Let’s get serious about jokes

Peter Jackson
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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: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC, Globe and Mail, National Post

Geographic location: Washington, Pakistan

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Recent comments

  • jeremiah
    November 11, 2011 - 07:55

    The "N" word was first used by the British during WW1. It was used as a condescending insult and to demean Newfoundlanders who volunteered to fight for the empire. This resulted in Newfoundlanders being given the sshort end of the stick by their British officers. The insulting "N" word was picked up by the Americans during WW2 to degrade Newfoundlanders working on the various bases throughout the province. After confederation in 1949 its was used by other "Canadians" to describe Newfoundlanders as dumb, lazy and stupid. This practice continues. Any Newfoundlander who uses this insulting word should think about its history and feel ashamed.

  • Quinn
    November 10, 2011 - 23:19

    As someone who lived on the mainland from the 1960s thru 1990s, I think I only ever heard a few Newfie jokes (a few too many mind you), and that was way back in the '60s. Newfie jokes are not appropriate, and neither are jokes that target other specific groups of people. In my previous post, I was merely trying to point that out in a somewhat sarcastic way.

  • Don Lester
    November 10, 2011 - 13:19

    Excellent Peter, you hit the nail right on the head. As far as Axle is concerned, it's so nice to see he follows up on our news items. I'd rather be called a "dumb newfie" then a "dumb twit" like you.

  • Willy
    November 10, 2011 - 08:46

    Hey Quinn what planet you living on my boy you certainly have not worked in this country where there are any NL'ers working with main landers or you would be well aware we have been taking it for years and continue to take it. Be quiet if you don't know what you are talking about.

  • wavy
    November 10, 2011 - 07:49

    Mr. Jackson, you, like so many others during this whole debacle, have decided to interpret and spin this incident into something it isn't- an accusation of infringement on an individual's right to freedom of speech. Nobody is arguing against a person's right to freely express their thoughts in this country. In fact, I'll do just that right now: what Crosbie said was insensitive, offensive and ignorant and has no place in Government House, under any circumstances. Period. To raise the question of freedom of thought and expression is taking the context of this debate way outside of the situation and twisting it into something it is not. It's a pathetically frail spin, at best.

  • Scott Free
    November 09, 2011 - 14:01

    I'm a proud Newfie with a keen sense of wit and humour and can tolerate, to some degree, off colour jokes and mildly suggestive racist comments when made tongue in cheek. My problem is that JC has so many places at the Tory trough; retire man, and let someone else slurp up the goodies and indulge in some political plums. JC, you're way past your best before date; are you that starved for a bit of attention?

  • David
    November 09, 2011 - 13:19

    Haa ha ha...our representative of the Queen tells racist jokes at public events, and many people listening to him laughed at his racist joke. Isn't it great that we pay such enormous piles of money for these privileged, elitist buffoons to publicly represent us to the world as backwards, clueless hicks? Such a bargain!

  • Stop using and printing the Derogatoiry "N" Word
    November 09, 2011 - 12:58

    Axle I agree with your thoughts, but I do not agree with the use of the derogatory 'N' Word to describe our Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

  • Political watcher
    November 09, 2011 - 12:51

    Spot on Peter, hit the nail on the head. To Axle, lighten up; as a "dumb Newfie" I can laugh at myself just as well as at others.

  • Quinn
    November 09, 2011 - 11:24

    Fine and dandy Peter. But if Newfoundlanders want to dish it out, they also need to be able to take it. Did you hear the one about the Newfie ....

  • axle
    November 09, 2011 - 10:11

    A knee jerk reaction, the only jerk here is crosby and the dumb newfies who agree with him