Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A Boxing Day Message: 26.12.18

As there's bugger all to write about, here's a couple of articles I totally endorse. The boldings are mine:-

1. Po-faced killjoys are getting beyond a joke

Madeline Grant, editorial manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

A cultural heritage of Chaucerian humour and bawdy puns is at risk from keyboard warriors determined to be offended

Christmas can be a minefield for family drama. Disagreements over the right and wrong way to roast potatoes and whether Die Hard is, in fact, a Christmas film collide with the innate awkwardness of spending time with extended relatives, and, God forbid, the topic of Brexit over the dinner table.

Yet if there’s one way of resolving the high tensions that often emerge at family get-togethers, it’s humour, the lamer the better. Jokes have a wonderful way of cutting through awkwardness and even outright hostility. Perhaps this is why we still cleave to Christmas crackers, despite their usually substandard punchlines: even groaning at awful puns together can be a bonding experience.

What is true at Christmas is also true throughout the year, and at a time when Britain is extraordinarily divided, humour is needed more than ever to help bridge these gaps. Unfortunately, satire has had a very bad year indeed.

I’m old enough to remember when the best response to a bad joke was not to laugh. Yet in 2018, an off-colour or poorly received gag could have cost you your job. Mocking vegans can be a resigning matter, as William Sitwell, former editor of Waitrose’s food magazine, learnt after firing off an ill-judged joke to a journalist in a private email. Twitter has moved from barring accounts suspected of “hateful” conduct or spreading “fake news” to clamping down on spoof accounts. Earlier this year, moderators suspended Godfrey Elfwick[see below], a hilarious if obvious parody of the intolerance of extreme identity politics, political correctness and other tenets of “social justice warrior” ideology.

One only has to hear the hysteria surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s recent “stupid woman” remarks last week to know that confected outrage is alive and well and isn’t just confined to the left. Over the summer Boris Johnson was subjected to an internal Conservative Party investigation for joking that burkas resembled “letterboxes”, in an article which elsewhere argued against banning the garments. Around the same time, Steve Brine, the minister for primary care, called on Ricky Gervais to apologise publicly for an old joke branding ME sufferers “lazy”.

That is not to say that all these jokes are examples of Wildean wit — they emphatically aren’t. But whatever your views on Gervais, Elfwick, Sitwell or Johnson, these sorts of clampdowns will certainly discourage rather than encourage jokes, and have a chilling effect on our collective sense of humour.

We are already seeing this public offence-taking culture trickling down into ordinary people’s lives.Earlier this year an RNLI lifeboatman was sacked after a manager discovered a tea mug depicting a naked woman with a crewman’s head superimposed on her body, which had been given as a joke secret Santa present. Never has the phrase “storm in a teacup” seemed more apt.

Shortly afterwards, a Staffordshire butcher who hung signs advertising “big breasted birds”, “big cocks” and “horny sausages” outside his shop received an official police reprimand for fear the ads might be causing offence to passers-by.

From Chaucer to Shakespeare through to Fawlty Towers, British humour has always thrived on naughty puns, and yet innuendo no worse than you’d find in a Carry On film is now being policed as if it were hate speech. These are worrying developments indeed.

Some may argue that edgy or indeed smutty jokes are unlikely to bring people together but humour is also deeply subjective. And sometimes only the darkest humour, not anodyne observational comedy, will do.

When my much-loved grandad died suddenly at home, our family immediately dashed round to comfort my grandma, to find that we had beaten the undertakers to it. Grandad had washed up as usual and was still sitting comfortably in his chair as though peacefully asleep, the paper open beside him at the share prices. My grandmother stoically produced a pot of tea and handed round the mugs as usual. When she poured one for grandad, then remarked “Silly me, he won’t be needing this”, we collapsed into helpless laughter. It was the perfect cathartic antidote to our shock and sorrow, briefly alleviating our grief as we all knew how much he would have relished the joke himself.

Jokes bring a creative and joyful jolt to our brains and help people through difficult situations. I’ve noticed that among my friends the medics, who deal with life and death situations every day, have the dryest, bleakest sense of humour of all. One, when asked how his favourite elderly patient was doing replied judiciously: “He’s busy dying.”

A body of scientific research attests to the fact that a good sense of humour can be a powerful defence mechanism for dealing with day-to-day stress and even depression.Given all of the above, it certainly doesn’t take a neuroscientist to question whether the increasingly humourless, safety-obsessed environment we are creating for young people in universities may be exacerbating the student mental health crisis.

At a time when, more than ever, we need humour, our increasingly hypersensitive world will almost certainly mean fewer laughs and even deeper division. We may have survived family Christmas for another year; let’s hope satire can survive 2019

2. The death of Godfrey Elfwick

Andrew Doyle, a stand-up comedian and Spiked columnist,

This spoof SJW tweeter was a work of satirical brilliance.

In November 2016, the Guardian published a comment piece in which the anonymous writer described how he was radicalised into the ‘alt-right’. It started when he watched a few ostensibly harmless videos by the American liberal Sam Harris. From there, he graduated to material of an anti-SJW (Social Justice Warrior) and anti-feminist disposition, before eventually becoming a fan of the dreaded Milo Yiannopoulos. As the writer dramatically put it: ‘The indoctrination was complete.’

