What is called ‘joking’?

Rowan Atkinson, whose portrayal of Blackadder in my youth gave me a lot of simple pleasure, is dead wrong to support Boris Johnson. The distinction between a joke and a non-joke is an important one and can only be defined from the standpoint of reception.

A joke is something said by a comedian, or one assuming the role of comedian, to an audience, who, anticipating an ironic register, will find humour and wit in the imagery of the said and then laugh it away.

A joke is not a statement confected by a politician in front of a media poised for political statements, and then widely reproduced as a newsworthy and actionable incitement for constituents to base their political behaviour upon, or to reproduce as if it were an attitudinal model intended for adoption. The word for that is propaganda.

It is a question not only of intent but far more of reception, and of an awareness of the different interpretive networks which surround an actor at the moment of enunciation. If what Boris Johnson said was so self-evidently a joke, and only a joke, then no-one will have reproduced it in earnest, used it as slur to attack anyone, or bolstered their political position by citing it as a source of authority. Sadly that is not the case. Already we are seeing the fallout of Boris’ ‘quips’ in online videos of assaults on Muslims which are mere whiskers away from actually citing Johnson’s own words verbatim.

The only logical and generalisable conclusions to be reached are these: either

  • People at large seem genuinely to be losing the ability to distinguish between a) jokes — the light-hearted play with imagery for comedic effect with no serious political interest in them — and b) non-jokes, such as committed statements of political position,

or else

  • Certain individuals like Boris Johnson are deliberately exploiting their privileged political positions in order to dress b) as a), the better to advance political positions through the mechanisms of indirect speech which, were they stated directly, would be politically unacceptable.

I don’t know about you, but to me the second option seems the far more likely conclusion. Even from the simplistic argument of Occam’s Razor, it is far more likely that Boris Johnson’s jokes are calculated attempts to indirectly express an excitatory (or inciting) hatred which, were it stated plainly, would be unacceptable from one in his position. Rather this than ‘everyone on the left has lost a fundamental human faculty of critical discernment between registers of language use’.

Johnson is, in a manoeuvre absolutely typical of the right wing (and the only real tool in the methods of the online right, it seems), attempting to bypass direct political involvement in the effects of his utterances by exploiting one of the conventions (and hypocrisies) of liberal civility: dressing political hatred up as comedy.

So then, let’s follow the alternative argument to its end. Let’s pretend Boris has somehow stepped out from the sphere of press microphones which encircle him, behind each a journalist poised to record and disseminate serious political commentary, and is instead surrounded by a network of people anticipating nothing serious from him. Since the object of his humour seems to be religion, let’s hear his absolute rib-ticklers about the way Orthodox Jews, High Anglican Bishops, the Saudi absolutist monarchy, and people of the Amish dress. If this sounds like something supremely unlikely to happen, it’s for the very good reason that Boris cannot simply bracket the political context of his statements (doubly so while remaining a politician). And while offence caused to the above groups would almost certainly run afoul of, and jar with, his political situation, apparently there is a political role for Islamophobia in the Conservative party and among its supporters which it is convenient for them to disguise as casual jest. But there is no role for a court jester in a parliamentary democracy. If he wants to situate himself as a comedian, to be taken lightly and only lightly, he must step down.

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