Have we become a nation of cry babies?

David Bullard says that what often used to pass for playful banter has now been elevated by some to hate crime

As many as five (and very possibly six) people noticed there was no Out to Lunch column last week.  I tried....I really did... but at the moment I am surrounded by hundreds of cardboard cartons containing all my possessions pending a move to the Cape Winelands. I was so exhausted from sorting the stuff I will probably never need again from the stuff I know I am definitely going to need that I approached the editor as the final deadline drew near and asked if I might have the week off, to which he very kindly agreed.

I'm probably going to have to ask for further leave of absence in the next few weeks because I am not going to have internet connectivity. So be warned. However, this week I am holed up in a B&B in Stellenbosch with free Wi-Fi that seems to be semi operational so here goes.

Have we become a nation of cry babies? I ask this question because what often used to pass for playful banter has now been elevated by some to hate crime. Pierre De Vos tackled the issue in an overly intellectualised piece called "When a joke is not a joke" recently in a Daily Maverick column. In it he suggested that "humour (or what is presented as humour ) can sometimes be used by the economically, culturally and socially dominant as a vehicle to endorse harmful stereotypes and to promote prejudices about groups who are less powerful and influential in our culture."

He goes on to mention an article that appeared in the Cape Times which reported on a household survey with the introduction "If you want a tidy house for the rest of your life, never make a Western Cape woman your wife".  So outraged was De Vos by this that he fired off an e.mail to the editors pointing what he referred to as "the sexist and patriarchal stereotypes being perpetuated in this introduction". Not surprisingly he received a reply telling him that it was a joke and he should get over himself. Clearly this upset De Vos even more and spurred him on to write his article on what he regards as acceptable humour and what is not.

Being a dyed in the wool lefty he focusses his attention on racist and sexist jokes. If you tell a racist joke it's quite possible that you will upset somebody. However, if you then accuse the upset party of "playing the race card" you get yourself (according to De Vos) into even deeper trouble because you are sending out a clear message that you are the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes racism. You are wilfully and arrogantly disregarding the feelings of those who may possibly be offended. But when did humour ever give a toss about offending people?

It's difficult to fault De Vos's argument because what he is saying in a very roundabout way is that someone, somewhere is almost certainly going to be offended by any "joke" that could be considered sexist, racist, homophobic, misogynistic etc etc.  But so what?

There are, I am sure, people whose sole raison d'etre is to rise from their beds in the morning and look around for something to deeply offend them. They have so perfected a victim mentality that any comment they deem to be inappropriate can be elevated to hate speech.

 A few weeks ago a well-respected female columnist Tweeted that a man in a supermarket queue had made a homophobic remark. Apparently the columnist had been buying butter beans with her same sex partner and this had prompted a fellow shopper to make an inappropriate comment about her sexual preferences.  Instead of returning a witty riposte (as one would have hoped she would have done) she went in search of supermarket staff to lay a formal complaint but received no joy. I suggested to her on Twitter that, while supermarket staff may be very good at totting up the cost of your shopping, arbitrating a disputed sexual slur probably didn't feature in their training programme. 

Maybe it's time this whole messy business was cleared up once and for all with the introduction of an " Inappropriate Humour Act". That way we would all know exactly where we stand and wouldn't wander into the no man's land of potential inappropriate comment. While I would nominate someone with legal training like Pierre De Vos to frame the precise legal language of the act, I do think that I can make some valuable lay contributions.

Firstly, I would suggest a licensing system for professional comedians who would be required to state up front who the likely victims of their humour might be. They would then be licensed, after rigorous examination by a team of humourless lawyers, to make jokes about white people, cripples, old people and Alzheimer sufferers but wouldn't be able to make jokes about gays and black people. That would require a completely different license.

Provision should also be made in the act to clamp down on smart arses who make jokes around the braai fire. All you would need to do is to find three people who are prepare to be "deeply offended" (whether or not they were present when the joke was told) and you would be able to press charges.

Finally, the social status of the person making an inappropriate joke or comment would be a major deciding factor when considering prosecution. Those who have been historically advantaged will obviously be automatically guilty because they are simply using humour as a weapon to further subjugate the historically oppressed.

If this all sounds terrifyingly Orwellian that's because it is. The reality is that most people are so busy getting on with their lives that they don't have the time to be deeply offended by  so called inappropriate comments. And let's be honest, most of us learn to cope with insults as we grow older and to ignore them. So inappropriate humour and the use of offensive stereotyping is only really of interest to people like Pierre De Vos and his fellow travellers.  Whether we want them telling the rest of us what is and what is not appropriate rather depends on your views on freedom of expression.

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