Ukip, “politically incorrect” jokes, and boundary pushing
I don’t like UKIP. There, I said it. I don’t like them. I’m bored of indulging them, indulging their little defenders and apologists. The party scares me enormously, with their insidious drip drip drip of what they call “political incorrectness” – a self-righteous, self-romanticising, self-indulgent way of describing any views that people object to. From the moment they proscribed HopeNotHate as a hate organisation, it was obvious what kind of organisation they are. They are extreme. I am talking specifically about the party itself, in its fundamental world view, which is extreme. How could you think HopeNotHate are a hate group unless you are extreme?
Is the party racist? That accusation inevitably gets met with a similar response to individual accusations of racism. That response is more or less: in my life I’ve done things which aren’t racist, and that proves that I’m not racist. Okay. Fine. I daresay there are people in UKIP who are not racist every minute of the day. There are people in UKIP who have done not-racist things in their lives. There are individuals in UKIP who aren’t white and the party is okay with that. (Give them all the cookies, seriously.) But there’s no getting around the fact that at their spring conference, comedian Paul Eastwood told a series of racist jokes, and not only did the crowds laugh, but Nigel Farage defended the jokes – although he hadn’t actually heard them, he says – on the basis that they are ‘national, not racial’ stereotypes. Then fell back on the classic straw man defence: we must be careful not to kill comedy or censor people. No-one is doing either. What I am doing is saying that I do not trust the values and decency of a party that laughs at those sorts of jokes. Farage also advocated a free market solution to racism; that if the man’s jokes are racist no-one will book him again. That might be true, but only if people talk about it and challenge him. How does he think these potential future customers find things out and make a decision about whether to book him again?
Nigel Farage’s response is so old it makes me yawn. Jokes matter. Why do people tell racist – or for that matter, sexist or homophobic – jokes? I don’t believe it’s just about making people laugh. There are much funnier ways to do that. What these people are doing is chipping away at our boundaries.
Comedians are usually quite rightly happy to say that’s what ‘controversial’ comedy is about. Pushing boundaries. Breaking taboos. In fact, many comedians embrace it as the whole point of their ‘controversial’ comedy.
I looked into sexist comedy because I was tired of arguing about rape jokes in terms of trauma and feelings and pain. Those things should matter to people but they obviously don’t, so I decided to look at the broader impact. And it turns out, quite a lot of people have looked into this. It has been found in more than one study that misogynistic jokes, especially those at the expense of a rape survivor, have a direct impact on things like the likelihood of a person believing rape survivors, the likelihood of them believing rape myths, and the likelihood of them blaming rape survivors for their own rape. Here’s just one article by the very funny comedian Raj Sivaraman which explains this rather expertly.
And you know what else? Comedy is honest. When we laugh, it comes from the gut. Who we humiliate and who we tell to shut up and who we listen to and who we stand up for and who we use as a punchbag isn’t a random coincidence. We should look closely at who we think it’s okay to laugh at. It tells us who we are.
Boundary pushing isn’t an accident. It is an exertion of power. Sexist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind women that whoever they are, whatever they’ve achieved, misogynists hate them. Racist jokes – even ironic ones – serve to remind people of colour that however safe they feel, there are racist white people who hate them. When you make bigoted jokes you are reminding marginalised people that their humanity is conditional. You are reminding them that you are being generous for not hating them, and deserve gratitude. When you make an ironic joke to show how funny it would be if you genuinely, non-ironically said a bigoted thing, you are demanding that the subject of your joke embrace you as not-a-bigot and laugh at your definition of what is and isn’t acceptable. Yes, it is a direct exertion of power – whether you consciously intend it that way or not.
This silly myth of “political correctness” is particularly dangerous for our generation because we don’t remember just how recently everybody’s boundaries were so different – and just how easily they could be pushed back. We laugh at rape jokes without remembering that even as recently as the 1990s, ‘rape’ didn’t mean a violation of your body without your consent, but rather, a crime of property, against not you but your husband or father, because rape within marriage was perfectly legal.
When people like Paul Eastwood make jokes about Somalians shooting people, mocks Asian accents, jokes about places being full of Arabs, and throws in insults about Muslims and Poles to boot, to a roomful of laughing Ukippers, mostly wealthy, mostly white, some who hold positions of elected office, they are not just providing entertainment, they are pushing boundaries. And it works. Of course it does. One racist joke at a time, racial slurs go from “racist,” to “offensive,” to “colourful language”. One sexist joke at a time, sexist slurs go from “misogyny” to “risqué” to “poorly worded” to “old fashioned values”. And before we know it, oppressive bigotry is a matter of hurting people’s feelings with clumsy phrasing. The underlying values become normal.
I am tired of pretending that UKIP stand for anything nuanced or original. We can be capable of understanding why people get frustrated with the main parties, we can get that people relate to UKIP – Farage in particular – we can agree that Westminster is painfully out of touch, all while still holding and expressing the opinion that Nigel Farage is a deeply unpleasant man, and that the party’s core values are rooted in something very ugly. When challenged, they wipe policies off their website and start again. They apologise for their choice of words and explain that they weren’t insulting women for being sexual, they were insulting women for not doing enough housework. But the bigger picture is that any policy coming from the sort of people who will laugh publically and shamelessly at those sorts of jokes will be a disaster for the country. Your underlying values matter.
People tell me, hey, but Nigel Farage is likeable. Likeable? To whom? How can you find Nigel Farage “likeable”? He is only “likeable” if you “like” people because they have learned how to apply charm like a coat of bad paint. I judge people – especially potential future leaders – on their actions, values, and character, not whether they enjoy a pint and have a lopsided grin.
It is ironic that the media and political careerists are the first to accuse those of us who have no patience with the question-dodging, fact-dismissing, £2m-in-expenses-claiming Farage of being disinterested in why he connects with people. It is ironic because they are the ones interested in the psephology of the thing. Will it harm the blue vote or the red vote? Will they challenge Labour in the north or should they focus all resource on the south? Should the right have supported the alternative vote? These are the sort of people who say things like: “this is too important to be made into a political issue. ” What the hell are your politics about , if not important things? These are the sort of people who say: “he’s a nice person and I get on very well with him – obviously his politics are horrendous though.” Your politics come from your values. If your values are horrendous you’re not a very nice person.
And why do UKIP supporters still get these generous assumptions that UKIP connects with people because they’re disillusioned or vulnerable? There are a lot of people who do hold racist, sexist, and homophobic views and they’ve just been waiting for somebody “likeable” like Farage to come along and validate them.
What UKIP has done with their boundary pushing is make bigotry subjective. They’ve made it a matter of “political correctness”, a modern fad that some people just don’t sign up to. Far from all being shackled by this mysteriously-defined “political correctness”, it seems that we’re not supposed to call racism ‘racism’ anymore because it’s trivialising the debate or name calling or censorship or being out of touch.
So please, please, please can we drop all this yeah but Farage is a talented politician, yeah but UKIP make some valid points, yeah but Farage is charming and funny and likes a pint. I don’t judge people on whether they like a pint. I judge them on their actions. Just imagine those jokes at an office party. Imagine them in your parliament. Imagine them in the grocery store. Imagine them being normal and acceptable and just how people talk to one another. I find it hard to see it as a laughing matter.