A Pan African Human Rights Organisation challenging the misrepresentation of African people, culture and history in the British media.
Sat 1 January 2011
Intent, consent and the panto season of racist jokes
Toyin Agbetu shares his opinion on the recent furore over Frankie Boyle’s usage of the n word and anti-African comedy. This article contains unfunny adult themes that may be offensive to dull, sensitive or vulnerable readers.
Submitted By: Toyin Agbetu
Are you still here? Oh, so I can safely assume you consent to what I am about to write despite the aforementioned warning? If not, please stop reading now for I guarantee you there will be offensive content.
Have a nice day.
A few days ago I received an email alerting me to the fact that the UK’s most racist newspaper had published a story with the headline “Revulsion at racist jokes fuel calls for Channel 4 to sack Frankie Boyle”. I kid you not, in fact I almost choked on my brussel sprout cake and vintage glass of white wine. Some Tory bloke named John Whittingdale, who is the chairman of the media select committee, even said: ‘Channel 4 has two choices – either they ask him to tone down his content or they take him off air’. Now as much as I believe usage of the n word has absolutely no place in a civilised society, I vehemously detest any notion of politicians attempting to censor or place restrictions on artistic/creative expression. More on that later.
But before I could even finish this article, the Mail published another stating; “Thousands of viewers have complained that the Christmas Day show by comedy duo Matt Lucas and David Walliams on BBC1 was racist. The spoof documentary set in an airport and called Come Fly With Me featured the pair as a range of minority characters.”
What was going on, why were europeans being more offended about their anti-African portrayal of us than we were? This definitely needed some investigation. Now Lucas and Walliams, the panto villains of the piece argue in an attempt to ‘reflect, affectionately, the multicultural Britain’ they love, they decided to use cosmetic makeup to replicate the racist antics of the black and white minstrel show made infamous by comedian(?) Lenny Henry.
Let me go all the way back to the beginning.
You see a little less than twenty four hours ago Ligali had received a community complaint about a discussion taking place on another great bastion of British humanitarian values - LBC. This time the subject of the complaint was not about Frankie Boyle, but instead the pseudo intellectual bullying taking place in defence of the usage of the n word for ‘satirical’ purposes. Curiously the villain of the piece was not the notorious Nick ‘grumpy ole gruffalo’ Ferrari, but instead the former shiny radio host and now formal member of the Grinch squad, LBC shock jock brigade, James O’Brien [insert collective sharp intake of breath, a woman moaning ‘no, Judah James, no’ and a baby crying].
To be honest I took a listen and was not impressed. Irrespective of callers explaining to him that they found the word offensive in all contexts, O’Brien insisted on telling them that they were wrong, as in the O’Brien laws of relativity:
1. You can’t be upset because I’m not, and
2. If I’m not, then it’s not upsetting.
The poor lass genuinely seemed unable to grasp the simple concept that even the mere usage of a racist word in isolation can offend despite the audience calling in and shouting ‘look behind you – (pointing to the large chip of sh*t that had replaced his thinking organ)’. Instead he persisted in telling us poor simple folk that Frankie Boyle was using racist words in a satirical anti-racist context. According to him, it was this mythical contextual justification that excuses him and all other n word loving idiots (O’Brien even used the pathetic ‘rappers like Shaun ‘Jay Z’ Carter say its ok’ excuse) from having to take responsibility of causing gratuitous offense by uttering anti-African epithets. It’s like if I wrote a ‘satirical’ poem called bun the queers (an ode against battyicide) I could argue it’s not offensive because I am taking a satirical dig at homorevulsion and besides... Peter Tatchell self defines as a queer rights activist so it must be alright!
And before any of you ask, I did almost break my rule about not engaging with these types of morally bankrupt cyclical debates and tried to contribute to the discussion, but as usual for these alleged open phone in programs, the LBC switchboard decided there was not enough time for my contribution to the debate and didn’t call me back.
Anyway, all whilst this debate was going on I hadn’t seen or heard the actual comments that Boyle had made and although I am thoroughly capable of debating on issues about the construction and usage of offensive anti-African language on a general level, I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer-activist if I did not research those specific areas I am ignorant about in order to interrogate my own thoughts and beliefs albeit - using quantifiable evidence as opposed to views sourced from O’Brien’s belligerent ranting fuelled circus.
I figured anyone that could get a rabid Tory politician foaming at the mouth had to be worth the benefit of the doubt. And so to my shame, last night I sat down and watched an episode of Frankie Boyle – I lost half an hour of my life as I only chuckled twice meaning the outraged/engaged ratio was in deficit. To be honest I believe that the warning at the beginning of the program almost lets Channel 4 off the hook. It’s definitely foul mouthed, depraved adult entertainment but to anyone whose watched an episode of South Park it would be fair to say Boyle’s material is ok, although the delivery a tad lame. Kind of like Jack Dee with the acerbic wit replaced with space filling expletives and a gratuitous amount of homoerotic imagery encouraging you to gauge your own eyes out. Imagine Lenny Henry pretending to be Richard Pryor or worse yet, Steven K Amos reimagined as Ricky Gervais and you’re almost there.
