazing how common the belief is that everyone is secretly amused by jokes about Jews, blacks and poofs.
I was a bit surprised the other day to be taken to task by Miles Kington for writing something politically correct about Richmal Crompton's William books. At least, he described what I said as being politically correct. In fact, all I'd done was point out that one of the books, published as late as 1938, expressed what could only be read as admiration for Mosley's blackshirts. Frankly, I don't think you have to be "politically correct" to think that Mosley wasn't very admirable, or to be surprised to find these sentiments where they occur.
But the objection to pointing this out was quite an interesting one; it was that I hadn't mentioned that the books are also very funny. Well, yes, but even funny books contain ideas, and it certainly isn't being humourless to concentrate on the ideas, and not to emasculate them by saying "Oh, but it's just a funny book, so lighten up."
And that tactic, of saying that anyone who doesn't laugh at jokes about Jews and blacks and poofs lacks a sense of humour, is almost impossible to counter, and audiences are driven to laugh, fearing the accusation. Utterly inept comedians have built whole careers merely out of saying these offensive things; if they ever talked about anything else, it would quickly become apparent how untalented they are.
All the same, I think that humour is now moving on. We don't laugh at jokes about cuckoldry, and, in London at least, you hear jokes about race less and less.
Is this imposed on people by an over-educated majority? Well, it's hard to say. Certainly, on Sunday night it seemed pretty clear that an ordinary pub crowd wasn't amused by a joke about slavery, and wasn't prepared to listen to any more of it. I don't think they were being priggish; they just didn't want to put up with some fat pillock wasting their time. You may call it, admiringly, "political incorrectness"; quite a lot of people see hatred. In the end, things will change not because anyone is driven by a political agenda. In the end, people will stop wanting to listen to jokes about Pakis and niggers because, for some reason no one can quite explain, they have suddenly stopped being funny.
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