Having recently posted my degree dissertation on ‘A Theology of Humour’ it feels appropriate to be making an observation on the recent comments by Boris Johnson about women wearing Burqas. I am not going to give Mr Johnson’s comments any publicity by repeating them save to say that I consider them to be reprehensible and offensive, especially when written by someone with his public profile.
Had the hideous comments been made by someone in a far right organisation there might have been a prosecution for incitement to racial hatred. If you doubt that this is the case I was deeply distressed to read a report last week of how some yobs had been abusing and harassing a lady wearing a burqa in such a way that it was clearly ‘inspired’ by Mr Johnson’s comments.
It has been suggested that Mr Johnson should not be censured for his comments because they were “a joke”. Even if that was so it was in extremely poor taste. But a joke can still be offensive and can still incite others to copy them because the words, once released, carry a life and notoriety all of their own and any humorous intent can swiftly be lost.
And it’s this ‘joke’ concept that has niggled away at me – perhaps because I have recently revisited my dissertation. It seems to me that there is a very fine line between laughing at someone or something we hold affectionately – like laughing when one of our friends says something unintentionally funny – and ridiculing someone we do not respect – which feels like the tone of Mr Johnson’s comments, particularly given his (apparent) unwillingness to apologise for them.
I think there may be some sort of comedic continuum here with concepts like: ‘parody, lampooning, caricaturing, send-up, spoof, and satire’ at one end and ‘mockery, scorn, ridicule, derision, contempt, disdain, sarcasm, jeering’ at the other. The problem is that it is very difficult to know where satire becomes ridicule, or lampooning becomes jeering. And I think the answer is revealed as much by the outcome as the words themselves and the intent of the author, and perhaps as much by the (lack of) affection or respect we have for the subject.
Words, once spoken or written and released publicly, are not harmless. I can remember reciting the mantra: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” as I was being verbally bullied at school. It was intended as a defence mechanism because I was unwilling to become physically violent in response. But deep down I knew that those words did hurt. It was not only the words themselves that hurt, but I knew that there was disrespect and hatred behind them.
If we let a domesticated, well-trained dog off the lead in the countryside and it harasses or savages a flock of sheep we have to take responsibility for that and I believe we also have to take responsibility for what we say even if the words have taken on a significance and meaning we did not intend. That is true not only for Mr Johnson, but for all of us. In the letter written in the Bible by James (possibly Jesus’ brother) we read in chapter 3 verses 3-12:
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Jesus was even more direct (Matthew 12):
33 ‘Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’
Be blessed, be a blessing