The Court Jester in Real Life

There are many posts here describing the idea of “The Court Jester” in the context of potentially offensive humour. There are some basic rules of thumb on the rhetorical use of humour here, but reality is invariably more complex when free speech meets the concepts of offensive humour and hate-speech.

Charlie Hebdo was probably the highest profile example, and #dankula the Scottish comedian convicted without any prior complaint(!) for an offensive video joke the most recent, but it’s a general question of when humour is valid use of – potentially offensive – free expression:

The basic rules, followed by post-notes of real examples:

The Court Jester

Essentially UNLESS you are appointed / recognised / claiming the role of court jester in any given context, then humour comes with a duty of care to its target. If the target doesn’t find it funny, you have a responsibility to make peace with the target, either by prior investment of love or working to resolve the offense.

If you ARE the court jester, you are given licence to offend your target, on the mutual understanding of yourself, audience and target(s) that this freedom is being used to make points of social value, to prick consciences etc. The fool was tolerated at the court of kings, kings that otherwise had the power of summary execution of anyone causing offense. King, fools and courtiers all knew the rules of the game, even if the innocent child who couldn’t see the emperor’s clothes did not.

Suffer the little children. The corollary is despite freedom of expression, we can’t all choose to be court-jester or innocent-child anywhere anytime. It would be chaotic, unproductive, destructive and tiresome if we all did, but that is simply the practical problem. A game with rules is there to be gamed and the rules evolved. There is a more fundamental issue. Context and understanding matter. In these days where anything and everything is shared publicly, immediately, beyond any context, original intent within any original context are lost. The offense may be apparent whereas the care, the humour and the point are not. The only rule is respect and duty of care towards any target, deliberate or unintended.


[Post note for the Court Jester thread. Don’t believe me about the “rules”? Here a hostage to fortune from 1940’s BBC in attempting to frame actual rules of rhetoric and humour. Let’s don’t go there:

And this twitter exchange:

“Maybe” notice.

Ongoing fall-out from the #dankula Scottish comedian guilty of joke case, but same is true of the “jokes at expense of ex” cases.]


[Post Note: And looking at humour as a game with rules, broken rules that prove the rule, at many levels, it’s worth thinking of counter-intuitive professional cases. Anyone who has worked in any of these professions, or has a loved-one who has will know:

Healthcare professionals and their patients, education professionals and their students, policing professionals and suspected criminals, care professionals of all kinds and their wards – even service providers and their customers more generally – provide contexts for some of the most vicious, cruel humour where their punters are the target. It’s a given that no-one cares more for the target than the carer and (privately) such humour is tolerated as an important therapeutic release. Of course that toleration breaks down if the trust in the carer is lost or the private context is made public.]

[And why not? Another post-note: Given the Corbyn anti-semitism saga …. whether we’re talking about the mural or The Merchant of Venice, my base position is that anti-semitic prejudice is built into much western tradition, since much of it stands on  Christian (ie pointedly-not-Jewish) tradition. That’s not to excuse the prejudice rather it says it’s something we have to care enough to be cognisant of when inadvertent instances of prejudice arise.  As ever it’s about care and respect, love even. So what about humour?

My archetype offensive humourist has been Frankie Boyle in many previous posts. Well, another of our established court-jesters is David Baddiel, and tiresomely people often fail to notice a court-jester is not always on duty, and often feel all interactions should be (attempts at) humour. 

Obviously, the remark is indeed racist. Equally obviously it was a rhetorical question – but was the sarcasm simply to draw attention to David’s Jewishness never being hidden, to draw attention to his Jewishness itself, like, who needed that? Or, were there any other levels of irony intended to make any other valid points? If zillions of people do this to you every day – even if they think they’re being funny – it’s tiresome as well as racist. Is it offensive to be tiresome? The point is without evidence that the person is caring and respectful of the target it is gratuitous racism, whatever David’s level of annoyance or offence. He’s an intelligent person who takes it in his stride to simply point out the fact, neither taking offence nor even making a big deal out of the annoyance.

I might draw parallels and contrasts with (say) Lenny Henry on humour around his Afro-Caribbean-blackness …. but another day.

Nice Jewish Guy? Given all the conflated issues around Zionism more widely and Israeli politics more specifically, I still have on CD in the car Tommy Womack’s “Alpha Male” from the album “There, I Said It”. The whole world in one song.]

[And finally: David Baddiel’s line resulted in this excellent TLS piece. A “twinkle in the eye” doesn’t travel well in text. When I say excellent I’m not kidding – it’s bloody marvellous, a must read if ever there was one. Conviction and sentencing here. Tough one for the judge. I agree on balance with Baddiel’s take that the – admitted / agreed – intended humour protects the free speech aspect. In the end it came down to context that the private joke – the twinkle in the eye – doesn’t travel well. Understanding of the girlfriend’s relationship with the dog gets left behind when content goes viral. The social value of the joke is shared with those that share that understanding – without that it’s a dumb animal trained to do offensive things. Quoting myself above:

“The offense may be apparent, whereas
the care, the humour and the point are not.”

We all need to care enough to take responsibility for that.]

[Oh and more “and finally” – since the #dankula sentencing – more reflective pieces. This from Douglas Murray – same, same – context is everything. The Pythons’ “Tell ’em we’re Jewish” gag  is an obvious (archetypal in fact) court-jester-in-chief situation, AND said with obvious love for the target(s) – both Jews and Germans.]

[Guess now this story can never be complete without the Roseanne Barr example.

Offensive humour has to have a point (*).

At least there were apologies and sackings in some of these cases, and some taking of responsibility. Hope for us all.

(*) In cases where free-speech appears to be being oppressed, even oppressed by conservative public reaction rather than authority, one point may simply be to protest or claim the right to freely offend. That’s fair enough so long as that point and the original point are both followed-up.

It’s not a general  “right to offend”.]

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