All I am saying is give laughter a chance

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The Independent Online

There can be only one explanation for the paradoxes of human behaviour: we are a perverse, death-driven species, forever seeking the frustration of our own desires. Why else would the organisers of a rally intended to demonstrate a desire for peace invite Benjamin Netanyahu to address it? And why else would a rugby club in Congleton turn to the Conservative MP Ann Winterton in the expectation of a good after-dinner laugh? A better idea all round would have been for Netanyahu to talk at Congleton and Ann Winterton to make her mangled joke at the pro-Israeli peace-rally in Trafalgar Square, where it would have been drowned out by Muslim protesters.

Which drowning out was yet another example of our perverseness, since it hardly serves the cause of peace to close your ears to the words of those with whom you need to make it. But then we all labour under the utter conviction of our own rectitude. A Dutch politician inveighs against some of the realities, as he sees them, of multiculturalism in action, so we kill him. An English politician with no gift for comedy muddies, as we see it, the waters of racial variousness, so we sack her. Behold the logic of our democracy: we believe in diversity and will shoot or silence anyone who believes otherwise.

It was a good job Ann Winterton's joke was not funny. You could hear the national sigh of relief. Thank God – thank everybody's god – we weren't caught choking on a laugh only 30 miles from the election of three BNP councillors. As it was, in a show of near-unprecedented unanimity, we could all wish her good riddance on comedic no less than on political grounds. But what if – just what if – her joke had been funny?

Of course, for it to have been funny, for Ann Winterton to have properly grasped and remembered it, to have understood the genre to which it belongs and to have known how to tell it, she would have had to be a more subtle person intellectually as well as morally. A good joke works like a little novel, the tale more often than not rebounding on the teller, so that we are never quite sure who is making a fool of whom.

When the Frenchman, the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Jew are being flogged and are each allowed one item of protection for their backs, the Irishman refusing anything since he feels no pain and the Jew deciding that in that case he'll have the Irishman, it's impossible to feel seriously aggrieved for any party. You could say the Jew makes a monkey out of the Irishman, but you could also say the Irishman has courage and the Jew has not. Myself I'd be slightly peeved if I were the Frenchman or the Scotsman for being relegated to a minor role in the story, but you could argue that they're the smartest of the bunch for staying away from the punchline.

As with a novel, so with a joke; no good one was ever made out of ideological certainty. There is a pious version of that truth that holds that no joke that bears on race can ever be funny anyway, no matter how subtle its dramatisation. But that's wishful thinking. We don't improve the world by pretending it's simpler than it is. On the contrary, experience teaches that we make it worse by pretending we are holier than we are.

A little wrongness is good for us. Psychologists of laughter are forever insisting we are better off when we laugh, that our levels of desirable chemicals rise while our levels of undesirable chemicals drop, and this not in any direct proportion to the niceness content of whatever we are laughing at. If anything, a suggestion of moral trespass in the comedy usually makes us feel better still. It can be a wonderful release, when we have been feeling angry or uncomfortable or put upon, to dissipate those frustrations in laughter. And who would dare affirm that we are not more reasonable with one another when we are less fraught.

Is this not what the Irishman, Scotsman, Frenchman, Spaniard, Pole and Pakistani joke is for? Allowing that every community has its own version, must we not assume that it is a universal, time-honoured strategy for negotiating hostility and fear?

Give laughter a chance, I say. When it comes to addressing the difficulties of our being with one another – you with me, me with you, us with them, they with us: the unending crisis of otherness and togetherness – we should, of course, give anything a chance. Anything, that is, except the sanctimoniousness of the "we would all be one big happy family if it were not for the extremists" sort, which is to serious discourse what Ann Winterton's 10-a-penny Pakistani joke is to mirth.

There is reason, in the events of the last week, to worry about that word "extremist". A person does not become an extremist by simple virtue of hostility to accepted views. (Strange, how moderate in death the Dutch are suddenly finding Pim Fortuyn.) Nor is it ipso facto racism to seek unorthodox solutions to problems of community relations that idealists tell us do not in fact exist. It would be dignifying Ann Winterton to see her as a champion of any of our essential freedoms, but to accuse her of extremism or racism on the evidence of her flaccid jest is not only to take a hammer to a peanut, it is to make worthless currency of essential words.

Create a climate in which every soldier who carries a gun is a Nazi and every failed comedian a racist and you end up forgeting who the Nazis were and what actual racism can look like. Rather than hear what we do not want to hear, we silence any voice which is not our own; rather than see what we do not want to see, we make ourselves blind. And all the while Monsieur Le Pen and the BNP mole away in our darkness and amass their votes.