Burying graveyard humour would be a grave loss

spiked editor Mick Hume's Notebook in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics
  • The disaster in Asia, we can all agree, is no laughing matter.

But does that mean that anybody should be censured or sacked for telling bad-taste tsunami jokes?

Rodney Marsh, the former footballer, has been fired from his job as a Sky Sports television pundit, after making an ‘offensive and inexcusable’ crack on a late-night phone-in programme. The funny thing is, it was not really a tsunami joke at all. Marsh apparently said that ‘David Beckham would never move to Newcastle because of all the trouble caused by the Toon Army in Asia’. (Note to non-football fans: tsunami sounds a bit like Toon Army, the self-styled nickname of Newcastle United supporters.) Was Marsh mocking the dead in Asia? Hardly; his weak wordplay was poking fun at Beckham, for allegedly being too dim to tell the difference.

Marsh’s offence was to take the name ‘tsunami’ in vain, and sound less than reverential about the suffering of others. That will no longer be tolerated in our thin-skinned society, where being potentially offensive often seems to be considered the worst offence of all. Yet there have always been jokes about disasters. Dark humour has helped people to survive in terrible circumstances. Holocaust humour flourished among the inmates of the Nazi death camps.

Now tsunami jokes are coming out of those stricken Asian countries. There are also, of course, some tasteless tsunami jokes from the West doing the rounds on the internet, involving references to (look away if easily offended) Phuket prostitutes ‘in fishnets’, Asia’s ‘floating voters’ and so on. Not nice, but really no worse (and rather fewer) than heard after other disasters.

What is different this time is that, even on joke websites, the jokes seem outnumbered by the outraged declarations of how offensive and inexcusable they are, and by tortured discussions about the ethics of laughing in the face of tragedy. For me, the line between acceptable and unacceptable humour has always seemed ambiguous and rather arbitrary, a matter of individual judgment. Nobody has to laugh. But why take jokes so seriously?

Perhaps some people can stop themselves laughing at something funny that infringes the etiquette of comical correctness. I envy them their self-control. But as Malcolm Muggeridge observed half a century ago, good taste and humour are ‘a contradiction in terms, like a chaste whore’. During the Second World War, George Orwell noted that ‘whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie’. Are we becoming so uptight that we must treat a custard pie as a hanging offence? It would be a grave loss to humanity if some tried to bury graveyard humour.

The attempt to outlaw off-message jokes has long been a sign of an authoritarian society. Another sign is that citizens spy and inform on one another for petty offences. A Scottish newspaper reports that Edinburgh council is ‘hunting’ for an employee whom it wants to discipline for typing ‘tsunami joke’ into an internet search engine. The council was apparently alerted to the heinous crime by an informer from a website that received a hit from this search. The name of the website? ‘Freedom for all’. Now that is what I call a sick joke.

  • In the same spirit of freedom of expression, I suppose we must let people watch human post-mortems ‘live’ on television if that is their thing.

Others might have found something deeply creepy about the spectacle of Gunther von Hagens carving up bodies before a Channel 4 studio audience this week, the ringmaster of a gory circus who never removed his fedora. What strikes me as truly perverse, however, is that while many will happily watch Professor von Hagens dissect the dead, far fewer are prepared to have their body, or that of a loved one, used in the cause of medical research to aid the living. This situation is unlikely to be improved by the Human Tissue Bill, which insists that patients and relatives must give ‘explicit consent’ for everything that doctors do with body parts. How would you like your liver, sir?

Even in an age when transparency is deemed a virtue, there are still some things best left to the experts and done behind closed doors. Just because pathology is normally carried out in private, does not mean it is a cover-up. What medical scientists surely need in their laboratories are not more cameras, but more cadavers

Mick Hume is editor of spiked
This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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