Disability and stereotypes: The non-apology apology
I’m something of an expert when it comes to receiving a non-apology apology. For the uninitiated, the non-apology apology is the Pavlovian response that complainants receive when they question an editorial decision on ‘acceptable’ jokes and has risen with the tide of humour, which leaves its integrity at the door.
Humour, which has no rules, seemingly has no responsibility for the misappropriation of its content by bigots, but I feel this is a cop out too far.
The non-apology apology has also been misappropriated. Broadcasters chasing ratings know that for all comedy, which embraces the mainstream; edgy sells, it seems.
‘Punching up’ through satire delivered with wit and ice-cold fury brings down the pompous, deconstructs the deluded and crucially shifts the power balance from those who control the narrative to those who elect them to office.
However ‘punching down’ to those already disenfranchised through socio-economic status, sexuality, race or gender is the last bastion of the ignorant bully. The non-apology apology I’ve been in receipt of were on the basis of “jokes” which take bullying to a new low because they target disabled people. Most particularly learning disabled people.
From Frankie Boyle to Jimmy Carr from Doug Stanhope to Louis CK in this age of austerity, disability is the new black.
As with racist jokes the humour deployed by these edgy comedians isn’t funny because it’s predicated on a stereotype, which is damaging and wrong.
The worrying part is that when it comes to human rights disabled people have the right not to be degraded. This isn’t a qualified right this is an absolute right as public bodies all broadcasters have a duty of care to protect this right yet when challenged they deploy the non-apology apology and usually hope that makes people go away. It takes the form of three lines of defence.
1. We’re sorry if you were offended.
2. The comedian challenged is known for their irreverent humour.
3. It was post watershed.
The interesting thing about these tired responses is how corporate driven they are and how they are predicated on protecting the product. It’s not about offence, it’s about civil rights. It’s not about irreverence it’s about promoting hate speech and it doesn’t matter what time anything is broadcast these days you can watch any number of catch up channels or deploy your digital recorders.
Also the tired old “if you don’t like it don’t watch” defence. To me it’s like Tobacco product manufacturers attempting to deny the dangers of smoking by smacking a warning label on the box and hiding them away behind shutters in supermarkets.
What is evidenced is that curbing the social acceptability of smoking and making it less accessible has impacted on the numbers of people who smoke. Advocates for learning disabled people get ridiculed yet second hand disablism like second hand smoke can be lethal.
That’s what I want to happen to disablist jokes. They are to me as cruel and damaging as racist humour and for those targeted by the jokes by the verbal and the actual abuse it leads to they do cause real damage. Wrapping abuse in a cloak of humour doesn’t make it OK it just makes it socially acceptable, cruelty with a smile on its face is not a reason, just a handy outlet.
For those comedy fans that appear on my Twitter timeline and will I’m sure be arriving in the comments section of this piece – you need to get your heads around a few facts. I’m not attempting to censor anything. Unlike the R word campaign I’m not advocating a ban. Writers need to be free to represent the world in all its disablist truth and need to be able to show that horrible ignorant people say horrible ignorant things. However celebrities using these words themselves whilst being lauded and adored are a different matter entirely.
‘Self-censureship’ through recognition is what I’m asking for. For every disabled person who finds disablist humour acceptable, there are many more who don’t. This is evidenced by the emails which deluged the CEO of Ofcom who claimed that viewing audiences have a human right to be offended in their defence of jokes utilising the word retard by Vinnie Jones complete with a mocking “retard” walk.
Comedians who use them in their act don’t want to understand the part they play in influencing and promoting hate speech either but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. This can again be equated back to smoking because that’s why smoking is curbed on our screens. Because fans copy what their heroes do.
Attacking free speech is another argument levelled at people like me asking for ’self-censureship’ by celebrities. Of course speech should be free but it’s interesting when detractors are keen to shut me up. Also people didn’t give their lives in the battle for speech to be free so that a comic can denigrate and attack a disabled child. Their minds were on higher motives like religious oppression and political freedom.
More than anything else the generic non-apology apology fails on the grounds of sense. I don’t ask for a public apology from anyone, the thing I’ve learnt more than anything else in all of this campaigning is the sheer futility of saying sorry and not meaning it. Conversely the beautiful heartfelt apology through recognition by Jason Alexander, on using pejorative terms around sexuality will take some beating in terms of the redemptive power of a genuine apology.
All I ask is that comedians work a little harder because the disability gag reflex which makes disabled people the target of a joke not the subject of a joke, is as easy as sewing shut the eyelids of a kitten and equally as repellent.Tagged in: comedy, disability, Doug Stanhope, Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, louis ck, stereotype
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