In Defense of Humor in an Age of Blame, Revenge and Scapegoating

Fawlty Towers, the British sitcom, which aired in the United Kingdom and its former dominions between 1975-1979 provides an insight into the psyche of British Humor. Fawlty Towers is essentially class driven, culturally misogynistic and racist as it projects a kind of put-down-humor on the other. Yet its humorous content has been (and still is) enjoyed all over the world. One particular episode comes to mind The Germans; in this episode a slightly crazed (more than usual) Fawlty has a restaurant full of German tourists whom he won’t let forget who started and won WW II. To the British and those of her allies who fought Germany between 1939 and 1945 it is hilarious in its portrayal of a deep-seated bigoted man caught up in the social veneer of class and cultural snobbery. Fawlty’s mad antics are captured in the way he pokes fun at German hurt and offense at defeat and British gloating of victory in WW II. But to a significant number of Germans it was deeply offense and humiliating. The overall suicide rate in the two Germanys between 1975-1979 conservatively was probably around 17  % per 100,000 people, yet we would be hard pressed to find a causal link between those suicides and that particular episode of Fawlty Towers.

Similarly, Mind Your Language, another late 1970s  British sitcom sought to portray the pranks and tricks of foreign language students in the United Kingdom;  once again subject content was of a racist nature and stereotyping and apportioning blame were key themes in the program. Yet, both these programs provided an outlet for people to laugh at themselves and they provided a jolly good belly laugh for large majorities of the population in the United Kingdom and in countries to which the programs were syndicated. However, those whose cultural identities and nationalities were lampooned and humiliated in Mind Your Language were often deeply offended, and the show was eventually chopped by a London Weekend Television executive who found it in appalling bad taste. Yet, once again it would be a totally erroneous claim to attempt to equate the ever-increasing suicide rate in the late 1970s among minorities in England to that particular TV series, even though the rate was growing at around 2% of the national average.

In a report through the Mail online, it is claimed that Middle-class people use humor to try to demonstrate their superiority. In research conducted through the University of Edinburgh it was found that the upper and middle classes enjoyed what was termed more “sophisticated humor” than the working classes. It was claimed that the middle class were less likely to enjoy the humor of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, but would embrace Paul Merton. (Cohen, 2010).

One can argue that there are degrees of humor, and  some humor is tasteful while another form is not. The late British comedian Benny Hill, and Paul Merton are situated at different points on the humor continuum in British daily life.  Yet these are often subjective points of view based on cultural and ethical norms; but overall humor is  a vehicle in which we are able to laugh at ourselves, our cultures, societies and things we consider sacrosanct in an effort not to take life too seriously. This is particularly important today, given that we are led to believe through the ever increasingly monopolized and controlled media conglomerates, that life is very serious (fiscal cliffs, terrorism, climate change , global warming etc.) and must be taken seriously! Humor is a welcome antidote to such a pessimistic and manipulating view of life. It is also subject to and limited by cultural norms and understandings too-often one may find it difficult to understand why something is funny or humorous in one culture and not another, or humor in one culture or context may be deeply offensive in another-knowing where to draw the line is a difficult call in our globalized techno-crazed driven world. Remember Borat!

A significant number of people throughout the world laughed along with Australian DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian after it was revealed they had called the King Edward VII hospital in London enquiring on the well being of the Duchess of Cambridge. It wasn’t so much the intent-that is enquiring about the Duchess’s health- but the audacity of the joke, and the way the two presenters mimicked the accents of a privileged aristocracy that the world laughed at; along with an additional side effect- a mimic of corgi’s barking in the background-it was an example of the kind of larrikin humor Australians-like it or not- are known for, and enjoyed by many people around the world. Also, it was an under-handed way of sending a jibe about the social and cultural differences between the two countries-as Clive Dunn, the late British comedy actor would have retorted- “They don’t like it up ‘em! “

And they didn’t. The King Edward VII hospital “deeply regretted” the incident, while at the same time condemning the joke as a “foolish prank that we all deplore” (BBC, 2012) . Although they went on to report that information given out was already in the public domain. Fearing some kind of repercussion the radio station in Sydney, 2Day FM also went into PR frenzy mode and issued ‘damage control’ statements about the harmless nature of the joke and wishing the Duchess well in her continuing confinement. The hospital also claimed that the two nurses involved in the hoax call were simply carrying out their duty and were not subject to any disciplinary measures.