Soon after, a well-known Twitter troll called Godfrey Elfwick claimed to be the author. It made complete sense, even though it wasn’t true. Elfwick was a brilliant caricature of the excesses of the liberal-left. He, or rather xe, identified as a ‘genderqueer Muslim atheist’ who was ‘born white in the #WrongSkin’. His ‘transblack’ status began as a satire of Rachel Dolezal, the US civil-rights activist who was born to white parents but identifies as black. ‘I have light skin’, he tweeted, ‘yet I know in my heart I am black and act accordingly’. Elfwick’s #WrongSkin hashtag soon began to trend worldwide on Twitter, fooling many in the process. Even the Mirror and the BBC published articles which did not rule out the possibility that the campaign might be authentic.

Similarly, Elfwick’s claim to have penned the Guardian comment piece was effective precisely because it was so feasible. The satire was double-edged. On the one hand, Elfwick had accentuated the inherent absurdities of the article in question, exposing the self-parodic nature of the Guardian. On the other, he had successfully duped public figures such as Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, and leading Gamergater Ethan Ralph, all of whom had been so quick to take his tweets at face value. The hoax claim was in itself a hoax.

Elfwick’s brand of satire depended on this kind of ambiguity. Those who took his posts seriously were inadvertently enhancing the impact of the joke, especially when they expressed such boiling outrage. It is no coincidence that objections to Elfwick tend to come from po-faced peddlers of identity politics who are unhappy about being ridiculed. The same goes for the ideologues of Twitter, who have an established record of deleting accounts for political reasons and have now permanently banned Elfwick from their platform. 

The circumstances are complicated. Lisa Graves, the satirist behind the most recent incarnation of Elfwick, was reported to Twitter for using an expletive during an exchange on her personal account with another user. The complainant additionally made the demonstrably false claim that Elfwick was an ‘alt-right account’ engaged in ‘targeted harassment’. Before long, all of Graves’ accounts had been subject to a blanket ban. Given Twitter’s curiously draconian response to such groundless accusations, it is hardly surprising that many are assuming that the punishment is politically motivated.

Internet trolling can often amount to little more than unsophisticated mudslinging. But when executed well, it has the potential to reach great satirical heights. Although it’s true that there was much to enjoy in Elfwick’s pranking simply for its own sake, there were also some serious underlying points about the dangers of offence culture and the divisive quality of identity politics. He could find a way to be offended by anything. On the release of the film 12 Years a Slave, for example, Elfwick took exception. ‘Typical of Hollywood to cast a black actor in a stereotypical role as a slave’, he wrote. ‘Why not 12 Years a Bank Manager?’

For the crime of deflating the pretensions of leftist identitarians, Elfwick has repeatedly been dismissed as ‘right-wing’ or ‘alt-right’. But as Graves puts it, ‘Godfrey was a way of poking fun at the extremes of both ends of the political spectrum’. The account mocked the liberal-left by aping their faux-outrage and self-defeating arguments (‘It’s 2018 and women should be free to do whatever feminists say they can’), but was equally adept at needling right-wingers who took such statements literally and responded with hilarious indignation.

It was inevitable that Elfwick would provoke widespread offence given his choice of subject matter. For some, the image of him on the Women’s March in a full burka and pink pussy hat was a step too far. Others were uncomfortable with his take on trans issues. (‘I’ve been secretly putting hormone blockers in my nephew’s Dairylea Lunchables for the past few months. She’ll thank me for it in a few years, you mark my words.’) Many Twitter users took issue with his comments on the recent rescue of boys from a flooded cave in Thailand: ‘Two British white males at the head of this rescue mission. Their privilege is staggering. Ability counts for shit when there’s zero diversity. I demand they be replaced with two differently abled transgender people of mixed race to offer those children a more empowering experience.’

That so many were gulled into believing such self-evidently ludicrous pronouncements points to the degradation of political discourse on the internet which Elfwick sought to deride. Those who were incensed by Elfwick’s jibes at offence culture only served to highlight the necessity of his existence. It’s the same kind of literal-minded reaction that saw satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo lambasted for racism when it depicted justice minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey, even though the target was quite clearly racist nationalists who resorted to such vile comparisons.

‘Satire is angry and optimistic’, wrote WH Auden. ‘It believes that, once people’s attention is drawn to some evil, they will mend their ways.’ The popularity of Godfrey Elfwick points to a growing frustration with contemporary ‘woke’ politics, and the need to counter these regressive trends. As Lisa Graves has said of the current climate, ‘it stifles us’ and ‘creates division’. Elfwick’s pomposity hit exactly the right note, because where there is no impulse to question one’s own certainties there can be no possibility of dialogue. In a sense, then, his self-importance was entirely justified. I’m reminded of a quotation, attributed to Elfwick himself, that was formerly emblazoned at the head of his Twitter page. ‘Imagine, if you will, a lion, with the heart of a bear and the strength of 10 lions. You just imagined Godfrey Elfwick.’

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