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Making fun of amputees is not terribly funny

One of the problems with Political Correctness, if one can define it as a desire to change the words we use to change how we think, is that it will invite a backlash. That backlash will not necessarily be for the good, but could encourage a new sort of ugliness: a desire to say things that are by any yardstick offensive, rude and coarsening of public life.

Consider how we talk about people suffering from physical and mental handicaps these days. Even the word, ‘handicap’ might get you into trouble. This Wikipedia take on PC terms shows to what lengths the speech-code enforces will go to change language. Yet there seems to be something of a fightback, and I am not sure if I like the results any more than the PC stuff. Last night, TV presenter Jonathan Ross, a man famed for his massive BBC salary, loud suits and inability to pronounce the letter R, launched an attack on the now-estranged wife of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney in terms so vile that Ross’s career might have been destroyed a few years ago. On the Have I Got News for You satirical current affairs ‘quiz’ show last night, the same sort of mockery was sent the way of Heather Mills, again playing on the fact that she is an amputee. Now, of course some people who suffer such calamities learn to put on a brave face about it and even laugh at their own misfortune. Humour can be a great source of strength. But I thought it pretty striking nonetheless that it is considered okay by mainstream, left-leaning members of the chattering entertainment classes to have a crack at someone by reference to their disability. Personally I have no desire to discuss the rather nasty divorce case. Life is too short.

I suppose context does matter. The media, or at least parts of it, have taken the view that the soon-to-be ex-Mrs McC is a gold-digging trollop who has played on her disability to win support for her case, so she is fair game. But I also suspect this is just another example of the boorish strain in what passes for British public cultural life these days. A year or so back, Andrew Sullivan noted how (link requires subscription) British TV shows and magazines like Maxim or Big Brother were spreading the Brit gospel of crassness and vulgarity across the United States. He had a point then and it applies just as much now.

Excerpt:

The most powerful British influences on American culture today are ferociously crass, unvarnished, unseemly – and completely unapologetic about it.

Vulgarity, I suppose, has its uses. A strong tradition of satire and mockery of the rich, famous and powerful can and does act as a check on the over-mighty. A certain level of vulgarity is probably rather healthy. But my goodness, would it not be refreshing, just for once, if the supposed public merrymakers focused more of their aim on our corrupt and power-mad political elite, and rather less on people who, for all their supposed failings, are not really very important? But perhaps to state the question is to know the answer. Taking the piss out of religious fundamentalists, crooks or tyrants is quite dangerous to the would-be piss-taker (just ask Theo Van Gogh). Much easier to have a go at a pop star instead.

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29 comments to Making fun of amputees is not terribly funny

  • pete

    It’s galling to have to pay others to mock amputees on one TV channel just because you have a TV to watch football on another, Sky.

  • In a world of semi-formalised policitical correctness in government and the media, ‘jokes’ about the disadvantaged, disabled and minorities are indeed no longer the end. They are seen as fair game as they can be passed off, under the ‘rules of irony’, as the means with which to bash the PC-advocates. I blame Richard Curtis.

  • Fuck off Pearce. You have had a sense of humour amputation.

    Some things must be mocked.

  • Snide

    Guido is a prick, ignore him.

  • Brad

    It’s hard to know which way to go. People are made fun of all the time for some characteristic they can’t do much about. It would depend on the magnitude as well, making fun of someone’s nose being big as part of a swipe is different than mocking someone like the elephant man. Where does losing a lower leg fall? If they’d want to be treated normally, then maybe treating it like a big nose mean’s that it’s not so bad a thing after all. I guess it all depends on how little we would like ourselves to be in a given situation measures how much sympathy we have for others. If a missing lower leg is becomes more of a minor thing, then people’s sympathy lowers accordingly. Attitudes change all the time.

  • Quenton

    It’s a shame that the biggest “cultural export” from Britain semms to be vulgarity. Here in the States it used to be the common steryotype that the Brits were the pinnacles of a “cultured and polite” people and that no American could ever hope to attain such a status. Seems things are starting to swing in the opposite direction.

    Will the common steryotype of a British man (a suited-up man with a long mustache, bowler hat, and monocle) be replaced with a drunk guy with a beer bottle and foul mouth? I hope not. It’s a pretty poor end to a culture that made the modern world what it is today.

