Commissioner Tim’s Comic Turn

tim southpDr Tim Soutphommasane had a recent piece in Adelaide’s Advertiser that was just a bit too scoldy for my liking. He reckons that some people justify bigotry by saying they are just having a laugh. I think he means that some jokes are not funny and can be hurtful to others even when we don’t mean them to be. You see, we don’t always know enough about everyone to avoid hurting their feelings by taking chances with jokes. But if that’s what he meant, why didn’t he just say so?

“It’s not about a joke. It’s not about hurt feelings,” says Commissioner Tim, “it’s about exclusion.”

Oh, dear me. Here we go again.

Commissioner Tim would never, ever tell a racist joke, of that we can be fairly certain. Being someone who doesn’t look like a stereotypical white Australian, I suspect his personal, moral and professional requirement to self-censor any witticism that includes racial identification requires no mental effort whatsoever on his part. Commissioner Tim gently reminds us to “call out” what he terms “casual racism”. That’s a new sort of racism invented to remind us that avoiding what might be called nasty-bastard racism is no longer sufficient. It replaces the admonitions “Don’t be so rude” and “Be nice” of yesteryear.

It is no longer an adequate defence against casual racism to mutter, “Can’t you take a joke?” Commissioner Tim tells us we should do this calling-out thing “when we can.” Julia Gillard urged us to “call out” misogyny whenever we saw it.  Commissioner Tim, it seems, is a little more forgiving. This last point is important because some of us struggle with exactitude in our moral observances when it comes to deconstructing the complex psychological and cultural dynamics of situations where that “casual racism” stuff, plus sexism, ageism and stupidism, offer their ugly heads for a good kicking. Like all idealists he’s good with broad strokes, not so good with detail.

I’m here to help explain the complexities of “calling out” racism with some challenging examples. Bear in mind that humour is about exclusion, but not according to the definition Commissioner Tim prefers.


How should we react to a racist joke, told in a loud and slurred drawl, by a drooling, brain-injured young man in a wheel-chair at the pub? (Please note: not everyone with a brain injury drools, and not everyone in a wheel-chair is brain damaged, or racist, and they should never face discrimination in a public bar. There! That caveat should keep the Disability Commissioner at arm’s length).

You can be pretty sure most brain-injured men don’t have too many mates patient and kind enough to take them to the pub. Who has enough time in their lives for that? That’s why I’ll add in Mum and Guilt-Ridden Older Brother.  Twice a year he makes it up from Sydney to see Kevin, three times if you count Christmas, but he’s a busy family man…. and so it goes.

The correct response (laughing): “Arrrrgh, stop it, Kevin….that’s enough of that, Tiger”.

Or is it?

It depends whether Mum is within earshot. If so, she’ll probably whisper, something along the lines of, “Kevin,  I’ve told you that’s not acceptable.”

Well, actually, she’ll sort of whisper. She couldn’t give a toss whether Kev’s mates heard the rebuke or the joke itself, which didn’t overly offend or concern her anyway. She’s more concerned about how she will look to those whose opinion she values. So her staged-whispered rebuke was for the benefit of her kind of people — the middle-aged barmaid and the sixtysomething couple at the pokies, who just might have overheard the joke over the jangling of the $10 pay-out from King Tut’s Gold.

The older brother gets up. “Well, who’s for anothery? I know I am,” neatly changing the subject.  He’s on the ball, this fellow.

Sarah and Brad (the third date):

It’s the 10:30pm train with two stops to go. There’s half a dozen drunk teens making loud “Muzzie” jokes — about multiple wives, and not being able to have a drink, and why wouldn’t a bloke want to blow himself up — while a woman in a hijab sits within earshot with her husband at the end of the carriage. He is very dark, has a beard-of-the-Prophet five-o-clock shadow, and he isn’t smiling.

Sarah is furious. As a New Matilda reader, she knows not-so-causal racism is exactly what she hates most about that rotten, nasty suspended Professor of Poetry Barry Spurr, whose private emails were splashed all over the papers. No civilised person uses that word, “Muzzies”, do they? Certainly nobody in her circle at uni uses it. Isn’t it just sickening, she thinks, how the patriarchal oppression of old white supremacists poisons society at all levels, right down to the bogan scum sharing her train carriage.

Her mouth is twitching. She is grinding her teeth. Her body language says she is about to explode and call the youths to account

Meanwhile, boyfriend Brad is staring straight ahead. “Don’t say anything, for God’s sake,” he’s thinking. He can’t say it out loud because it’s only their third date and he doesn’t want to seem like a passive racist, but he’d prefer that to coming across as a craven coward. And above either option he would prefer not being beaten up. “Crikey, Sarah,” he is thinking. “check your sense of privilege, would you!”

“You don’t have brothers, so you don’t understand rambunctious young men,” his thoughts continue. “These yobbos are loud and vulgar, but basically harmless. They don’t seem physically dangerous,  but it you provoke them with your uni jargon, well, they’ll end up getting stuck into me.”

And then it’s all over. In come the transport cops with their helmet-cams and the Muslim couple gets off. They’re smiling. Maybe it’s because the teens have fallen suddenly silent. Maybe it’s a relief to be off the train. Or maybe they can take a joke. Perhaps the wife is telling hubby he had better not think about taking a second one, let alone three.

