A vicar was booking into a hotel. “I hope,” he said to the concierge, “the porn on the TV is disabled.”
“Nah,” replied the man at the desk, “it’s just the normal stuff you filthy pervert.”
Now, there’s bound to be a few, maybe some Christians, the ability challenged, people exploited by pornography, hoteliers, or even perverts, who will simply find that offensive. And they’ll feel that way despite recognising the syntactical form of a joke (setup, misdirection, punchline) and even knowing that the telling of jokes, most of the time, is not to cause offence but to invoke some sort of delight for the listener.
Of course gags also co-opt listeners into assumed shared prejudices, so we can make no special claim of innocence for jokes; they are no more virginal than the nun who is such an habitué of them; especially when she’s wearing soap.
“It’s just a joke, love,” is the bellow of the misunderstood, “can’t you take a f***ing joke?”
This protestation, usually uttered following an unenthusiastic response to the waving of genitals (or the verbal equivalent), was, in some ways, the cry behind, “Je Suis Charlie”, the ‘global’ show of unity following the slaughter of cartoonists and editorial staff, last month, at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a paper notorious for publishing cartoons of political and religious figures including the Prophet Muhammad.
The idea of what the correct response to offense should be instantly became the cause de la monde. The free-speech lauding liberal West seemed, unanimously, to endorse the ‘sticks and stones’ argument: words and images are ultimately benign so no physical response can ever be appropriate.
But, as one cartoon in the following days, showing a Caucasian man quite happy with a snake for a tongue until his mouth is padlocked with a Star of David, demonstrated, even the West will respond physically to certain use of words. Saying that the Holocaust never happened, for example, is an imprisonable offence, as is “inciting hatred”.
Can we really have it both ways? Or are we just as guilty of the intolerance that is levelled at Islamists? We don’t behead our blasphemers or flog our bloggers but we still manage to make martyrs of the likes of Holocaust denying historian David Irving. Indeed the majority of charges against the hook-handed, one-eyed, villain straight from Central casting, Abu Hamza were for, “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred, [contrary to section 18 (1) of the Public Order Act 1986]” and “possession of threatening, abusive or insulting recordings of sound, with intent to stir up racial hatred [contrary to section 23 of the Public Order Act 1986]”
Is the problem really that Hamza was saying these things? Or is the real problem that many young people find that their education and their experience of living in this country means that what he said strikes a chord so deep, it resonates with so much meaning, they would sacrifice their own lives and the lives of others?
The right word in the wrong ear will inspire no one. Do we really think Hitler radicalised an entire country just with his oratory? Or could the desperate conditions caused by of the Treaty of Versailles have slightly more to do with it?
Even Boris Johnson blames radicalisation on background. “The type of people who are likely to get involved in ISIS or get radicalised are the same sorts of people who are vulnerable to getting dragged into drug gangs or other types of criminal activity,” Johnson told the Sun. “They are just young men in desperate need of self-esteem who do not have a particular mission in life, who feel that they are losers and this thing makes them feel strong and feel like winners.”
Then, in predictable headline grabbing form he simply had to add. “If you look at all the psychological profiling about bombers they typically will look at porn. They are literally wankers. Severe onanists.”
There’s no doubt we should treat the cause not the symptom. If the West stands for free speech then that’s what it needs to be, universal.
“I do not agree with what you have to say,” said Voltaire, “but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
“That’s all very well,” replied Madame Voltaire apparently, “but my Mother is still coming to stay and you’re still clearing out the spare room this weekend.”
Like Voltaire, Johnson and I, and a large number of vicars, are educated, male, white and middle-class; in many ways we’ve won life’s race in the West, have few natural predators and we’re relatively comfortable. So what would we know of offense? Tell me I’m fat, I’m ugly, my breath stinks. Tell me my beliefs are wrong, what I treasure is worthless, that my opinion is worth shit or my mother shagged Jimmy Saville. Honestly, it’s water off a duck’s back.
But this is what I know: everyone should be so comfortable.
Then who would bother listen to the hate?
So I wonder if using a ‘vicar’ in the joke was really offensive? He, or she, is just shorthand for someone who is moral and upstanding. But what if it was an Imam booking in? Would that be more offensive? Or what if it was Jesus putting some nails on the desk and asking to be put up for the night?