  • J

    There’s a big difference between making fun of a class of people ‘amputees’ and making fun of a person ‘ms Mills’ by playing on the fact that she happens to be amputee. Furthermore, no-one is making fun of Ms Mills *because* she is an amputee, they are making fun of her because she is a celebrity. Their just latching onto the disability because it provides an obvious target.

    Making fun of people isn’t, broadly speaking, a nice thing to do.

    However, I don’t immediately see that making fun of, say, Jonathan Woss by lampooning his speech impediment is worse than making fun of Ms Mills by lampooning her walking impediment. Or lampooning Blair by way of his grin, or lampooning Reagan by way of his Alzheimers. None of these things are high forms of debate or criticism, but nor are they particularly morally despicable.

  • abc

    Interesting point. After the whole veil thing I noticed that Muslim women who wear veils suddenly became the target of an outburst of rather crude and merciless jokes on the BBC.

  • abc, they are fair game because they choose to wear veils and so I have no problem lampooning them. People generally do not choose to be amputees, so I do rather have some ‘decency’ issues with that.

  • Tuscan Tony

    If you wield your disability as some sort of door- busting hammer as the fragrant Ms Mills appears to have done, then you can hardly cry “shock! horror!” when you are defined and lampooned by others as a possessor of said impediment. I have a similar and related problem with people like Abu Hamza whose speciality was (is?) delivering a barely-subliminal public message of “kill whitey” and then claim to have been denied a fair trial because such vile statements were reported in the press at the time.

  • If you wield your disability as some sort of door- busting hammer as the fragrant Ms Mills appears to have done, then you can hardly cry “shock! horror!”…

    That is a fair point. I have a problem mocking people on the basis of race or disability but as you say, if they use it as a tactic themselves, that does rather change the rules.

  • Jared

    Andrew Sullivan noted how (link requires subscription) British TV shows and magazines like Maxim or Big Brother were spreading the Brit gospel of crassness and vulgarity across the United States. He had a point then and it applies just as much now.

    Just a point of note here. . this month’s Maxim had a decent story about a guy named Pat Dollard who came out with a good documentary about Iraq. Maxim might be crass, but at least on this occasion it didn’t subscribe to the knee jerk anti-Americanisms of the British press.

  • He wasn’t mocking her disability, he was mocking her personality.

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Guido is correct. Nothing is sacred, and anything and anyone can and should be mocked. It takes skill in today’s world to go farther than anybody expected, and I for one consider that an art.

    For an example, see the segment in The Aristocrats that was supplied by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park.

    Or for those who can handle it, try Strangers With Candy. Truly offensive, and utterly fantastic. Sample quotes:

    “Let’s go watch some gay porn to get our hate back.”

    “Ladies, I’m a pacifist. I PASS a FIST.”

    “The only thing we hate more than racists are spics.”

    “I cried when I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. And then I laughed REALLY hard.”

  • Guido is correct. Nothing is sacred, and anything and anyone can and should be mocked.

    It should not be illegal to mock anyone you wish to mock, but that does not always mean you should, just because you can. If you cannot see why, I would not have you thrown into jail but I might well not invite you into my house.

  • Doug Jones

    Many moons ago, I worked with a guy who was a double amputee- originally in the Hungarian army, he was conscripted into the Wehremacht and found a land mine outside of Kiev the hard way in 1943.

    On his prosthetic legs, he once walked into the office we shared, sat down at his computer and touched the case to avoid giving it a static zap. Turning to me he added in his strong accent, “I don’t need to do zis, I am izolated from ground!”

    He sure shocked me

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Sorry Perry. Much as I would enjoy being invited into your house (and I mean that sincerely), comedy has no limits. I seek out and revel in offensive comedy, and the worse it is, the better. “Taste” is a contrivance. If a comedian can make me surprised that they went so far, I’m a fan.

  • pete

    I don’t know either of the people invoved in this divorce, and it doesn’t seem to have any uniquely interesting aspects so I’m not interested in how it turns out. Why is anyone else?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “Some things must be mocked”, writes Guido. Sure, but it would be nice if the supposed wits out there could show a little class and genuine wit, not what we get from these overpaid buffoons.

    (Maybe I touched a raw nerve, eh Guido?)

