We’re all complicit in the humour of humiliation

You can’t condemn the Australian DJs who prank called the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital if you laughed at the results.

Hoaxes, whether you like them or hate them, have existed and will continue to exist as long as there are people around to create them, fall prey to them, and derive amusement from them.

The point of a hoax is to find humour in causing an unsuspecting target to respond to something false while believing it to be true.  It's the humour of humiliation, writ large.

When the target is pompous or high-ranking it's called punching up or “satire”. When the target is of equal or lower status, it's called punching down and at the very least this should make us uncomfortable.

Listening to the genuine disbelief and palpable regret of the two Australian DJs at the centre of the recent Royal phone hoax as they try to comprehend the tragic consequences - the death of Jacintha Saldanha - it's very difficult not to feel some sympathy for them.

We feel sympathy too attempting to imagine the torment of Jacintha's family, who will now have to continue without her. No one directly involved in this will ever be able to completely move on from it. Nor would we expect them to.

The truth is that we can observe or, as I'm doing here, give our opinions, but we can’t begin to know. However, we can and should reflect, because we must take responsibility for our share in the thirst for the comedy of cruelty that has seemingly led to the death of a much-loved wife and mother.

If comedy is a hierarchy, prank calls and all hoaxes lie pretty near the bottom. Its premise is laughing at people for behaving in a way more often stemming from kindness and tolerance than anything else. Mocking people for attempting patience amid confusion seems odd as a premise, but if the butt of the joke is arrogant or pompous then it can be deemed satire. If all humour is subjective then this applies to hoax calls particularly - if you've ever been the person being laughed at you may perceive its value somewhat differently.

It's about power. The person making the call and the one in receipt of the call are at the opposite ends of a very different spectrum. One is in full possession of the facts and the other simply going about their daily life.

We the audience are complicit in the deceit and I think it's probably time for us to ask ourselves a very serious question. Where does this threshold for humiliation take us?

You may not like this type of humour, but vilifying the perpetrators is only one part of a complex jigsaw of responsibility. I think the danger lies in laughing at someone for something that they cannot help. Whether on the grounds of ethnicity or race, sexual orientation or disability or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, we need to examine ourselves as an audience because without us there would be no mileage in the humour of humiliation.

The fact that it's humiliating someone else does not give it any justification, simply popularity. We laugh and then we blame and then we move on. Fortunately we can. My heart goes out to those who reap the whirlwind of all unforeseen consequences. We all should take our portion of the blame, but we won't.  The devastating consequences mean that we will all step away and in many cases point and threaten those who were doing our bidding.

Then like any bullying gang we simply point and run away.

Details of the Jacintha Saldanha Memorial Fund can be found here.

Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian.
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times