You wake up groggy one morning, with a headache and a burning sense of shame. You cast your mind back to the wee hours of the night before and recall the things you shouldn’t have done, the things you shouldn’t have said. And then you remember the llama.
Forget stealing traffic cones. The five French teenagers in Bordeaux who drunkenly borrowed Serge the llama from a local zoo and brought him round town for a tram ride have shown that a drunken escapade can be something joyful and genuinely inspired. There is something almost heroic about the joie de vivre encapsulated by their stunt.
It’s ingenious, it’s fun, it’s relatively harmless. Serge didn’t get hurt in the process and even looks like he’s rather enjoying himself. Millions of people around the world had their day momentarily cheered by the now-famous picture of a llama being cuddled by a bunch of smiling boys. The boys (or should I say ‘lads’) have been granted reprieve from their arrest thanks to the viral success of their antics. Everybody wins.
On our side of the Channel, however, things haven’t been so rosy. Two nineteen-year-old girls in Chester dressed up as the Twin Towers, mid-attack, complete with people falling out of the exploding buildings – and they won the costume competition. Students in Birmingham were reportedly refused access to a “Fab n Halloween” night after showing up in apparently racist costumes. Some were dressed like Mexicans, some as Native Americans, the women’s basketball team wore bat costumes (in blackface) and one student went dressed as a Muslim – although he turned out to be a Sacha Baron Cohen character.
There is a fine line between pushing the boundaries of comedy and reinforcing prevalent racial stereotypes. I broadly agree with Stewart Lee’s support of political correctness in comedy; often, the ‘PC gone mad’ Clarkson brigade are more worried about defending their blinkered worldview than championing freedom of speech and comedic experimentation. Yet, I also appreciate South Park’s puerile-yet-incisive brand of humour.
Admittedly, South Park sometimes gets it wrong. But what they’re doing is satire, which works by appropriating bigoted views (in the form of Eric Cartman) and exposing them as flawed by bringing them to an uncomfortable extreme. As someone who writes a satirical blog called Stuff White Brits Like, I’m used to unfounded accusations of racism from anyone whose sense of humour doesn’t quite correspond with mine. Humour – including Sacha Baron Cohen – can be misunderstood.
When humour is used to make a serious point, there is some leeway. But what, exactly, is showing up to a Halloween party dressed like a Mexican trying to prove? And yes, you may want to dress like a bat, but you should also be prepared to recognise that blackface, and its minstrel show connotations, may be offensive to some people.
The standard comeback is “Just lighten up, it’s just a bit of fun”. But student nights have increasingly been attracting behaviour that is at best misguided and at worst downright dangerous. A night club in Leeds recently attracted criticism for its “Freshers Violation” night, which appears to encourage rape. An Oxford college rugby club sent round an email entitled “Free Pussy” suggesting that its members spike girls’ drinks. Humour is used insidiously to normalise extreme viewpoints, to the point where they have become endemic in university drinking culture.
These particular Birmingham students probably didn’t intend to cause anyone distress, and perhaps some of the costume bans might have been over-sensitive. But an excess of political correctness feels like a welcome respite in an environment where misogyny and stereotyping are the norm and generally left unchallenged. As the Birmingham Ethnic Minorities Association said: “Skin colour and culture are NOT costumes.”
It’s simple. Why do people drink? Because they want to have fun. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if your idea of “fun” is dependent on potentially insulting minorities, foreign cultures, women or victims in a terrorist attack, you might have to re-evaluate a few things. Ideally while hugging a big fluffy animal.