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Can’t take a joke? Too right, says Laurie Penny

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Boys are funny, aren't they? I mean funny as in curious, not funny as in ha-ha. One minute they're all bogeys and pokemon and perilous attempts to set fire to their own farts, and the next they're making hilarious jokes about gang-rape. First, there was 'unilad,' the student magazine for undergraduates looking to affirm their own masculinity with a bit of joshing about how rape is just surprise sex. Then there were the 'G4'- four rich city boys whose cringeworthy email about a planned rugby bender in Dubai was leaked to the press, including 'rules' about 'laddish' behaviour like high- fiving each other during notional gang-bangs in which they would degrade the women involved. They also swore not to phone the girlfriends they had somehow managed to acquire, although this seems unlikely to remain an obstacle for long.

'Lad banter' is nothing new- but the leakiness of data online means that a large number of women can now see the way that we have always suspected some men talk about us behind our backs. Before they were chased from the internet by fire-breathing feminist hellwraiths, the jolly boys at Unilad apologised for 'going too far' and for causing offence. This is an Olympian feat of point- missage: the problem is not the offence caused but the fact that some men still think that this is an acceptable way to talk about women in or out of our earshot.

Some jokes are designed to make people feel powerful by dehumanising others. Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion, and in general, the worse a joke is, the smaller the circle of people likely to 'get' it. When people accuse women of inability to 'take a joke' when men humiliate, objectify or degrade us, they are absolutely right. The 'joke' wouldn't work if it were designed for us to appreciate, because that sort of humour is based on cruelty, on making men feel big and stiff at women's expense. Some jokes we are simply expected to 'take' rather like one might take a punch.

That this sort of misogynist table-thumping has more than a little of the playground to it is not accidental. It is learned in the playground. I remember ten years ago, in year eleven, the way the loud, overweight boy in who might have been bullied if it were not for his particular penchant for filthy banter used to speculate, as soon as the teacher left the room, as to how the genitals of the prettiest girl in English class might taste - like bacon? Like beef? Was she shaved?

I remember how she just sat there with her eyes lowered, waiting for it to stop. With hindsight I can understand the vulnerability of these spotty little underage virgins, the anxiety to prove themselves men, which meant adopting the postures of a circle of angry power that excluded all of the girls as well as not a small number of the boys. It excluded the shy, the nerdy, the obviously gay, and the one or two who had somehow learned years or decades ahead of their peers that women and girls were real human beings with dreams and desires and personal agency.

I wonder if hindsight works the same way for the rest of those boys, wherever they are now. I wonder if some of them look back and see the harm that their lairy bullying and baseless sexual boasting caused. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they just grew up into wealthy, powerful douchebags like the self-styled 'G4', entertaining heady fantasies of gang-rape as part of a language of violent sexist posturing kept entirely private from the women in their lives. That would be funny. But not funny ha-ha.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.