Thursday, December 01, 2011

Things that made me sad

When I'm in a supermarket queue and I see a nice old lady in front of me buying a copy of the Express or the Mail. I want to slap it out of her hand and say "Don't you know this newspaper is toxic? It's brainwashing you to be hateful?"

Similarly, when I see that Jeremy Clarkson's latest book is selling well in the book charts. Who is buying it? Why do people agree with him? Why is he on tv so much? He seems to occupy an Alternative Britain to me - one which takes all the nastiness and smallmindedness of the 1950s but filters it through a mocking, ironic modern viewpoint. I can't stand the man, and I always switch off the television when he comes on. He's like a very spoilt child who revels in the attention he gets from behaving badly. Whenever he's in polite company he'll try to shock the adults by saying "willy" and "bum". It's altogether best to ignore him.

And yesterday, when he was invited on The One Show - the marvellously anodyne early evening magazine program - a program which is the equivalent of a visit to grandma's house, he didn't disappoint. Here he is, commenting on what to do with the people striking about public sector pay.

"I'd have them all shot!"

Clarkson has since apologised, although thousands of people have complained. On YouTube and other sites, there seem to be slightly more people defending Clarkson than those who are complaining about him though. As I said, a lot of people are buying his books.

One argument is that he was joking. Another is that we need to consider the context. Earlier Clarkson had said that the strikes had made it easy to "whizz around" London and that shops had been empty. So he seemed to be implying that for him at least, there were benefits to the strike. But then he made the point that because it's the BBC "you have to balance this", and then he made the extreme comment. So it could be seen that none of what he was saying was actually his point of view, but that he was simply stating two sides of an argument.

I agree that it's important to consider context. However, I'm aruging from the other side. Had Clarkson said his "joke" on a satirical late-night programme like "Have I Got News For You", then it would have still annoyed people who don't like him, but it's likely to have been understood as a joke. But he said it on a popular, family primetime slot, where children will been watching.

Here's an example of a conversation I had last week with my 8 year old nephew on the telephone.

Me: Hi, what are you doing?
Nephew: Oh? Ummm. (long pause) I'm talking to you on the telephone.
Me: No, I meant what were doing just before you started talking to me.
Nephew: Oh, I was playing cards with grand-dad.

Children have a tendency to take things literally, and so when Clarkson starts saying that he'd have all the strikers taken out in front of their families and shot, it's at the least going to get some kids asking why Clarkson wants to shoot mummy for going on strike.

Telling jokes is a skill. That's why professional comedians get paid to do it. And one of the skills you learn is comic timing. You need to know that your audience will "get" the joke. And if your joke results in thousands of people complaining about you, then the joke has failed.

And, more cynically, we might ask. Was he really joking? Nobody knows what goes on in his head, or what he'd do if he was suddenly given absolute power to rule the UK. I'm afraid I've heard "It's only a joke" far too many times as an excuse from people who were behaving badly and then they try to shrug it off when challenged. People often use jokes as a way of saying something that's taboo or to test the waters. I've sat quietly in pubs or gyms and overheard conversations start with an offhand jokey comment about gays or Muslims, and after the laughter shows that everyone's onboard, the jokes can quickly get followed up by rather more nasty comments.

So I never fully buy "It was a joke!" It's the sort of argument I started hearing school bullies saying when I was 12, and that's really the level of argument that it brings you down to.

And even if it was a joke, it works both ways. The obvious retort is "Fine! Jeremy Clarkson, you should be shot in front of your family. And so should George Osbourne and David Cameron, and all the bankers who got the country into this mess etc etc.." Cameron himself has tried to downplay Clarkson's comments by referring to them as silly. But then, they're friends.

So, if you want to degrade public debate by bringing in jokes about killing your opponents in, then you have to allow your opponents to do the same. And of course, everyone will swear that they're joking, right up until they pull the trigger.

American political debate started using the language and imagery of violence in recent months, particularly in the language coming from the Republicans and their media. Remember Sarah Palin's infamous "crosshairs" target list map of the US.

And then this happened to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Because you might be joking. I might know you're joking. But not everyone is going to get the joke.

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