What’s the difference between a food critic and the boss of Top Shop? Sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not – it’s a question about the difference between the acceptable and unacceptable use of humour in the workplace. On the one hand “I was only joking” is the excuse of bullies the world over. But on the other, who gets to decide when humour – or “banter” as Sir Philip Green described it – crosses the line?
The food critic William Sitwell has just lost his job as the editor of the Waitrose magazine – he jumped before he was pushed – because he mildly mocked vegans in an e-mail to someone who pitched him an idea for a column on “plant-based” recipes.
His response: “How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?” Okay, it’s hardly Peter Kay. But being slightly acerbic in a hyperbolic kind of way is Sitwell’s thing. Square plates are an “abomination” he has insisted, for instance. This was just more of the same. Sitwell doing Sitwell.
Now presumably, the person who received this e-mail didn’t believe that Mr Sitwell was actually plotting the serial murder of plant eaters. Had she believed this she would have forwarded the e-mail to the police and not to another journalist. But instead, by forwarding it to the press, and thence to the unforgiving mob on Twitter, the plant-based recipe provider decided that it was better to expose Sitwell to the judge and jury of online keyboard warriors. They predictably insisted Sitwell was abusing his position and called for his scalp.
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So, when is taking-the-piss morally unacceptable? I am not a free speech warrior of the absolutist kind. There are circumstances where the power imbalance between the joke-teller and the person being joked about is such that humour is indeed a version of bullying. There are children whose lives are made impossible by playground taunting. Some humour is designed to belittle, to diminish, to harm. As a rule of thumb, humour is fine when it punches up – and this must be protected in all circumstances – but not when it punches down.
But one subject is so inherently funny that it feels almost impossible not to ridicule: piety. From the piety of lettuce munchers, the piety of Remainers on the People’s March, to the age-old pieties of religious belief itself. George Orwell reckoned that fascism could never prosper in a country that took pride in its piss-taking – Goose-stepping Nazis could never flourish within a culture that gave us Monty Python and the Ministry of Silly Walks.
If you want the moral justification for taking-the-piss, it is here. Personally, I think the world-transforming acme of the art has to be Martin Luther on the authority of the “fart-arse Pope”. There is nothing quite like a good old-fashioned fart gag aimed at the Bishop of Rome to “pull down the mighty from their thrones”. And what makes this doubly funny is that the pious have no humour about their piety. It’s not a joking matter, they insist. Too serious for that.
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And, in one sense – though not the one they intend – they are right. It is serious. A Christian woman called Asia Bibi, in Pakistan, has been on death row since 2010 for insulting the prophet. Only this week, the courts acquitted her, and all hell has broken loose, with mobs baying for blood. I was no fan of the Charlie Hebdo piss-taking of Islam. In a vehemently secular society such as France, where Muslims are often targeted and clearly vulnerable, cartoons of the prophet were punching down not punching up. But in a religious state like Pakistan – still more so in Saudi Arabia – I’d have thought piss-taking was an absolute moral necessity.
In this country, our pieties are very different. Our moralism is mostly secular and earnestly liberal. This is also where much of the power lies and where today’s moralism and self-righteousness congregates. And so this should be the focus for any brave and self-respecting comic. But the advent of social media has greatly damaged our sense of humour. Twitter’s rarely rises above the snarky sarcastic put down. Indeed, it’s precisely the earnest team outrage of the keyboard crusaders that we should be making a more deliberate effort to ridicule. Instead, Waitrose magazine gives in to them. And encourages them for the next time.
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From Lear’s Fool to Jonathan Swift to Ricky Gervais, piss-taking is an honourable and vital form of truth-telling. It should be a protected characteristic. Instead, we wave our outrage at each other, summoning Twitter likes with every showy and competitive display of mounting indignation. Yes, there are genuine victims of hurtful speech – but just because someone is taking-the-piss, that doesn’t make you one.
Indeed, pretending that we are the victim of some other’s diminishing ridicule is often simply to pose at being vulnerable so as to drum up sympathy and support – something cry-bullies excel at. Theirs is a shoddy form of impersonation – because it undermines the voice of those who are genuinely belittled by hateful speech.