Monday, August 8, 2016

Wait, there's a Leak in my Truth

When cartoonists and comedians get angry, and it becomes clear they're angry, they lose their power. It's a bit like the fool who turns on his master and challenges him physically without cleverness or humour; then he is no longer the fool but an up-coming master. Recent pieces in The Australian by cartoonist Bill Leak - where he complains about the "sanctimonious Tweety Birds having a tantrum" - are an example of the fool showing he's taken a hit, he's having to be serious.

Leak's anger is in regard to people reacting to a series of cartoons he has done about aboriginal poverty and social dysfunction, in particular a cartoon where a policeman hands an aboriginal child to an older aboriginal man, with the caption: Policeman, “You'll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.” Father, “Yeah righto, what's his name then?”

This cartoon has been criticised as encouraging racial stereotypes and adding nothing new to the debate. (It's also been criticised for not being funny, but that, while very relevant, is a whole other matter).

The Australian has defended Leak. "Bill Leak's confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do." How they actually force us to examine core issues is simply not explained; all Leak's cartoons are really doing is amplifying the fact that some aboriginal people are living in squalor and don't know what their own children are up to. The very important word here is 'SOME'. It's actually a very small 'some'.

Along with Leak's angry statements, there is also a current trend, an avalanche even, of comedians and social commentators who are arguing their right to be rude, nasty and abusive.

Consequently, any criticism of people who use cruel language about others (nigger, poofter, Paki, ape etc) is being interpreted as an infringement on freedom of speech. 'The good old days' is so often referred to as a better time when we were able to talk about others by using derisive stereotypical terms. 'Political correctness', once a term that referred to absurd euphemism – down-sizing instead of firing, overweight instead of fat, diminutive or vertically challenged instead of small – has been overtaken by people who feel robbed of their chance to be cruel or 'incorrect'. In a similar vein, 'political correctness' was used by John Howard as a way of damning anyone who didn't like his politics on reconciliation and his refusal to say 'sorry' to aboriginal people.

Context is important though, as any comedian will tell you. There's no such thing as a word or term that can never be expressed. I've just written four in parenthesis above, and I doubt anyone would accuse me of bigotry or insensitivity. Also I believe there's a way of expressing our dislike or 'upsetness' if you will, without telling people off or implying they are somehow monstrous because of their use of certain words.

I used to have neighbours who occasionally referred to aboriginal people as 'coons'. These people don't hate aboriginal people; in fact they had affection and care for aboriginal children who visited as friends of their own children. And I have to say that these neighbours are possibly the most generous folk I've met; they would stand up for anyone in need or any person mistreated by others. Nor were they scared, which most racist people are. So, when I first heard them call blacks 'coons', I was shocked, but I didn't get angry and walk out, nor did I say “you shouldn't” or “you can't”. What I did say was, 'Wow, I didn't realise we were in the deep south of America in the 1950s!” (or words to that effect). I also laughed as I said it. They responded well, not by saying sorry (and I wasn't expecting that); instead they acknowledged that I didn't appreciate the language and said they wouldn't use that word around me.

So why didn't I get angry? Why not show my disgust? Because I had to live with these folk, and I'd seen a side to them that I really respected. And I knew that the 'c' word rolled off their tongues as the other 'c' word also pops out amongst some Australian men who, it seems, don't have too many other ways of showing love and affection to other men. Yes, it might seem strange that a man has to say “Hey ya cunt” in order to be friendly, but it's not going to be changed through sanctimony or approbation.

At the same time it's important to accept that language affects the way we think; in fact most of the time we think through words. Yes, tone, volume and facial expression are all linguistic forms that affect emotion, but words are what the arguments are all about when the old 'PC' accusations pop up. And I believe there's a need to question the motives of those who complain about not being able to use cruel and nasty language. When they trot out the old line about how 'the PC police are out to get me' I cringe inside, knowing that the fight against political correctness, in its original form, was really about trying to make language clear, less deceptive; it had nothing to do with allowing people to be abusive.

But, when it comes down to challenging abusive behaviour and abusive language, it's the HOW that's so crucial. When aboriginal Australian footballer Adam Goodes paused mid-game to point out a person who called him a 'big ape' he was simply expressing the fact that terms like that hurt. It's unlikely he knew it was a teenage girl who said it – he was fairly busy at the time! - and he really didn't have time to sit down and formulate some 'I' statement as the psychologists recommend. No, he ran to the fence and pointed angrily. Now, I believe that should have been the end of it. It would have become clear why he stopped and pointed; the various commentators would have found out what happened and Goodes would have been able to explain his actions when he was calm and less worked up. But unfortunately the authorities had to get involved, so the girl was removed from the game. That was a mistake.

Another mistake occurred in Canada when a comedian called Mike Ward was fined $42,000 by Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for joke about a young man who suffered from Treacher Collins syndrome — a condition that affects the development of bones and tissues in the face. The child is also a competent singer, and once sang for the pope. Now for the context. Ward had been under the impression the kid was terminally ill, and was being granted a dying wish by a children's foundation. Ward's joke was in reference to the fact that the child was still alive five years after his condition became news. Here's the offending routine: "But five years later, he wasn't dead, he's not dying. The little bastard, he's just not dying!"