But I digress. Fortunately (or not) I somehow managed to miss the n word ‘joke’ in the program I watched (due to his accent I misheard it as ‘mega’), but I did observe usage of the word ‘paki’ as described by O’Brien in a humorous piece exposing the racist attitudes in the British government and media. Now in all honesty I have to admit that whilst I could accept this segment used offensive language, the point being made was a very serious one (however please note the ‘paki’ epithet is obviously a derivative of the ethnic identity, Pakistani, unlike the dehumanising n word).
Indeed it was recently revealed following a wiki leak expose (hurrah!) that the “Foreign & Commonwealth Office director of overseas territories, Colin Roberts, was reported to have used hugely offensive language when describing the Chagossian community as being comprised of a ‘few Tarzans or Man Fridays’. This is significant because it was New Labour’s David Miliband who as foreign secretary was exposed as another deceitful politician who dismally failed to secure justice for the innocent people against the barbaric actions of both the UK and US governments.
Talking of deceit, it is somewhat ironic, that before the general election Nick ‘scrap the tuition fees’ Clegg said Britain had a “moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home”. Now with the ConDem regime in power this can only be regarded as the kiss of death. Is any of this news to you? Probably. And thats why if not for the works of real journalists like John Pilger (please watch Stealing An Island and The War You Don’t See), Ismail Blagrove and occasionally the valiant teams behind boring documentaries (come back Roger Cook all is forgiven) such as Dispatches, Unreported World and the hilarious introed ‘I’m Jeremy Vine, and this is Panorama’ - many of us would be unaware of these issues.
The point is, Boyle may appear to lack the intellectual candour of a Charlie Brooker, Mark Thomas, John Stewart or Bird, Bremner and Fortune but with their sporadic presence in front of the British public his comments have a valid place in raising political awareness of such matters.
However before you think he’s been exonerated let’s examine the other side of the argument.
Was this (and some of his other ethnicity flavoured jibes) - a racist joke.
Well, without hesitation the answer is undoubtedly yes.
But not simply because Boyle used an offensive word to make a political point, but instead due to the fact that he chose to reinforce the differences between the audience (his ‘we’) and the targets of the joke using language that denigrated them when another (more humorous and respectful) option was available. In short he chose the Bernard Manning nuclear approach to comedy which as we know is toxic. Of course it could just be that Boyle is rubbish as a comedian or has a limited vocabulary. However having sat through an entire episode of his panto styled Tramadol Nights that including a song dedicated to a particular part of the female anatomy I suspect he’s quite a cunning linguist. On the other hand he could be lazy. I mean why bother say ‘some guys and gals on the streets of Bagdad’ when the P word would be an easier (and inaccurate) way of achieving dramatic effect.
Boyle knew that his likely audience use or accept racist language in their homes and daily lives. He knew they were comfortable with it because he was comfortable with it. A funnier man would have avoided using the shock jock approach and known how the very absence of the racist word could be used to deliver the same line in manner where the official words became hilarious. Boyle whilst demonstrating he is comically smart is well... cosmetically sh**e.
And then on to the anti-African aspect.
I mean I am a Pan Africanist and not a champion of ‘urban’, ‘queer’ or ‘paki’ rights. The British media would have you believe that we’re all serious poo faced activists that wait for people to say something wrong so we can jump up and complain whilst screaming hysterically for reparations. The Truth is that whilst those caricatures exist within our community, most of us just want to live a dignified life without other people continuously placing obstacles in our way. The ‘we’ club that people like O’Brien, Boyle and his preferred audience seem to belong too.
The kind of Wii people that pretend they’re as liberal as a Nintendo game but fall over laughing at the sides at the sight of young Africans giving head to european males (yes this was one of the sketches I observed) or some cheap ‘black’ cock joke that was hugely offensive. Why couldn’t it have been a joke about a tiny shrivelled up pink cock, what was it about that tired cliché stereotypical joke that made James ‘I don’t see skin colour as a disability’ O’Brien forget to mention that when Frankie Boyle got desperate for laughs he seemed to automatically falls back on jokes that reinforce stereotypes whether they be racist or sexist and that this - is NOT satire.
It’s interesting that O’Brien spoke about disability because if he considered the social model of empowering people with impairments then he would have realised that the environment we inhabit is totally capable of disabling normal individuals by withdrawing opportunities for mobility and independent living due to ignorance and bias. Disabled people and the most vulnerable are often referred to as scroungers whilst Africans are labelled whingers. It’s a pity we don’t have many comedians who have the courage to speak up against the loser class ‘white’ whiners and their bw**ker politician bum chums who have access to everything and still feel the need to piss on the head of those without.
Am I deliberately being provocative? Hell yeah (we’re not regulated by Ofcom or any other bland corporate type government stooge), but I am also carefully observing the boundaries where my words could resonate with a majority and tip the scales by oppressing a minority. In short I don’t want to be an offensive Alf Garnet type bully even if I’m guaranteed of being on the ‘winning’ side.
