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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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.