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.
Getty
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle