How are rape jokes different from murder jokes? Let me count the ways

If murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder, writes Sophia McDougall.

I once told a joke that hurt someone who’d lost a loved one to murder.

It was awful.

It was not even a joke about murder.

It was a joke about how some people thought I was twenty-three, but actually I was twenty-six. The context really isn’t worth explaining, it wasn’t much of a joke.

I made the joke at a gathering I was about to leave. I went and collected my things and then, on my way out, I noticed that a woman who’d seemed cheerful moments before now looked shaken and tearful.

I didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t tell me, but someone else did later – twenty-three was the age her daughter had been when she was murdered. And just the number “twenty-three” – in reference to a young woman’s age – had been enough to bring the pain to the surface.

Because it wouldn’t take much to do that, would it, when your daughter has been murdered.

I knew it wasn’t really my fault —  I couldn’t have known. But I still felt terrible. Not as terrible as she felt! But terrible. I still wished I could have taken it back. If I had made a joke about murder, and  found I was talking to a mother of a murder victim, I would have felt exponentially worse than I already did, because I would have been knowingly taking a risk of hurting someone. A small one, but still.  I’d have had to accept I’d not just been unfortunate, I’d have severely miscalculated. Either way I would not have felt bullied or censored by the person I had hurt. I never saw her again, but if I’d remained in contact with her, I would not have needed her to ask me not to make jokes about murder around her.

Murder is thankfully rare. Not uniformly are all over the world, but I have never before or since either made, or witnessed anyone making a remark that caused pain because someone in the room had been bereaved by murder. It must happen (in which case most people would surely apologise and do what they can to minimise the damage) but in a lot of settings, assuming that the presence of murder-survivors is anomalous rather than the norm is not unreasonable. But if murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder.

When someone’s been murdered, they aren’t usually around to tell us what they think of murder jokes. But  if I was in a place where I could be pretty certain that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the women and 1 in 33 of the men had themselves been murdered, and some or all of those ghosts would suffer the pain of their murder all over again if I made jokes about their torment, and if they asked me please not to put them through that, I would not be all, “But free speech! LOL murder.”

(“It’s not just being reminded”, the murdered people might say. “It’s seeing people laugh about what happened to us. It’s that they think it’s funny.”).

And if there was evidence that murder jokes actually did increase the risk of real people being really murdered … I dunno. Guys, I think I might not even want to be a murder comedian any more.

But I hurt someone not because I made a joke about murder, but because I made a joke about the number twenty-three. This hasn’t come up again and it doesn’t seem likely to, so there’s no particular reason to avoid futher twenty-three-based drolleries, should they occur to me. But you know what? If it was a cast-iron, indisputable fact that not just one person but a very large percentage of people in the world could be tipped into reliving the worst things in their lives by jokes about prime numbers, I would not, at least not without copious warning, make jokes about the sodding number twenty-three.

Why would you?

(This is about this, and the inevitable defence of rape jokes that arose in the comments).

Laughing… Photograph: Getty Images

Sophia McDougall is the author of the Romanitas trilogy, set in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Her first novel for children, Mars Evacuees, is published by Egmont UK on 27 March.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder