A serious look at humour

Peter Jackson
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The problem with political correctness is it’s not funny.

That’s the main concern among many of those who protest any incursion on their right to mouth off at will.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the funniest men in Britain has taken up the torch against legislated censorship.

Rowan Atkinson, best known for his roles as Mr. Bean and Blackadder, has spoken out for years about proposed laws to limit free speech.

In 2005, in a speech to the British parliament, he argued that a bill seeking a ban on hate speech against religions threatened to undermine the core principles of open discourse.

“The freedom to criticize or ridicule ideas — even if they are sincerely held beliefs — is a fundamental freedom, and a law which says that you can ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very odd law indeed,” he said.

“It promotes the idea that there should be a right not to be offended, when I think that the right to offend is far more important than a right not to be offended.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the topic has been a hot one among two of the more right-leaning media outlets in Canada, the National Post and Maclean’s magazine.

In one of a series of year-end reflections last month, the National Post’s Joseph Brean expostulated on the death of humour in an ever-increasingly correct world.

“In Canada especially, where hurt feelings are now specifically compensated in human rights law, taking offence looks like a growth industry.”

Both news outlets gave extensive coverage in 2009-10 to a human rights case against Maclean’s columnist Mark Steyn, who had penned a book warning, in a nutshell, that the infiltration of radical Islam is destroying Western democracy.

But the penchant to censor criticism is not specific to religious fundamentalism. And the debate about humour and censorship has hit home many times.

One of the most interesting local examples sprang up in November, when journalist Pam Pardy Ghent posted a remark on her Facebook page that mentioned then premier Danny Williams’ private parts. She was immediately sacked from her volunteer government post.

Ghent milked the subsequent media exposure gleefully — most notably appearing in a front page Post article the day Williams announced his retirement. But the intent of her remarks was rarely given a second look. They weren’t particularly funny, but neither were they meant to be a slur on the premier. For the most part, the boundaries of speech in this society — notwithstanding those that clearly fall under the realms of slander and incitement — are the limits of good taste. And that is obviously a moving target.

Take, for example, the famous quip by federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz during the 2008 listeriosis outbreak.

Discussing the possible political fallout of the deadly tainted meat crisis, Ritz said it would be like “death by a thousand cuts — or should I say cold cuts.”

This is funny. But not when people are dying, and when you’re the one in charge

of stopping it. Throngs of people across the country demanded Ritz’s head on a platter, and understandably so.

Of course, they weren’t actually asking for Ritz’s severed pate on a serving dish. And this is another minefield for purveyors of humour and hyperbole: literalism. It was front and centre, for example, when Danny Williams appeared to advocate execution by firing squad a couple of years back. Remember “They should be shot over there!” — reacting to an ill-considered press release from Eastern Health?

It was a bit over the top. But you have to ask yourself why many of those so taken aback by such a simple colloquialism would later condemn the government for taking huge offence at a lame joke.

This is not to underplay the importance of decency and decorum, but rather to illustrate how legislating such mercurial principles can set dangerous precedents.

As the Post’s Brean says, “In the war between literalism and irony, the first casualty is jokes.”

A final comment on humour (since it’s a tool I attempt to use to varying degrees of success): it is neither a cop-out nor an excuse.

When an utterance goes over like a lead balloon, there is no recourse in saying it was just a joke. There’s very little daylight between a failed joke and a base remark.

On the other hand, humour can shine much needed light on a serious situation.

In the right setting, it can illuminate issues otherwise missed by conventional analysis. Numerous writers, from Mark Twain to Ray Guy, have demonstrated the penetrating clarity humour can bring to a discussion.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: National Post

Geographic location: Canada, Britain

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Recent comments

  • Jerry Bannister
    January 04, 2011 - 07:27

    Humour may shine much needed light on serious situations, but sometimes it just shines light on amusing errors. For example, take this headline posted today on VOCM's web site: "Police Report Success in Keeping Drugs of N.L. Streets."