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Big mouth strikes again.

There I was, all ready to blog about Jeremy Clarkson’s comments regarding the public sector pension strikes, when along comes Matthew Wright with a wee “joke” of his own.

If Jeremy Clarkson is familiar to millions, then Matthew Wright is slightly less so. The latter hosts a TV talk show on the UK’s terrestrial station Channel 5, called The Wright Stuff. He made a joke live on air about a murder investigation taking place on the Isle of Lewis involving the death of sixteen-year-old Lewis Aitchison. His killing has sparked the first such police inquiry on the isle in 43 years.

In light of this statistic, Matthew Wright made a joke referring to the Scottish TV detective show Taggart, which has a famous catchphrase, “There’s been a murder.” You know all this, right?

Wright was a twat for doing this. Not because he cracked a joke, but because of the patronising pat on the head implied in the comment. “Och, hoots, there’s been a wee murder up there on a Scottish island! It’s like Murder Galore up there! Jings!”

Wouldn’t have said it if it had been teenagers getting shot in Peckham, would you Matthew? Or little girls being abducted in East Anglia? No, didn’t think so.

Part of me wonders if it was really an off-the-cuff moment, or deliberately planned. Making a fuss is the best way to guarantee yourself a bit of publicity if you have a TV show or a DVD or a book to plug. Ricky Gervais causes a fuss about the term “mongs” online, and what do you know? He has a new series coming out. Clarkson jokes about executing public sector strikers in front of their families without a hint of irony, and hey presto, he has a DVD in the shops. The list goes on.

Matthew Wright previously got in hot water for naming the TV host John Leslie as the celebrity at the centre of sex attack allegations (subsequently dismissed, fact fans). It was marketed as a slip of the tongue, but I reckon it was a deliberate act to gain his then-new TV show some attention and also to be seen to be pushing the legal boundaries. Nice work. In this instance Wright has apologised, so we should at least give him credit for that.

It’s not the joke that bothers me, so much as the need to squeeze a reaction out of people. I joke about horrible things all the time. I do it in private with my friends, and I rarely let these things appear in public. Among friends, we know that it’s a joke. We’re not trying to upset each other, and we know that we don’t really mean it when things are said which are in poor taste or morally dubious. The irony is obvious. How often are you perfectly sincere with your friends?

I’m flexible when it comes to sick jokes. I’ve defended Frankie Boyle – whose most controversial moment came when he slated Jordan and her disabled son, Harvey – because he has at least explained why he made the joke. It makes logical sense; we have a woman whose fame is based partly on her sexuality, and partly on her being the mother of a disabled child. Frankie Boyle thinks there is an irony involved here, and seeks to satirise it. He has every right to.

These things are relative. If I make a joke about, say, Michael Jackson, as I have online this past few days, then should I take into account the man’s fans? They may still be grieving, after all. But I can justify it. I can say that I found the man’s public persona, his lifestyle choices and some of the allegations that surrounded him odd, and distasteful. Therefore, alive or dead, to me he is fair game.

When it comes to sicker jokes – and they’re in me, believe it – I bite my comments back, in public. Making your not so bon mots in a public forum is an entirely different thing from comments made in private to your closest friends, who share your taste in jokes. If you must say the unsayable on the net or anywhere else, without a legitimate motive other than pure cruelty, you need the armour of seeming ironic to be able to get away with this.

And – an incredible thing for a satirist to admit – I’m not really comfortable with that.

One of the supreme symptoms of the post-modern era is the death of sincerity. Wright and Clarkson’s antics in the media simply highlight this complex and troubling facet of modern life. The whole idea of telling a “joke” used to be to make someone laugh. But nowadays, it seems that the sicker the joke, or the more incendiary the context, the more currency it has.

Everyone’s a great white snark, now. People make comments not for entertainment value, or even humour – but to get a reaction. The worse, the better.

I can illustrate this type of humour by saying to you:

“You’re a cunt.”

Then, once you’ve reacted to this statement, hopefully negatively, I can then say,

“It’s just a joke, mate. You’re not a cunt…

“But really, you’re a cunt.”

And then I counter your opprobrium by saying: “Nah. You’re not really a cunt. It’s a joke! Lighten up! Take a joke, will you? For goodness’ sake, you’re awful touchy….

“You’re a bit of a cunt, after all.”

And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Many of our comedians, commentators, public figures and even humble bloggers get by through a combination of attention seeking, sadism and a dash of raw psychopathy. And you can get away with it all by saying you were joking. It’s a get-out clause that bullies, sexists and racists the world over will know well.