A few days later the world was shocked to learn that one of the nurses who spoke to the DJs took her own life not long after the incident became public knowledge. Following on from her death there has been a frenzy of public outrage over the prank, as well as significant fall out for the DJs, 2Day FM and its corporate sponsors, along with official complaints at the highest levels between London and Sydney; Scotland Yard has contacted the Australian Federal police.

Notwithstanding one’s opinion of the joke and the subsequent fallout, the key question is to what extent are DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian responsible for the suicide of Jacinta Saldanha? Can a casual link be established between the two incidents?

Suicide and the in-depth personal issues which surround those prone to suicide are extremely complex.  There’s no definitive profile of a person who attempts suicide, although professionals attempt to draw up a list. Schimelpfening (2012) outlines certain conditions/situations that are associated with an increased risk of suicide:

  • death or terminal illness of a relative or friend
  • divorce, separation or relationship disintegration
  • loss of health (real or imaginary)
  • loss of job, home, money, status, self-esteem or personal security
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • depression

In addition, there are certain times when people may be more prone to suicidal feelings, such as:

  • holidays and anniversaries
  • the first week after discharge from a hospital
  • when treatment with an antidepressant first begins
  • just before and after diagnosis of a major illness
  • just before and during disciplinary proceedings (Schimelpfening, 2012)

Receiving a prank phone call, or embarressing the Royal family, or lacking a sense of humor, or being shy, or being perceived as not doing your job, or professional ineptitude are not on the above list  however mitigating these personal circumstances might be in the case of Jacinta Saldanha, and even if they were they would signify a much deeper problem on a personal and psychological level. Lord Glenarthur, the Chairman of Edward VII hospital said that “the immediate consequence of these premeditated and ill-considered actions was the humiliation of two dedicated and caring nurses…the long term consequences has been reported around the world and is, frankly tragic beyond words.” (BBC, 2012) Yes, they are tragic, but linking the two together-the joke and the suicide is extremely disingenuous from a social, cultural and psychological perspective.

All humor runs the risk of humiliation of one sort or another; it’s at the core of the genre of comedy and satire.  Also, People kill themselves for reasons of which we will never know. I lost a brother to suicide some 20 years ago. Years of soul searching after his death revealed little understanding as to why, but more of an understanding of how complex the human character is and that while people may tell us who they are through their actions-we never really know them in their essence or essential being. Since Ms. Saldanha’s death public outrage has grown both in Australia and the United Kingdom and the noise in the technosphere is akin to  Dickens’ character Madam defarge and her supporters screaming ‘off with their heads!’ while sitting,  gloating beneath the blood soaked guillotine . It seems we live unhappy lives in unhappy times, where exacting revenge, apportioning blame or finding a scapegoat, sometimes under the guise of retrospective justice, takes precedence over rational and reasoned social discourse while maintaining a Shakespearean sense of comedy in the face of tragedy. No one knows why Jacinta Saldanha ended her life. Mel Grieg and Michael Christian are not responsible for her death no matter how ill conceived their joke.

BBC. (2012, December 9). Kate hoax call: Scotland Yard contacts Australian police. Retrieved December 2012, 2012, from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20656911

Cohen, T. (2010, April 8). Mail online Science and Technology. Retrieved December 9, 2012, from Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1264203/Middle-class-preference-sophisticated-comedy-veiled-snobbery.html

Schimelpfening, N. (2012, October 30). Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs. Retrieved December 9, 2012, from About.com-Depression: http://depression.about.com/od/suicideprevent/a/warning_signs.htm

One comment on “In Defense of Humor in an Age of Blame, Revenge and Scapegoating

  1. Rehan Islam says:

    Absolutely agree – I have been shocked at how willing every media outlet has been to draw a causal link here, and how the other side of the argument is non-existent. When I first heard the facts I had to keep asking people if I understood it correctly because I could not see any such link and so I did not understand the outrage.

    It seems in our desire to show compassion in the face of a tragedy, we can sometimes suspend rationality.

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