I don’t want to take sides in the Andy Haden versus the Crusaders debate. Much, it seems, can be said on both sides. But I was interested in a comment Haden made to the effect that racism related less to the words people said than to what was in their hearts. I think that’s right and it is nowhere more true than in the area of humour, of what we call ‘racist’ jokes.
To illustrate the point, here are two jokes:
1) An Irishman, an Englishman and a Scotsman are marooned on a desert island. One day they find a curious lamp on the shore. When they rub the lamp a genie appears. He is so grateful for his release, he offers the group 3 wishes, The Englishman wishes to be back in his local pub in Essex. Whoosh – he’s gone. The Scotsman wants to be having a pint with his mates in Glasgow. Whoosh – he’s gone. The Irishman looks dejected. ‘What’s the matter?’ asks the genie. “Sure it’s awful lonely here without my two friends. I wish they were still here.” And whoosh – they were.
2) Rangi gets a job felling trees up North. At the end of his first day, the foreman comes to check on his work. Rangi has felled only one tree. “What the hell’s going on here, Rangi? Only one tree felled in a day.” Rangi says, “This bloody saw’s no good, boss. Doesn’t cut at all.” The boss says, “Here, give us a try.” He starts up the chainsaw. Rangi looks startled. “What’s that noise, boss?” The first joke says that the Irish are incredibly stupid. It’s ‘an Irish joke’. Most Irish jokes say that the Irish are incredibly stupid. There are millions of Irish jokes. You hear them everywhere. You hear them on the radio, you see them on TV, you read them in newspapers and magazines. I’m Irish and that’s fine by me. I like Irish jokes.
The second joke says that Maori are incredibly stupid. There are a lot of jokes about Maori and they say a lot of different things – that Maori are stupid, lazy, unemployed and often in trouble with the law. (The Irish cop all of that as well.) You hear Maori jokes everywhere.
Hold on a minute! No, you don’t! You don’t hear Maori jokes on the radio, or see them on TV, or read them in the papers. Publishing or broadcasting a joke that suggested Maori were stupid, would get you in trouble with the Press Council or the Broadcasting Standards Authority or the Race Relations Office. There’s a double standard here. It’s OK to make racial jokes in public about the Irish. But it isn’t OK to make racial jokes in public about Maori.
How could you justify such a double standard?
You might argue that Maori are an endangered species. The argument would go something like this: Maori are a minority race. They live in a hostile environment. Their numbers are depleted. They have little social or economic power to survive. Therefore they must be protected from attack. This includes attack by ridicule. If I were Maori, this argument would make me angrier than any joke. It demeans me, by implying that as a Maori I’m a racial wimp, that I can’t take it. And it’s patent nonsense. You might argue that there is something sacrosanct about being Maori. Maori are a deeply spiritual people, imbued with certain ancient cultural and religious values which they revere. To make a joke about Maori is therefore in bad taste, offensive and probably sacrilegious as well.
This argument will also serve to eliminate jokes about the Irish, the Welsh, the Indians, the Jews, the Chinese and, I suspect, almost every race on earth.
It would have come as particularly bad news to Dave Allen. It’s also patent nonsense. Where humour is concerned nothing is sacrosanct and nothing ought to be. Those who see themselves as beyond ridicule invariably attract the most ridicule. And rightly so. They are the funniest people on earth. What’s left to justify the double standard? Very little, I think. You might argue that Maori get upset when jokes are made about them, that they ‘can’t take a joke’. Out of kindness and consideration we should therefore not make Maori jokes. Pretty patronising, eh? It’s a viewpoint that fails to distinguish between a racial joke and a racist joke. A racial joke depends for its effect on our accepting that Race X has certain amusing or unflattering characteristics. They may have these characteristics in whole, in part or not at all. It really doesn’t matter. You can still make an Irish joke without actually believing that the Irish are stupid. The purpose of the joke is to amuse, not to theorise. A racial joke becomes a racist joke when its purpose is to denigrate rather than to amuse.
It’s the perspective of the teller that makes the difference. Racists tell racist jokes. The rest of us tell racial jokes. The distinction is between good-will and ill-will. That’s why there was general agreement that it was OK for Billy T James to tell Maori jokes. He was Maori. I regard that view as a copout. We should all be able to tell Maori jokes, whether we’re Maori or not. I don’t say that Maori shouldn’t be able to tell Irish jokes. That’s censorship and I’m against almost all forms of censorship in a free society. The real reason why Maori jokes are taboo may be found in the argument that the self-image of Maori is already so damaged that it cannot stand further assault. I believe that argument underestimates both the resilience of Maori and their capacity for ironic detachment – to stand back and laugh at themselves. And even if it were true, suppression wouldn’t help. The racial joke that is suppressed in public becomes the racist joke that is expressed in private. Humour is one of society’s best safety valves. In Sophie Tucker’s immortal words: ‘If they can’t take a joke, let them make love elsewhere!’ Or words to that effect.