One evening, about five years ago, a friend and I found ourselves wandering through Southall, an area of West London known for its large South Asian population. We decided, on a whim, to pop into a pub on the main road, which turned out to be owned — and largely patronised — by Sikhs. Inside, it immediately became apparent that I was the only white guy in the whole joint, and, as we approached the bar, a man got up and came over to us with a frown on his face. He paused, looked at my (rather unkempt) beard and said, “hmmm, nice try, but you’ve really gotta do your moustache Sikh style!” — before twiddling my whiskers into symmetrical Nike ticks.
I’ve been thinking about that night a lot recently. I’ve been thinking about the game of pool the man challenged us to and the round of Sambuca shots that followed. And I’ve been wondering whether the rise of so-called “woke” culture over the last few years has made experiences like that more or less likely to happen again.
Sadly, I suspect we all know the answer. After all, pretty much all of the components that made that evening possible — the spontaneity, the teasing, the open acknowledgement of cultural differences — would be considered intolerable by many on the left today. And if there’s one thing that characterises these contemporary activists — and indeed makes experiences like mine incomprehensible to them — it’s humourlessness.
You know what I mean: the sitcoms pulled, commentators cancelled, fancy dress outfits outlawed. But even in our day-to-day lives many of us have a general sense that the rug of conviviality has been pulled from under us — revealing a floor of eggshells beneath.
To get a sense of how this has happened, it’s worth thinking about what, precisely, those activists who are most successfully pushing their weight around in the culture wars actually believe. Because humour, it seems to me, poses a challenge to two of their most fundamental instincts: that language should be policed, and that life can, and should, be made pure.
Think about it: If you’re the kind of person who believes words are violence, then jokes must seem like ticking time bombs, poised at any moment to spatter us with irony and puns and double-meanings and other terrifyingly intangible things. The risk of collateral offence is always there — some word or phrase will wriggle free of its intended meaning and bolt, like a dog sensing weakness, after the person most likely to be affronted.
At the same time, as pretty much every psychological theory of humour attests, jokes deliberately smudge the line between expectation and reality. The snappily titled “ontic-epistemic theory” of humour, for instance, asserts that laughter is a reaction to a “cognitive impasse” — the momentary realisation of two completely contradictory things coming together. But for those who genuinely believe we can bring about utopia here on earth, this reminder that the world is messy, not clean-cut and pure, is not the cause of hilarity, but horror.
All play is treated, therefore, with suspicion. Indeed, the trend on the left in recent years has been to boil all human interactions down to their most functional form — simmering off mysterious and volatile things like intentions and body language, and leaving at the bottom only words: good words, and bad words.
The goal seems to be, since “language is power”, to make our speech — and by extension, our lives — easier to control by reducing words to little more than 1s and 0s.
But the result is — funnily enough — utterly robotic. Think of the way Robin DiAngelo describes trying to patch up a relationship with a black colleague in White Fragility: “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in that meeting?”. Or the now infamous case of the social justice activist Melissa Fabello tweeting that, among friends, “asking for consent for emotional labour… should be common practice”. Fabello subsequently provided a template for how to respond to a friend should “emotional labour” not be possible: “Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect [later date or time] instead / Do you have someone else you could reach out to?”
Most of us recoil at this empathy-by-algorithm. Humans are not automatons, and we do not simply process each other’s sentences like spools of binary code — play, ambiguity and laughter are essential aspects of life. Indeed, one of the strangest things about today’s activists is how blind they are to this (to everyone apart from them) obvious fact. If they logged off for a moment and looked around, they’d realise that cultures around the world rely on humour — often quite uncomfortable humour — not only to soften the hardships of life, but also to bridge gaps with others.
Take Native Americans as an example. On the face of it, they are, in woke terms, the quintessential victims: the original inhabitants of what is now the United States, swept aside — and very nearly exterminated — to make way for the white capitalist patriarchy. Even today, many of their communities are among the poorest in America, and they suffer disproportionately high rates of suicide, unemployment, ill-health and alcohol and drug abuse. So not, all in all, people who seem to have much to laugh about.
And yet they do — a lot. Despite what the po-faced puritans might have you think, much Native American humour is muscular and freewheeling, and centred around teasing — what the Native American writer Gerald Vizenor calls “the native tease”. They use humour both to mock others and to make common ground with them — take, for example, this quote from the American literary critic Kenneth Lincoln’s book Indi’n Humor about the activist Vine Deloria:
“Deloria does not come so much to castigate whites as humorously to cleanse intercultural wounds. He lampoons the Bureau of Indian Affairs, caricatures political history, parodies anthropologists and missionaries, satirizes treaties and termination fiascos, and jokes about his own Lakota tribe, warriors who fought one another when they ran out of some twenty other tribal enemies and the endless wagon trains of migrant whites…. Deloria says: ‘When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive’.”
How would DiAngelo or Fabello begin to make sense of that? How would they make sense, indeed, of Lincoln’s claim that “play appears to be a place that Indians and non-Indians can don or drop the mask and intermingle without bitterness”? And yet the rest of us know this to be true in our day-to-day interactions with people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. Indeed, you might even say there’s actually something rather… ahem, imperialistic, about the attempt to impose our secularised, puritanical ideas about how to get along with one another on cultures with a much more playful sense of humour…
So what is the right balance? We seem instinctively these days to want to tailor society to the feelings of the most offended. The motives for doing so are perfectly honourable: concern for the vulnerable and championing of the underdog are among our greatest cultural strengths. But these risk morphing today into a kind of clean-freak utopianism. The assumption appears to be this: if we could somehow locate the one person out of all eight billion of us most likely to be upset by human interactions, and then follow their prescriptions for how to behave, the world would immediately puff like a popcorn kernel into its final — flawless and peaceful — form.
But this simply isn’t true. And it just isn’t possible — or healthy — for a society to spend its every waking moment tip-toeing around in fear of disaster.
Which brings us to another problem: it’s not immediately obvious how we should pick whose feelings get to “represent” those of any given demographic. In the case Native Americans, for instance, some groups did indeed campaign (alongside many well-meaning whites) for the names of Columbus Day and the Washington Redskins to be changed. But 88% of Native Americans are, according to a recent poll, opposed to political correctness — and clearly many are perfectly comfortable with terms that might be considered, by others, to be offensive. The largest news website for Native Americans, for example, is still called Indian Country Today.
Quite what counts as a “legitimate” level of offence is thus hard to say. But basic human psychology tells us that just seeking out the most offended voice and using that as a baseline for society is untenable — especially when, as Matt Singh points out, it simply goes against most people’s instincts. Indeed, on any average day walking around London, I see a hundred playful exchanges between people that would no doubt be considered “problematic” by somebody. But these exchanges are essential to a functioning society. Teasing can be a kind of social safety valve, giving us a healthy way of confronting our differences. And hell — it just makes life more fun.
We shouldn’t be afraid of saying so. Nor should we allow ourselves to be lectured on morality by activists who think relationships between the races or the sexes can only function by following a list of rules, as though playing out some line-by-line interaction in a video game. Most of us are already perfectly capable of loving, considerate, joyful, spontaneous, playful relationships with people of all sorts of different backgrounds — and trying to live by the woke rulebook would likely only undermine them. Let’s not let that happen.
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