“It was a joke! Can’t you take a joke?”

This type of thinking confers an intellectual currency, a social legitimacy, on being antagonistic. It’s nothing new, but it’s widespread in this era of ubiquitous social media and it is troubling.

A couple of weeks ago I had my fingers poised over the keys, ready to lambast a Facebook friend who spewed a load of ignorant, lunk-headed comments about the apparent suicide of Wales football manager Gary Speed. The thrust of this person’s comments on the day that the body was found was that the act was “selfish” and “stupid”.

Part of me understands why you would feel this way – the guy has left a wife and kids behind – but really, how ignorant can you get? Depression is an illness. People suffering from it are not in their right minds, any more than a schizophrenic is when they are prey to delusions. Who of us understands depression, and what it is to be in such a horrible state of mind as to wish to end your existence? What a load of ignorant twaddle. I was in a fury.

But I didn’t tackle the poster for it. Because I know him, and he thrives on winding people up. To see someone angry, or upset, is what drives him on. To react to this is to lose.

Aren’t these “jokes”, jabs and barbs just prejudices with a mask on? Some are certainly more acceptable than others. I watched Jimmy Carr making Scouse jokes the other night on prime-time TV, and the audience fell about laughing. Scots-bashing is very popular in some quarters, too. But swap the words “Scouse” or “Scotch” for “nigger” or “Paki” and see how far you get with that. My Facebook friend can get away with it, so he does. It’s the freedom of speech, taken as far as it goes. The state of the art, you might say, in our days of blogging and Twitter and whatever else is around the corner linking our thoughts, feelings, prejudices and outright unkindnesses.

Looking around the internet, there are a lot of people like this out there. Sociopaths and sadists, basically. If you take pleasure in upsetting or hurting people, this is you. It’s not a joke for some. You may not get that. You may not care. Being an internet troll seems like a natural conclusion to an overwhelming cynicism and disgust, free of the confines and regulations of normal social behaviour.

Having no manners is an increasingly acceptable stance to take. It’s the equivalent of being contrary when you are a teenager. “You like that, do you? Well I think it’s shit.” Establishing this obnoxious tone, some people believe, makes them cool. Applying it to certain social conventions can seem screamingly funny. Except it’s a bit juvenile. A cheap way of taking the smile off people’s faces. Again, if this is what you enjoy, you perhaps need to take a close look at yourself.

Another example of this came at a festival I attended in the summer. I became aware of a crowd of people who were all in some sort of physical difficulty. Some were carrying crutches, others had their arms in slings. One of them appeared to be severely mentally handicapped.

When they went to the front of the crowd, or went to the bars, the crowds quite naturally parted. I became suspicious after I spotted one of this group drinking a pint and standing on his own two feet, having been limping around moments before. Once he got to the front of the bar queue, he tossed the crutches aside, fragrantly, and quaffed a pint. It was a “Keyser Soze” moment. They were all at it – feigning disability to prick sympathy and bypass queues, then laughing in people’s faces for it.

There is a dark part of me that can appreciate what they did, the aesthetic behind it, how funny they would have found it.

And there is an even darker part of me that wishes them to have handicapped children.

Perhaps I’m taking things too seriously. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times, a creeping misanthropy born out of a sense of disaffection with our public institutions and the knowledge that our way of life in the west seems to be edging off a cliff. Why not make a joke about it? If you don’t, you can bet someone else will.

Maybe the solution to this kind of bile, scorn and hatred is to turn aside from it. Don’t succumb to the notion of laughing at a Scotsman, or a disabled person, or a deaf guy. Discover empathy. Because heaven forbid it should be you, on the receiving end of life’s unpleasant vagaries and vicissitudes. Heaven forbid it should be you, having to deal with shock and grief while some tosser in a TV studio hundreds of miles away sniggers and laughs at you. Or having to protest in order to protect your pension after a lifetime of cleaning toilets while a man paid millions of pounds to drive sports cars with movie stars opines that you should be shot for it. Heaven forbid.

So, when it comes to jokes, context is key. You do have the freedom of speech. But a little responsibility never hurt anyone. If you choose to make comments in public, accept the consequences. Be prepared to have a stand-up fight, if need be. Some might feel a smack in the mouth is the least you deserve. You should not be surprised by this, if you wish to annoy people. A joke is one thing; seeking to hurt people then laughing up your sleeve about it is another.

And it wouldn’t hurt, sometimes, for people to think before they speak. Or better still, deign to keep their mouths shut. Just every now and again.

“It was just a joke” is never an excuse.


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