Every so often, public discussion leads us to some weird cul-de-sacs. We look back over the conversations to find out how it is that we’re justifying rape threats as part of a campaign for ethics in video game journalism, that we’re forbidding women from wearing particular clothes in order to promote women’s freedoms, that we’re advocating pushing religion out of the public square in the name of religious tolerance. The truly great conversations are those where the final point is some freakish inversion of the original problem.
And thus it is with the discussion about Prof Barry Spurr. An academic makes racist, sexist, and otherwise atrocious comments, and then others claim that calling for his removal is ‘cultural fascism’.
Over on AusOpinion, I made the case that academic freedom was best served by sacking Prof Barry Spurr (link broken):
It is clear that Barry Spurr has so thoroughly departed from the moral community in his views that he can’t appeal to moral intuitions to defend his position. His views are antithetical to contemporary culture and it would be a severe lapse in basic standards for the University of Sydney to keep him on the books. But any argument prosecuting the case for terminating Spurr’s employment needs to be mindful of and consistent with principles of academic freedom. It’s not enough that he said things which deeply offended and hurt Australians; it’s that he said these things outside of the norms of academic discussion, debate, and discourse. Put more bluntly, it is because the integrity of academic freedom must be considered paramount by universities that Spurr’s behaviour is intolerable. To hide behind the cloak of academic freedom would be to stain it indelibly.
This should be pretty straight forward. An academic has made comments marginalising and denigrating a group of people and, as such, should be reprimanded. Oh, no. That would be far too simple for a country which thought a blackface minstrel show was appropriate television entertainment.
Barry Humphries — whose main joke is that it’s hilarious to dress up as a woman because wouldn’t being a woman just be totally weird? — weighed into the argument, stating:
HAS Australia gone slightly mad? I read in the London press of some poor professor in Sydney who has been persecuted and suspended for sending emails to a friend in which he employs outrageous vernacular epithets for race which would be offensive if they were not so clearly jocular.
His reported response to the storm in a teacup which followed this revelation is, unsurprisingly, bewilderment. How could anyone take such deliberate touretting seriously? The answer, I fear, is that there are a lot of Australians these days who are totally bereft of a sense of humour. The new puritanism is alive, well and powerful.
Not long ago some poor guy was actually prosecuted for saying that the Aboriginal welfare services were sometimes exploited by faux Aborigines, even though we knew it was true.
Recently, I announced that when I curate next year’s Adelaide cabaret festival I will ban the F-word, and there was a howl of protest, indeed outrage, particularly from comedians. What kind of comedians were they, do you suppose? Why, comedians with no sense of humour of course! Or comedians whose stand-ups would be meaningless if deprived of one over-used word.
We really ought to be aware of this malignant brand of cultural fascism, and restore our reputation as a funny country before it’s too late.
Persecuted! Faux Aborigines! Cultural fascism!
We might remember that this is the man who caused a racist controversy of his own:
But not every step Dame Edna has taken in her man-size high heels has been assured. Comments in her column for the glossy US magazine Vanity Fair sparked controversy in 2003. When a reader asked whether she should learn Spanish, Edna replied not. “Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?”
Humphries lamented that he was being satirical and was totally satirising what a racist person would say. That it sounded exactly the same as what a racist person would say and that the target of the joke appeared to be the Hispanic community just goes to show precisely how satirical it was.
Over on The New Daily, Tim Ferguson (of Doug Anthony All Stars fame) took up Humphries’ call:
Spurr must answer for his emails, but Humphries may be right about Australian puritanism.
This entire branch of the argument is based on nonsense. The standard interpretation (/generalisation) of Australian humour is our ability to laugh at ourselves. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we satirise ourselves. The conflict of the 1980s-2010s has been what does this ‘laugh at yourself’ attitude mean when not all people are equally capable of being ridiculed (for reasons of being a marginalised minority, for example). The puzzle has been what happens when the direction of the joke changes: it’s all very well when we laugh at ourselves, but when the target of the joke becomes somebody else in a weaker social position, it’s harder to spot the difference between ‘not taking somebody else seriously’ and ‘bullying’.
This is all quite different from how we typically see the different flavours of English comedy and American comedy (even though we rely upon broad generalisations to mount the argument), but it’s not difficult to see which brands of comedy enjoyed longevity. Python is a surprisingly great example of this: the comedy that was based upon absurdity and lampooning pomposity is still enjoyed and quoted today; the stuff that was more offensively racist seems only to be enjoyed by today’s racists. American humour is either generic, humourless, or written by people heavily influenced by Python. The middle category — including such bores as George Carlin and Bill Hicks — relied upon being offensive as a substitute for humour. The joke isn’t ‘We are saying something interesting about society’ but ‘Here are things that we can do because we are big babies who are stuck in a perpetual adolescence’.
These broad generalisations allow us to zoom in on what went wrong with Spurr. Spurr’s ‘humour’ (if it can be called that) relies entirely upon taking down somebody else who can’t fight back. It’s called ‘punching down’. It’s not clever. It’s not interesting. It doesn’t set the author up to laugh at himself, nor does it highlight ridiculousness and absurdity that holds particular forms of society together. All it does is show what a spectacular manchild Spurr is.
Humphries defending Spurr shows what an utter fossil he is. Ferguson suggesting that Humphries was right shows why Australian comedy largely vanished from television during the ’90s and 2000s. There is nothing redeeming about Spurr’s comments and trying to tone police ‘outrage’ is small minded.
This sorry saga has shown that we perhaps need to do more to encourage younger Australian comedians to replace the hasbeens from previous generations. Why do we still have Humphries as part of our national conversation? When was he last relevant to anything? Do we really need a DAAS regrouping? Yet another Chaser show?
It would be a better investment in Australian comedy to show what people are actually up to, working within multicultural, inclusive frameworks to create intelligent, witty, and insightful commentary that doesn’t rely on being offensive to get a cheap laugh.