For some reason, I seem to get asked an awful lot of questions. Most are inevitably linked to writing or football but others range from requests to be introduced to people I barely even know to enquiries about just how far I would like my head shoved up my arse. However, the other day a question arrived via Facebook which ended up causing me all sorts of angst. Not because of what it wanted to know, but because of what I replied. For in response to ‘are you Rolf Harris’s love child?’ my reply was ‘if I am, my mum has some serious questions to answer’.
Now to me, this is bog standard banter and whilst it might not exactly be in the best of tastes, it soon became apparent that a few people were pretty much disgusted by it. To them, I wasn’t being funny, I was actually belittling the subject of child abuse. A charge which to my mind, says more about them than it does about me.
However, as the PM’s poured in and I dug a little deeper into the backgrounds of those who were having a dig (as I tend to do under the ‘know your enemy’ rule), it dawned on me that there was a fundamental difference between me and the majority of the people who had got the hump. One which was reinforced by a steady stream of messages which started to arrive asking me what all the fuss was about.
For like most of the people who posted their support, I am an ex-serviceman, and the bulk of the people who were criticising me were not.
Reflecting on this later on, it struck me that this was a perfect illustration of a simple truth. One you will see as plain as day in any documentary about the armed forces. For it is a stone cold fact that one of the things which binds the military together is the ability to find humour in pretty much anything.
That isn’t just true of the forces of course (you’ll certainly find a similar sense of humour on the terraces) but what is unique to the military is that the development of a dark sense of humour is actively encouraged because it is one of the most invaluable tools an individual can have in their armoury. After all, how better to cope with extremes, be they emotional or operational, than to be able to laugh about them?
That’s not to say there aren’t boundaries because there are. But they are often very different from those you would expect to encounter in a wholly civilian environment and it’s safe to say that amongst the military the concepts of both good taste and political correctness are frequently set aside in the quest for a laugh to lighten a mood or a situation.
Indeed, when I wrote Our Boy, much of which takes place in a military hospital, I was extremely careful to get the dark humour element absolutely bang on. So much so in fact that many of the one liners in the script were actually given to me by lads who’d spent time at Headley Court recovering from injuries the like of which few of us can even begin to comprehend.
Of course when you leave the military, most people will retain that dark sense of humour and whilst on a day to day basis we are able to reign it in, when it comes to something like Facebook it’s all too easy to slip back into old ways, especially when you’re interacting with other veterans.
However, when it comes to social media where the boundaries of good taste are at best cloudy and at worst non-existent and you are actually pulling back from lines of decency as opposed to pushing forward to where you think they might be, how are you supposed to know what is and isn’t acceptable? The truth is that you can’t, all you can do is play safe. But that is surely the cowards way out. Humour is after all, supposed to push boundaries and as someone who is and will continue to be quite outspoken about the concept of political correctness, I’m certainly more than happy to stick with my own self-imposed boundaries of good taste as opposed to those which convention or the liberal left impose on me.
But the more I thought about this, the more I started to consider how far apart my personal line of decency might be from those of others I interact with via the web and so I decided to do a little experiment. Last night, whilst Germany were busy demolishing Brazil, I began posting increasingly provocative things on both twitter and Facebook to gauge the response each would get and more importantly, where it would come from.
The one which caused the most furore was ‘The last Brazilian to have that many shots fired at him was at Stockwell Tube station’ which attracted all kinds of comments ranging from ‘that’s brilliant’ to ‘you are a disgusting human being’.
Now to be fair, I did actually hesitate when posting that as even I thought it was close to the mark. I also apologised for it immediately afterwards (and did so again 15 minutes or so later. Far be it from me to be hypocritical!) however, to say it was an illuminating exercise is an understatement.
For not only did it reinforce pretty much everything I had suspected about banter and social media, it also underlined in thick black pen one very simple truth and that is that a sense of humour is as much a product of our own upbringing and environment as any other aspect of our personality.
Or to put it another way, just because you don’t personally find something funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t.
PS: If you think that was the worst joke about Brazil I heard last night, you are sadly mistaken. But even I have lines of decency I won’t cross!
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