The upshot of this comedy routine is that news organisations and social media jumped on it, and the child was not only bullied at school but became so upset he attempted suicide. Ward's defence that there was a "clear difference between harassment against a person and an artistic work being produced before a willing audience” was dismissed by the tribunal. Ward's lawyers are appealing the decision.

Now, given the bare information about the offending joke, it probably doesn't sound that funny. But once again, there's important context to consider. When commercial media get hold of the stories of children with disabilities, deformities or serious illness, they lead their audience down a path of emotional seduction that seems genuine, and in some cases is, but there's something within us (certainly within me) that feels like we're being conned. Our emotions are being tugged at with the claws of a monetised, ubiquitous monster that just seems to be getting bigger every day. It's a monster that feigns compassion – seems, in fact, to have compassion dripping form every pore – but really just wants the bucks: TV, magazines, commercial radio, social media and bill boards all over town. We can try to avoid these messages, but really you'd have to be Amish or a cave dweller to not to be somehow affected by the emotional manipulation of the media machine.

And it's the charity events where the emotion gushes to the point of a flood.

Eventually we're going to feel we've had enough of the sickly sweet, all too often patronising, outpouring of 'goodness', and it's then that we react. And here lies the function of sick humour: it's an 'up-yours' to the media machine's attempts to make us feel deeply about someone we don't even know. All sick jokes are based on this kind of principle. Princess Diana jokes, astronaut jokes, dead celebrity jokes, dead baby jokes. All ways for us to act like Punch – the naughty puppet – and push briefly against a tide of moral compunction, knowing full well we AREN'T Punch, and we aren't really lacking compassion or feeling, we're just sick of being psychologically pushed around.

Mike Ward's joke is funny because his audience have felt this same reaction, and here is a guy standing on a stage who has the guts to express it. Like the joke or hate it, it pressed a button and got a reaction.

Now, I don't know what Ward said after this joke; had he then launched into an attack on the billionaires and media managers behind these stories – in the manner of a George Carlin routine – then his nasty line about a deformed child might have a social and political point. It would have turned the blackness, the sickness around and shone a light on the hideous sickness of media power and the political abuse of that power. But not all comedians are George Carlins, Lennie Bruces or Bill Hicks's. It's far too much to expect, and it'd be boring if they were.

To fine people for what they say or write is something I deplore. It simply goes against the grain, in the same way I hate it when a security guard hassles a heckler at a comedy show. It should be up to the people who are supposed to be controlling the room – the comedians – to deal with that. Once authority gets involved the emotional and intellectual atmosphere changes, it becomes dark and people tend to form groups who more often than not oppose each other. But sometimes the abuse, the behaviour, the words, are so harsh and so affective, if you will, that we can't simply leave it up to the comedians, the public or, the media or Facebook and Twitter to deal with.

And yes, there are situations where language should be challenged and regulated. If I decided to start throwing the 'C' and 'F' words around at a football match in front of children and their parents, I would expect complaint in some form. And not all parents feel confident enough to challenge the swearer; they might not want their children to see them involved in physical scuffle. So, in that situation, I would expect someone, either a member of the public or an official to give me a warning.

But when artists – comedians, writers, painters, cartoonists and musicians – are officially sanctioned or fined for their work, it's a very different story. It's not something that should happen, and in Australia their rights, which some claim are compromised in 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act, are actually protected in by sub-section 18 D

Section18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

(a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or
(b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or
(c) in making or publishing:
(I) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or
(ii) a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment

So, getting back to Bill Leak. He hasn't been fined (as Mike Ward has in Canada), and no one has checked him or held him back. All that's happened is a growing number of people have criticised him on social media, and some in various letters to editors (although Leak's own Australian newspaper has chosen to publish mainly letters defending him). Commentators on television and radio have also discussed the issue of his indigenous cartoons.

Leak has responded with more cartoons, in particular one where HE is the kid being handed over, but he's being handed over to a bearded, bespectacled bloke in a Twitter T shirt and carrying a noose and bludgeon.

The sad thing about this is that a cartoonist is crying 'victim' in the same way some comedians are crying 'Orwell' by referring to the 'thought police' when they're criticised for making abusive and unfunny jokes about race, rape and disability. Leak is saying he's being socially lynched by a mob of people who all have the same thought: “Stop this artist now!” And yes, there might be some who want to stop him, but I'd say most of Leak's critics, like me, simply want to point out the flaws in his work, particularly given the fact that his cartoons are appearing in a newspaper owned by one of the richest and most powerful men in the world. In this sense, Leak the fool, is inflating the King's ego (or at least the paradigm of the 'King's' conservative newspaper) not prodding or pricking the King as we expect all fools to do.

Up until nowadays I've always loved Leak's work. The series of dog-fucking cartoons he did about the Malaysian prime minister – as an answer to Malaysian accusations towards Australian politicians along the same lines  – were terrific. And his cartoon with two women wearing burqas and one asking, “Does my bomb look big in this?' is a work of genius. Mainly because it's funny, not just because it's confronting.

But the defence of “I'm just telling the truth” is, paradoxically, as disingenuous as you can get. It's similar to the pathetic bleat by journalists that all they're doing is reflecting public opinion. No, they're influencing public opinion and so is Leak.