GUARDIAN: LET’S MAKE A DEFINITIVE STATEMENT ABOUT A NUANCED SUBJECT
Dogs aren’t defecating on the ground; they’re fertilising the grass. Theresa May is not an incompetent leader; she’s inherited a terrible mess. Jokes are not funny; they make a point about the way the world is. Do you see what these three statements have in common? They are all false dichotomies. Newspapers are quite good at these and today’s guilty party du jour is the Guardian.
The quoted headline is a very much off-the-fence piece about Twitter’s role in regulating and distributing comedy. I just knew before I clicked on it that I was going to have some kind of issue with it, but I couldn’t immediately put my finger on what it was. It’s not like Jack Bernhardt is particularly wrong in the points he makes. He just misses the point – there is no fence. The three statements, at least the way they are written, assume that one clause or the other is true, when in fact it is entirely possible that both are. And so it is with Bernhardt’s headline. Twitter is not either “killing comedy” or shining a light on bigotry – it is doing both.
The article comes on the back of Shane Allen’s comments that the Twitter PC brigade was imposing a “Victorian moral code” on comedians, damaging comedy’s ability to “test boundaries and challenge orthodoxies”. I think Bernhardt took this too much at face value, citing Fleabag and Derry Girls as examples of shows that don’t have a Victorian moral code and do push boundaries. Just because there are examples of somewhat edgy shows that have been supported and not destroyed by Twitter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the so-called PC brigade will celebrate all good shows. There are examples of snowballs every year, but that does not mean the planet isn’t getting hotter. It is entirely conceivable that Derry Girls could continue to be as good as it has always been, yet make one joke that apparently pushes the boundary too far and all of a sudden Twitter has turned. What Shane Allen was voicing was a legitimate concern. Yes, it is apparently possible for comedy to challenge us without it offending anyone that matters. But there is no guarantee you will get away with it and so there is plenty of incentive to keep it clean. Bernhardt brings up that cartoon in the Mash Report. It was generally well received online – but does anyone else think the fact that it was making fun of two very un-PC people might have had a hand in that? And let’s not forget that Piers Morgan tried to use social media to take down the Mash Report, but it turned into a popularity contest and that didn’t work out too well for him. It’s also worth remembering that “Victorian moral code” is, in this case, a generic term to denote regress; otherwise jokes about 6-year-olds dying during a factory shift would be perfectly acceptable. I’m not saying they wouldn’t be anyway, but how many of us are experts on what does and does not amuse Victorians?
I’m not sure what the fact that Allen has been at the helm of BBC comedy while 1970’s shows have been rebooted has got to do with the price of tea. Perhaps Bernhardt felt that pointing this out equated to a “zinger”. From a comedic standpoint maybe it does; he’s the expert. From an argumentative one, no. Complaining about other people regressing humour toward an older standard whilst also trying to revive classic shows doth not a hypocrite make. Indeed trying to suggest it does is, in my humble opinion, lazy journalism. After all, could Allen not claim that trying to recapture the glory of those classic comedies was a result of this regress he is wary of? In a world where someone in his job will be increasingly paranoid about commissioning something “offensive”, surely rehashing a sacred institution is a safe bet? At least, it would be in terms of offence – whether it is funny or not is another matter.
To say that the PC brigade “does not kill comedy” is incredibly optimistic. Unless you want to go down the route of “it must be true because comedians still exist”, then the argument is clearly false. Comedians have been fired for jokes; that’s just a fact. Ask Gilbert Godfried or Catherine Deveney. And again, even if you think those sackings were justified, you’re missing the point. Such is the power of Twitter. James Gunn was fired for an old joke, Stephen Colbert was almost cancelled for a joke taken out of context (see later), and Joss Whedon (not specific to comedy but an excellent example) was bullied off of Twitter by a mob of people claiming to be feminists who didn’t like a storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron – these people somehow having missed the memo that Whedon was the genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not just a great feminist show but one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Also, it doesn’t have to be comedians. It can be a couple of friends sharing a joke between themselves that someone with a stick up their rear end happens to overhear. It’s not hard to find a well-known comedian talking about the worry they have about being held to too high a standard or having already told the joke that will get them fired (for example Jack Whitehall). So the premise that mass groups on Twitter do not constitute a threat to freedom of comedic expression is not one I buy.
Bernhardt then defends against an attack nobody was mounting. “It might seem unfair to take Allen to task… but his comments have weight”, he writes. In other words, he’s writing not because of the context in which the comments were made, but who was making them. No. You’re absolutely allowed to have an opinion on Allen’s comments; just like I’m allowed to have an opinion on yours. It might be different if these were comments made in private that somehow became public, but Allen knew what he was saying. Presumably, he stands by those comments. Allen is fair game. So is Bernhardt.
Which brings us to a central point of Bernhardt’s article: that comments like these make it easy for the right wing to caricature social media as censors of comedy. But do you know what makes it even easier? Yes; social media censoring comedy. Allen’s comments in isolation mean nothing; if they didn’t correspond with reality, there wouldn’t be a story. It’s easy for the right wing to say that there is a PC brigade on Twitter because – well, there is. There are plenty of examples (see above). Plenty of examples are plenty too many; one example of the “PC brigade” going after an innocent target is proof enough. If you want to shine a light on bigotry go ahead – but don’t be wrong. That is a big ask; folks on Twitter are not renowned for due diligence. As for phrases such as “check your privilege” and “identity politics” – is Bernhardt seriously trying to claim that this doesn’t happen? “Check your privilege” is as common in online debates as a Dalek in Doctor Who – not there all the time, but does appear more often than it should.
All right then, let’s talk about context. According to Bernhardt, “taken out of context” is a go-to response for comedians that have been caught out and the defence often does not stand up to scrutiny. He cites two examples where – according to him – context doesn’t improve the situation. The first is Louis CK’s joke about the Parkland survivors and I agree – that was neither funny nor appropriate. That is, however, just my opinion. He goes on to say: “Did we really miss a wider comedic point buried in Mark Meechan’s antisemitic videos that context could have provided? No.” Here, I wholeheartedly disagree. Markus Meechan’s video – there was one video; so the plural form should not have been used in any case – was NOT antisemitic. Unless saying that Nazis were “the least cute thing I can think of” is antisemitic now; I must have missed that meeting. It wasn’t buried in the video at all; it was quite plain to see for those who have watched it (which most people who say it is antisemitic have not actually done). Thus, just going by the two examples Bernhardt gave, I would have to conclude that the “out of context” defence is valid more often than he thinks it is. Since we’re mainly talking about Twitter here, let’s talk about #cancelcolbert shall we? An excellent example of attempted firing by someone that didn’t get the joke. In fairness to her, there’s no particular reason she should have understood the context at first, but I think it is also fair to ask that if you’re going to call for someone to be fired, you better make sure you fully understand the context first. Otherwise, you get Clarksongate. Sorry, Mr. Bernhardt, I don’t think it was Shane Allen that was missing the point.
Of course, none of this means that Twitter cannot be used for the forces of goodness. It is a fast and effective means of sharing information. But a racist joke that doesn’t get shared on Twitter is still a racist joke. Of course, in some circumstances, it is good to share so that someone is exposed for who they really are. The flip side of that particular coin is someone’s distasteful views might get more publicity than it is entitled to get. The information sharing, I can generally get behind. But that is hardly ever what Twitter is these days. The bottom line is that Twitter is just a tool. Like all tools, it can be used for both good and evil purposes. It’s on the internet; that’s really the first clue. To say that it is only used for one is, if nothing else, rather naive.