Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Funny or Not.

Are there any subjects that are unsuitable for humorous treatment? I can think of a couple that I would consider unsuitable, but others might disagree. So what about racism? Is there a difference between a funny story that is racist, and a story that is funny because it sends up the concept of racism? It’s an old argument. This clip comes from an episode of Father Ted which I consider to be one of the funniest and not at all objectionable. Others might disagree.


Madeline said...

Well for what it's worth I think it's funny. I like how the man thinks that racism is a hobby and isn't sure whether he would like to make that sort of time commitment. And clearly the woman who is actually a racist is supposed to be a nutcase. But I also like how once her tirade is over she converts into a normal person, because you can be a normal person and be racist.

To go out on a tangent for a moment - I can only speak for the US, but I tend to think that it's less productive to think of "racist" as an essentialized category rather than "racism" as something that is structured into society and can affect us all to varying degrees. In the US this essentialism leads to an "all or nothing" view of racism, in which you are either a racist or you're not, and if you said or did something offensive, clearly it WASN'T offensive because you're not a racist. It's getting us nowhere. Obviously there are some bonafide racists who wear white hoods and burn crosses, but those are outliers. The majority of racism exists on an institutional, everyday, banal level. And the same could be said for sexism and other types of bigotry.

JJ Beazley said...

Well now, thank you for writing some of the things I was too lazy to write myself in the post.

Agreed all points, and to add two concerns of my own:

1. I think there’s a tendency these days to overplay the racist card in situations where it isn’t appropriate. When a Northern Irish politician criticised Islam recently, a cry of ‘racism’ immediately went up. The reasoning seemed to be that Islam is fundamentally an Asian religion, therefore any criticism of it amounts to a racist slur against Asians. And it’s interesting that this was in Northern Ireland where people tend to get a bit hot under the collar even over two different versions of Christianity (except it’s also about social divisions, imperialism, tribalism and so on.)

2. I’ve had personal experience of people hiding behind modern ant-racist sensibilities to avoid responsibility. When I worked for the charity, I found that Pakistani boys in particular were ever ready to cry ‘racist’ every time they were told not to do something that all boys of all colours were told not to do.

The problem in both cases is that they move public perception away from the core anti-racism message and thereby dilute it.

And maybe I should add that I occasionally notice hints of racism in my own attitudes. This is simply because they were ingrained through conditioning during my formative years and are taking longer than others to uproot. One of your points, I think.

Madeline said...

While I can't speak for the example you gave, I also dislike it when allegations of racism are used to undercut legitimate criticisms of religion or politics. The best example I can think of in the US is branding anyone who criticizes Israel an anti-semite. Clearly the issue is complicated by the fact that anti-semitism does exist. Often these things are judged by the people's intentions (did they MEAN to be racist?) which is to me a useless exercise. Like you said, if racism exists in people, it is an internalized form of what exists widely in society. Most people focus on exorcising racism on the individual level rather than thinking about the ways it is built into the structure of our society.

For instance, in North Carolina a man recently murdered several Muslim students. A lot of people were "relieved" when it came out that this was an "isolated" incident rather than some sort of organized hate crime. Yet in my opinion there is no such thing as an "isolated" incident. People get very hung up on what is or is not implicated in THIS specific case, they lose sight of the big picture. What is the broader context in which such things take place?

I feel like I'm veering off the topic now, but I do find it interesting that the Pakistani boys realized, whether consciously or not, that they could manipulate the discourse of anti-racism to their own advantage. I'm assuming that it's universally true that kids will do whatever they can do get out of work; in this case the boys seized upon the method that they knew would have the most social currency.

JJ Beazley said...

I’m interested in what you say about Israel and the blanket accusation of anti-Semitism. I’ve always believed that Israel should be no more immune from criticism than any other state, and I’ve long felt some disquiet that America seems all too ready to protect Israel from justifiable criticism, or at least decline to join in with it. I often wonder why that is.

I suppose what complicates the matter, and leads the simple minded to a simplistic view, is the fact that criticism of any state amounts to implicit criticism of its people, and the people of Israel are definably Jews. But of course, criticism of a particular group of Jews is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. That’s where the simple minded get it wrong, and maybe it’s where America gets it wrong. (Or am I being na├»ve here? Is it really all to do with a rich and powerful pro-Israeli lobby? Is that what American refusal to support full Palestinian statehood is about?)

I gather the Jews in Europe are getting nervous, since they see themselves as the target for a potential two-pronged attack – from the simple minded anti-Semites who use the excesses in Gaza as vindication for their bigotry, and also from radicalised Muslims who will use the whole Palestinian situation to feed their attack imperative.

That’s equally wrong, obviously, and I wonder whether the whole mess will ever be straightened out so that sanity can prevail.

Sorry, I'm not addressing your point about institutionalised racism, am I? I'm sure you're right.

Madeline said...

The pro-Israel policy in the US has something to do with the pro-Israel lobby, but as I understand it it also has to do with political strategy, with Israel being a convenient way to keep tabs on parts of the Middle East. From a broader cultural perspective, though, I feel like it's something along the lines of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." The US identifies more with Israel than with the Arab states of the Middle East. If Israel were located somewhere else, in a place that the US doesn't have so much invested in controlling, I don't think the US would be pro-Israel. In fact they weren't really an ally of Israel until it became a convenient maneuver for them in the Cold War.

I am probably oversimplifying a lot, but that's how I basically understand it.

I agree, it has to do with conflating the state and the people in it, which I can understand as Jewish identity is bound up with Israel in a particular way, and of course the state is supposed to be an embodiment of the people's will. But in practice the two are distinct, and I know plenty of Jewish Americans who are critical of Israel's actions.

I wasn't aware of the situation in Europe. Ironically it's the same problem, of conflating the people with the state. And ironically if people do lash out in violence at European Jews, it will only undermine legitimate criticisms of Israel. What a mess.

JJ Beazley said...

I gather there are plenty of Israelis in Israel who are critical of their government's policy towards Palestine. It seems to me that it would help a lot if Israel had a much more liberal government, but I suppose that's a big ask as long as Israelis see their country as an embattled enclave within the Arab world. Frightened people are rarely given to being reasonable.

I've never come across the word 'conflate' before. Must see whether it's in the OED.