“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire
I found myself the other evening at the heart of a heated dinner debate and somewhat surprisingly not in the majority camp either. The issue: the right to be humorous, even if it causes offence and what this means for the undermining of freedom of speech by overly political correctness. Should we be able to say what we like when if it’s supposed to be funny? It was a long dinner!
The discussion started around a remark made by a British comedian, Frankie Boyle, who made what he believed presumably to be a joke about a disabled boy. There was some negative media commentary afterwards and the mother, a minor and truthfully publicity seeking, headline grabbing, British celebrity, thereafter made a documentary about handicapped children.
Humour in any organisation is a vital ingredient to creating a successful working atmosphere, so I am not suggesting a move towards the 1984 diminishing vocabulary of ‘Newspeak’, the politically correct language in Orwell’s famous dystopia. But stereotypes and prejudice do die hard. If we create a comedic culture where it is acceptable to use “jokes” about vulnerable people, then for me this marks the crossing of a very distinct line and sets the scene for the validation of copy cat behaviour.
There is no doubt that different groups have been singled out and targeted over history in jokes by more powerful and dominant sectors of our society, based on: gender, race, religion, physiology, nationality to name but a few. I understand that eliminating this type of behaviour in our media is not necessarily going to eradicate it from our societies. A culture of formal disapproval has been created around certain “isms” ( e.g. racism, sexism, anti- Semitism) which are now illegal, which we saw with John Galliano and his anti-Semitic rant earlier this year, or Mel Gibson’s racist tirade.
It’s hardly surprising that if in our wider cultures, offensive humour goes unchecked, that it sets the tone in our workplaces, when disrespectful comments, cloaked as jokes are on the increase, along with other forms of verbal abuse. We tend to think of this behaviour as shouting and /or profanity, but it also comes in more subtle, lower key, but equally damaging forms. Humour is one of them. According to U.S. Legal Definitions site, the definition is: “Verbal abuse is the use of words to cause harm to the person being spoken to. It is difficult to define and may take many forms. Similarly, the harm caused is often difficult to measure. The most commonly understood form is name-calling. Verbal abuse may consist of shouting, insulting, intimidating, threatening, shaming, demeaning, or derogatory language, among other forms of communication.”
Ill disguised malice
Humour (the quality of being amusing) can very often simply be ill disguised malice. I coached an entry-level employee recently whose boss referred to him within the department as his ” monkey”. Another contact left a job because of the constant jokes made about her figure. Another changed organisations because of incessant teasing about his red hair, which he now colours blond to avoid the jokes and name calling. (A teacher friend subsequently mentioned that red heads are considered a number one bullying target in schools). I have coached clients who have been the butt of jokes about their regional accents, clothes, hobbies and vision (or lack thereof.)
Much of this behaviour if allowed to continue in a working environment, can be profoundly damaging and develop into a form of bullying, which should be dealt with as such. It is of course difficult to measure and very subjective. What can be offensive to one person, may be glossed over and considered hilariously funny by another. How do we benchmark sensitivity? But disrespectful behaviour has been identified as costing as much as $300 billion
This is not to suggest that communication and language be sanitized to a monotonous neutrality, where fun is taken out of the workplace. Nor should we live in constant fear of offending people and getting caught up in the complex maze of political correctness, where we can no longer call a man with no hair, bald , or the use of the word manhole, rather than maintenance portal, comes with a reprimand. Hailing from the North of England my directness has not gone unnoticed, even when I believe I am exercising great restraint! I suspect would find myself in even more trouble.
I rejoice in the fact that I live in countries where freedom of speech is embraced. But neither am I convinced that ” A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.” Napoleon I.
It is also about how we say things.