  • She’s fair game and so is political correctness. I’m posting on this now.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Nothing is sacred, and anything and anyone can and should be mocked

    I did not say that things are off-limits, Alfred. I questioned whether people who devote their energies to slagging off celebrities could focus what passes for their satirical talents on genuinely powerful and dangerous people. Hence the punchline of my post. I also just wanted to note what is happening in UK popular culture and pointed out how ugly much of it is.

  • HJHJ

    Johnathon Ross can be modestly entertaining in small doses but has an unfortunate tendency to resort to vulgarity when he really doesn’t have anything funny to say. Vulgarity is OK (in moderation) as part of hunour but not as a substitute for it.

    What on earth possessed the BBC to pay Ross £18m of our money? What were they thinking?

  • Naturally the US has to be blamed for this…what a load of tosh. You want crude humour how about that arse Sacha Baron Cohen?

  • I agree with the difference between what you may do in law and what it is genteel or polite to do: not the same things at all. However, I did think that the Arthur Clewly blog got of some nice ones about Ms. Mills McCartney:

    http://arthurclewley.blogspot.com/2006/10/mccartney-vs-mccartney.html

  • abc

    abc, they are fair game because they choose to wear veils and so I have no problem lampooning them.

    Perry, I’m not against lampooning as such. My problem is more to do with the increasingly paternalistic BBC. Over the last few years the BBC have tirelessly promoted a one-sided, simple-minded view of how they would like us to think in regards to Islam, Multi-Culturalism, immigration etc. No doubt they have good intentions. But the superficialty of their philosophy is revealed when their guard drops and people become less afraid to speak out. Suddenly we have a barrage of ignorant and below the belt jokes. In my opinion they show themselves to be inconsistent in their principles at this point and I bet many free-speechers have shown more restraint. This is my take on what Jonathon meant by a ‘backlash’.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    abc, you are spot-on. I think it is a mistake for libertarians to think they are somehow proving their ideological virility by going out of the way to be as rude as possible. I don’t see it as very clever, and it certainly does not make libertarianism very appealing to the uncommitted.

    This happens to be a bit of a hobby-horse of mine. I think there are of course many ways to counter pc culture, but I think that often the best way to make the case is to be a decent human being, to avoid incredibly heated language and the rest (not that I am a good example of that, always!).

    I am still bemused by Guido, one of the best bloggers around. I challenge him to show in any part of this post that I am declaring certain issues to be out of bounds.

  • Interesting post, and I agree with Pearce and Sullivan that one of Britain’s main cultural exports these days seems to be a cruder version of dumbing down than even the Americans can manage.

    The interesting point here is not whether jokes against the disabled should be made. It’s the fact that in a phoney pseudo-egalitarian culture such as ours (what I call a “mediocracy”) it’s perfectly possible for members of the ‘liberal’ elite to both (a) condemn and criminalise the expression of anti-PC opinions but (b) behave in an authoritarian and/or offensive manner when it suits them.

    The fact that the right-on community feels free to behave in ways which would generate outrage if conservatives did it demonstrates the arrogance which members of the left wing hegemony are now able to feel, given the current absence of any significant cultural opposition.

  • Das

    “…taking the piss out of religious fundamentalists…”

    Here:
    sunbreak.blogspot.com

    Cheers!

  • Vince Stephen

    I think that there has been a marked increase in this style of comedy in England since the great success of Ricky Gervais’ The Office. The difficulty being that Gervais was (or seemed to be) lampooning the hypocrisy of PC society. He was “in character” and that character was completely out of his depth on social issues, race issues, issues of disability. The humour in The Office comes largely from the way in which Brent’s attempts at political correctness actually make him appear bigoted, when in fact he is simply ignorant. But now we have a rash of comedians, commentators and general arse holes who make David Brent jokes at every opportunity, simply to get a cheap laugh.

    Should it be illegal? No. Should they be punished? Ideally only with dwindling viewing figures.

    I think Pearce’s most interesting point is about the nature of Satire. It seems a shame that this divorce case is even up for discussion. And maybe it wouldn’t be if a missing leg didn’t provide easy comedic opportunities. That’s the thing for me; this stuff is just lazy and it’s threatening nobody. It’s the antithesis of what satire should be.