I opened this article with the issue of consent and if I’m serious for a moment this is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of the matter and not that tired moronic excuse of intent. If an audience is informed or warned that comedic content will include overtly racist themes and they decide to keep watching, listening or indeed participating, then they have consented to the intent of the performer to offend them. It’s like going to a horror movie and wetting yourself with fear, you do not sue the cinema because the film was scary as the very act of choosing to remain and watch the film signifies your consent. Unless there was no prior warning or you were literally frozen to the spot with fear (in which case you should really seek help) the question of did you consent to being subjected to this abuse becomes paramount.
For example if I collected my children crying from their school traumatised after a teacher thought it would be ‘cool’ to invite Frankie Boyle to deliver the school assembly then I would hunt him and the head teacher down and create a whole new category of trident incident. In scenarios where we cannot consent (public domain) or more vulnerable people are likely to be present (members of any oppressed minority community) it is morally correct to secure their consent either by making it explicitly clear what kind of material is likely to come and/or including filtering mechanisms (broadcasting watershed and PVR pin codes) to prevent access.
Only in extreme circumstances where offense is likely to cause sustained distress (such as endorsement or perpetuation of historically harmful stereotypes) should the editorial decision be taken to insist the removal or modification of such content and actor. Consent goes to the question of expectation, but expectation provides only mitigation not validation of the circumstances. I hope you’re still following me.
You see whilst we may think of ourselves as invulnerable to taking offence, especially when pre-warned of likely content, the truth of the matter is that no such super insensitive being truly exists (if you exclude the ConDem reptilians). This is especially true of the best comedy where an anticipatory element of genuine surprise remains a key component of the overall performance - the addressing of taboos through originality, not crass insensitivity.
A wheelchair bound comic named ‘the amazing spaz’ can make jokes about ‘crippled norms’ and disabled people but is not immune from prosecution if making gratuitous offensive remarks especially if about an excluded sub-group such as Deaf people or an audience not expecting to be belittled in the name of entertainment.
Likewise, O’Brien reckons ‘colour is not relevant to intelligent analysis of words’ – no, but intelligence and an ability to recognise that usage of n word is not ‘verbal apartheid’ if we have enough empathy for humans of different ethnic backgrounds and realise some words are just damn insensitive and as such render themselves inappropriate to use in the public domain.
O’Brien who stated that he recognised that you ‘don’t feel [abusive racist language] as keenly if you examine it from the outside’ went on to claim that ‘usage of the n word can be legitimately expressed as satire’. It’s hard to determine who is more offensive, the person who believes he can defend the use of racist ideology as long as the ‘discussion is conducted in an elevated manner’ or the comedian who reinforces racist stereotypes in order to sell ‘jokes’.
And there lies the crux of the matter.
Sasha ‘Ali G’ Baron, Richard Blackwood, Eddie Nestor and Lenny ‘Chef’ Henry had it for a moment, lost it and are now struggling to regain it.
Felix Dexter, Leo Muhammad, Kwaku Bonsu, Gina Yashere have it and are greatly respected because of it, but have sadly paid a steep commercial success price for never selling it.
Now let’s go back to the BBC’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ debacle and ask whether the greys ‘browning-up’ is offensive because its depriving a talented African of a role in the programme (it’s not) or if its ‘racist’ simply because it’s not a sensitive enough caricature. Would that be comedy? Should there be an expectation for a BBC i.e. public funded ‘spoof’ (I am so tempted to drop the ‘s’) show to be both respectful and inclusive of all licensee fee payers? I find Steven K Amos’s parody of his mother more distasteful, not only because it is so piss poor but mainly because it’s that tired Harry Hill kind of funny (i.e.. not).
Comedy is a great device for bringing people together by creating understanding, but deliberately offensive jokes do the opposite. During the debate O’ Brien asked “what is the criteria that states I have to choose to respect your feelings as opposed to the others who have responded and agreed with me on this issue”.
The answer O’Brien is empathy, a desire to feel and show compassion, to act with decency towards other sentient life forms. Those like him who defending usage of the n word as ‘anti-racist’ satire whilst characterising satire as an offensive based polemical device are presenting a total red herring. Satire is subtle, any offence caused is consequential to the joke, not the intent. In contrast the n word is never subtle, it’s like ignoring the red hot pepper in jolof rice and pretending it’s a bland dish. Jokes have significant cultural capital, indeed bad jokes keep offensive words alive and thereby encourage the perpetuation of attached racist, sexist attitudes and stereotypes. Arguments that claim a satirical point can only be made through mistrelling or use of contemptuous words such as the n word is not only facetious but in Truth, intellectually retarded.
Toyin Agbetu is a writer, film director, poet, and founder of Ligali.
Is usage of the racist n word and minstrel sight gags acceptable in comedy?
The best comedy is where an anticipatory element of genuine surprise remains a key component of the overall performance - the addressing of taboos through originality, not crass insensitivity.
Toyin Agbetu, The Ligali Organisation
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Bun the Queers (A crass satirical ode against battyicide)
hey bwatty bum chum
let me tell you something
me wanna bwatty bum bun
with a fire inna rectum...