3. Brad, the next day

Oh bugger, he thinks, that loudmouth Alex is first in the lunchroom again today. A quick Diet Coke and a tuna on Vita-Wheat  (fasting Friday!) and I’m outta here before he gets on my wick for the umpteenth time.

Too late!

“Hey, Brad, I was just saying to Waleed over there that if he brings his three wives to the party on Saturday, he should only pay a third of the price. After all, he’s paying three times as much at home!”

Brad wonders, and not for the first time, if Alex has Tourette’s Syndrome, always saying the first bloody stupid thing that comes into his head. But he knows better than that, understands that Alex is another garden-variety dickhead and all-round pain in the arse, someone who doesn’t know he’s about as funny as a dead baby’s doll.

Pleading for the millionth time to stick a sock in it won’t do the slightest bit of good, not with Alex. It would be like telling a three-year-old to take his hands out of his pants because he’s embarrassing himself. Three-year-olds don’t get the concept and neither does Alex.

Where’s Susan when you need her, Brad wonders, thinking how she almost earned him a punch in the nose on that train last night. Those yobbos wouldn’t have appreciated her uni lingo, but it might just work on Alex, coming from a woman and all, and because he has a couple of degrees himself. Not that proves anything. Anal thermometers have lots of degrees too.

But that thought fades too. Brad really likes Waleed, thinks he’s a funny, decent guy, but he also reckons Waleed can stand up for himself. Surely he can take a joke, even one told by an absolute dickhead?

4. Someone else (an internal monologue)

“Did I drink too much last night? I can remember a few things. Whoa, my head! But it was a great party. A cellar full of superb Aussie reds and I was on fire! Stayed until 2am and must have killed four bottles at least.

I really was that drunk, I guess, but what a lot of laughs! I’m funniest with a skin-full, no doubt about it. That gag about boat people….. (memories begin to penetrate the hangover’s haze) … but I forgot Hannah works for whatever the name of that place is that looks after refugees. She didn’t say much, did she? And that gag about people in the Emergency Department at 3 am with weird things up their dots.

‘I sat on a lettuce doc, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!’

Paul laughed along, so he’s probably still a mate, even though he’s gay. He runs three companies, for crying out loud, and I’ve heard him refer to his gay mates as “big poofs” and “screaming queens”.  He can take a joke, can’t he? I hope he can. Maybe I’ll give the corkscrew a rest next time.”

Here’s the problem with Commissioner Tim’s piece: His syllogism is: Bigot’s tell racist jokes; all racist joke tellers are bigots — although not “dedicated full-time bigots”, as  he graciously concedes.

Commissioner Tim would deny that he is a pedant, except that he is and he gives the game away when he tells us we, as a nation, are so relaxed we don’t call each other “sir” or “madam”. Fancy that! And we even sit in the front seat of taxis! Well, dress me in a skirt and call me Nancy! And, again according to Commissioner Tim, we can even allow our “egalitarian tendencies” to “let rip” with the jokes. What fun we shall have the next time we hail a cab: good, sound, sustainable, appropriate and officially approved humour in the front seat with our multicultural drivers

Trouble is, Tim is a bit out of touch, showing his age. Has he seen any TV in the last twenty years? South Park? The Simpsons? American Dad? Family Guy? Rude, rude, rude, and ruder.

Of course we all know who Commissioner Tim is talking about, and it’s not clever lefty comics, or ABC personalities picking up a little extra cash by moonlighting as after-dinner speakers. Like all clever social censors, he’s talking about stupid people telling crass jokes. Commissioner Tim isn’t a stupid person, by his definition, and he wouldn’t share a laugh with anyone who is.

Here’s a tip, Commissioner Tim:  Humour is about difference. It’s about shock, mockery, self-deprecation (I think this one would be OK with Tim), teasing, death, being superior … and on it goes. None of this is what Commissioner Tim would call “nice”.

Humour is full of barely disguised bigotry. Women tell derogatory (read “bigoted”) jokes about men and visa versa. Do you really thing they’re joking? Really? We relieve (and create) tension with humour. Gallows humour, anyone?  Sometimes it’s all we have. Almost every social interaction, even the briefest, between people who are not complete strangers is underwritten, if not replete, with humour. And I bet, if you’re not a Racial Discrimination commissioner, you don’t need to be told the humour revolves about difference.

Humour is also all about exclusion. We exclude people, draw rings around things, put up fences, measure and judge ourselves and others all the time. It’s fun and, if the joke works, it’s funny.

The world works better because we exclude others. It would otherwise be unbearable. Commissioner Tim excludes others. He just won’t tell you specifically that it’s only stupid, crass people who don’t know how to “check their privilege”, in his estimation anyway, that it’s only those officially unapproved stupid and crass people whose sense of humour he wants to vet and exclude.

Commissioner Tim’s argument can stand only for a moment — only so long, in fact, as he avoids getting specific about the gloriously inconsistent and thoroughly human way we all act and behave in our differing social circumstances and situations.

Were he try that, well, the joke would be on Commissioner Tim and it would be even more difficult to take him and his job seriously.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist


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