Comment: On Humour and the Unspeakable

Conservatives of the past, especially religious conservatives, have often rightly attracted piss-takers. Harold Macmillan once famously attended a comedy show, featuring an impersonation of him. The actor saw him in the crowd and proceeded to veer off script to mock him further. For you see, Harold was a figure that was delightful to take the piss out of. He was part of an old-school brand of conservative, now only surviving in America, which is typified by an inflated sense of decency, manners, and dignity. He was the kind of man who would be horrified to see women smoking, young men with long hair, or swear words in pop music. And wouldn’t we delight, if a young woman blew smoke in someone like Harold’s face, or if his local barber refused him service, forcing him to grow his hair out scruffily. It would be cruel, but if we are completely honest, hilarious.

But something has changed. It’s no longer the Conservatives whose high-mindedness invites someone to take the piss. Conservative political movements in the UK and US are literally lead by “clowns” and “buffoons.” The new breed of conservatives ridicule both themselves, and the people around them, to the delight of the public. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump: each stands for a politics arguably further to the right than the softly-spoken David Cameron or Theresa May. But this doesn’t translate into icey seriousness; they’re hilarious. Moreover, even right wing commentators seem far more inclined to use comedy, and mockery, in making their case.

Moreover, the figures who DO invite piss-takers are now left wing. David Lammy, Owen Jones, Jeremy Corbyn. For all these figures spend a significant amount of time in front of cameras with agonised expressions, decrying some new immorality or immodesty. They carry themselves with the same kind of grim, world-ending importance and absolute moral certainty that made people like Harold Macmillan so mockable. When the Conservatives do something, it is always a grotesque display of immorality. It’s always life-or-death, good-and-evil, paradise or hell. And it follows that whatever the left are saying or doing, its VERY important. So it’s funny to see someone like Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump, come along and shatter this.

Sometimes, this desire to shatter an orthodoxy is less acceptable. During the Brexit day celebrations, videos emerged of young men, running in front of news cameras, shouting “tank topped bum-boys,” or “picaninny”. They clearly found it funny. But why? Why these words in particular? Could it be that they were aiming these words not at the groups they insult, but at the journalists and politicians who spent weeks decrying Boris’ use of them many years ago? All those weeks of Victorian moral outrage, of self-important condemnation: shattered, immediately. I don’t defend using racist words, ever. But it does illustrate how counter-productive it is to take oneself too seriously. In this way, the left wing of today, like the right wing of yesterday, have fallen into the trap of hubris, and been met with the same (unjustified, but) predictable response.

It’s curious, because jester-figures typically represent someone who speaks truth to power. Supposedly, the court jester was the only person who could tell the king of his mistakes. When there are important truths that people will get in trouble for saying, jester figures emerge to shatter this control. But we can hardly make the case that Boris Johnson is speaking truth to the powerful gay elite, or somehow performing the necessary task of taking the piss out of immigrants from destitute countries. On the contrary, Boris is the most powerful man in the country. So the question emerges: how have we ended up with the King and the Jester as the same person?

It suggests that it isn’t the powerful who are deciding what is unspeakable. It points to the idea that there are two groups of people: those who decide what can or cannot be said, and those who elect leaders, and they aren’t the same. A small, left-wing minority creates rules about speech, and a wider majority, powerless to disagree, nonetheless silently elects the antithesis of the minority. Hence, every election, the left-wing minority are left completely baffled. The question is why: why did working class people vote for Boris? Why did the north of England vote for Brexit? Ultimately, the answers could have been available to them all along, for people don’t vote without reasons. But these people were barred from expressing them, so their reasons went with them, unheard, to the ballot-box. The result?

A whopping Conservative majority, brexit, and an enormous pie thrown in the face of the high-minded.

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