It’s a knee-jerk response, mostly. A public figure makes an off-colour remark and everyone jumps aboard him or her. Special interest groups closest to the core of the joke cry bloody murder.
The scandal lingers for days and even weeks, as long as the media continues to feed the echo chamber of public outrage.
It came from all corners last week when Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie offered a bit of dark humour at the cabinet swearing-in ceremony in St. John’s.
’Tis shocking, indeed. Who would have thought John Crosbie, of all people, would ever do such a thing? Well, most of us, I hope.
This event was blown way out of proportion. The local media — including The Telegram — gave it blanket coverage. The public broadcaster milked it for everything it was worth. The national media latched on early in the game and shifted into overkill.
Reaction has been mixed.
On national CBC, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, for example, most of the online comments express surprise at the backlash.
Here, there was much more condemnation.
John Crosbie is an anomaly in this province. In his early federal career, he was in his prime, advocating for the Atlantic Accord and pushing for PetroCanada to step in and save the Hibernia consortium.
But many still see him as the man who shut down the fishery in 1992. More recently, he drew considerable fire when he joined fish mogul John Risley’s camp in the dismantling of Fishery Products International.
Mostly, he’s remembered as the man who shot from the hip, always willing to stray outside the bounds of political correctness.
His most famous spars were with Liberal MP and minister Sheila Copps. His remarks — notably, “Just quieten down there, baby” and, to a fundraiser audience, a reference to the song lyrics “Pour me another tequila, Sheila” — are legion. Feminists held him up as the poster boy of Old Boy sexism.
Politics is a funny world. Men and women trade such lighthearted putdowns all the time — in the office, at home and at social gatherings. That’s not to say many utterances come from a truly Stone Age mindset; sexual harassment and discrimination is serious business, and should not be tolerated.
Copps reacted angrily to Crosbie’s utterings, but the two eventually developed a great deal of mutual respect. Copps even had Crosbie write a double-edged introduction for her 2004 book “Worth Fighting For.”
Crosbie was at his best sparring with Pierre Trudeau in the early 1980s. In 1982, he slammed the prime minister for appointing a friend to design the new embassy in Washington over the recommendations of an advisory committee.
Trudeau liked to toss out literary and classical references during parliamentary debates. On one occasion, he alluded to the Roman emperor Caligula.
Crosbie took the floor.
“Caligula made his horse a senator, and Mr. Trudeau is making his friends, not only senators — and it’s only one end of the horse that he’s appointing — but he’s giving them the best work.”
On another occasion, confronted over his inability to speak French, Crosbie quipped, “It is better to be sincere in one language than to be a twit in two.”
The uproar over Crosbie’s most recent joke is a tempest in a teapot. I don’t need to repeat it because, tellingly, none of the media found it offensive enough to censor.
But it is not a racist joke. Pakistan only enters into it because that country is a well-known hotbed of violent extremism. That fact is more of a plague to Pakistanis themselves than it is to outsiders.
The target of the joke, therefore, are those vile operatives who recruit suicide bombers. Must we really worry about offending their sensibilities?
There is a chill spreading across this country. It is putting a freeze on free expression. It has swept over university campuses, where freedom of thought and expression should be paramount.
Political correctness is a double-edged sword. It’s fine to keep sexism and racism in check. It’s another to so utterly sterilize discourse that fresh ideas can no longer bloom.
Yes, some jokes are a little dark or off-colour. But that’s much better than a world of grey.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.