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.