Armchair Philosophy – The Attempted Cancellation of Jimmy Carr & The Case for Jester’s Privilege

I’m no great fanboy, but I wanted to weigh in on the recent controversy surrounding Jimmy Carr. As I’m sure you’ve heard, he’s made headlines for his Netflix comedy special, ‘His Dark Material’. Even if your head has been buried beneath sand for the past decade, and you were unsure about what you were in for watching a Jimmy Carr special, I reckon the show’s title should have been a big enough hint.

The backlash came from his joke regarding the Holocaust being circulated online. A joke in poor taste, without a doubt. I’m sure you can understand my disappointment, however, when certain public figures I previously admired have advocated for censorship of the arts. A true marker of authoritarian government of any sort is the persecution and suppression of the arts. Among the first people they censor, execute, or imprison are the comedians. The people who mock, weaken and demystify power.

Comedy has a big influence on social attitudes, and it allows ideas to be explored with a greater degree of freedom than in the political sphere. Comedians mimic society, and reflect back to us the ugliness of the world. But instead of closing our eyes, instead of ignoring it – we engage with it, we pay attention, and we learn to think differently. That’s why jester’s privilege is so important.

Sense of humour and taste vary, they are subjective and personal things, but a lot of comedy is ultimately formulaic – there’s a science to it. Jimmy Carr’s comedy relies heavily on the formula: a set-up followed by a punchline. The set-up – well it sets you up! It sets up the joke by presenting a particular idea and leading you on to make an assumption. The punchline then shatters this assumption by expressing a related but juxtaposing idea. That’s why we laugh.

Some jokes are predictable, and the best comedians are the ones who can truly shock us. What people seem to forget is that this particular joke came in the middle of a sequence of a dozen other similar jokes, with the same tone, the same character, and the same expectation from the audience. Comedy relies on absurdity. And in the Age of Absurdity, Jimmy Carr is not alone in his efforts to entertain us through dry, deadpan, and dark humour, albeit lazily relying on stereotypes, and making jokes at the expense of persecuted ethnic groups (and women, and queer people, and differently-abled people).

Frankie Boyle, Ricky Gervais, Bianca Del Rio, Stewart Lee, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, George Calin, Al Murray to name but just a few, all present incredibly caustic commentary on society – often through caricatures. Jimmy Carr, much like Bianca Del Rio, is playing a character – the worst man in the entire world!

There’s an argument to be made that Carr is mocking racists. Baiting them. Pointing out the absurdity of their views. As a comedian Carr is able to satirise the ‘logic’ of the extremists in our society – whether those extremes manifest themselves through individuals, institutions, political parties, or socio-political attitudes. When exactly did what comedians say in comedy sketches and shows start being taken seriously? Had a politician, a teacher, or an academic made the same comment, whether as a joke or genuine opinion, the moral panic might make sense.

Jimmy Carr is a comedian, and as such what he says on stage as a comedian is satire, not political campaigning or propaganda. Had it not occurred that there might be the slight possibility Jimmy Carr – the comedian – may have been joking? Carr presents a caricature of an ignorant, philandering, tax-evading, misogynistic, and generally bigoted suit. That doesn’t mean all of those things are true of the man himself – well, we know about the tax! And just because the audience laughed at the joke, doesn’t indicate they’re all racist – emphasis on the ‘all’.

The case for jester’s privilege seems obvious – we should be free to mock the powerful without consequence. Arguably, what Jimmy Carr’s joke alludes to is the erasure of traveller culture and history. In this instance, Carr can be viewed as mocking the racism towards travellers, thereby speaking truth to power in light of the Government’s hostility toward and suppression of gypsy and Romany culture; and the prevailing dehumanising social attitudes towards travellers and nomadic culture.

We cannot simply legislate racism away by making certain topics taboo and limiting the scope of what we’re legally allowed to talk and joke about. That’s a tactic of the likes of Putin and Xi Jinping, of Stalin and Mao, and closer to home – the Catholic Church. Does it really make sense to be so hypocritical in our pursuit of justice?

It may have been uncomfortable to watch, but what do you think is more offensive to traveller communities – a controversial comedian’s joke about the Holocaust, or our Government’s erosion of their civil and human rights by the day? Prioritise.

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