THE BLOG

No More Excuses: It's Time to Boycott the Despicable Banter Defence

15/12/2014 17:03 GMT | Updated 14/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It sneakily made its way into the living room, invading our TV screens, greedily stealing a monopoly on modern humour through shows like The Inbetweeners and Bad Education - an ugly addition to the language, inspiring a culture that we had happily lived without.

It became progressively more adult and gradually grew hurtful, infiltrating everywhere from football grounds to night clubs as a sorry excuse for abuse; for the first time, giving people a pretext for harassment and blaming the sufferers.

And yet, somehow, the public is anxious about addressing the vexed issue of 'banter'.

Across society and in my experience (having witnessed teenagers commending their banter as "breathtaking" and "stronger than a '90s Nokia"), we are divided over the term. The question is: what is it? Has it been overused? And does it serve any other purpose than to legitimise bigotry, bullying or insensitive behaviour?

Shamed members of the football fraternity, for one, think it does. It was broadcaster Richard Keys' often-parodied defence of his dreadful comments about a female assistant referee that got the ball rolling, with the ex-Sky Sports presenter rightly receiving horrendous press for trying to belittle his remarks as "prehistoric banter".

Not to be outdone, the League Managers' Association needed the benefit of hindsight to realise that racist, sexist and homophobic text messages sent by former Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay could not be passed off as "friendly banter" - after creating an alibi which, as one perceptive Twitter user put it, sounded like it took an intern five minutes to draft before he sat back in his chair and said, "Nailed it".

But it would be moving into even more dangerous territory to deny that the phrase "it was just banter" is a powerful silencer. On a small scale, it poses as a compliment to obfuscate complaints from victims, whilst in extreme cases it trivialises truly tasteless acts, dismissing anyone who feels offended as lacking a sense of humour.

Of course, there is nothing funny at all about any such outbursts of banter, which are replicated around us on a daily basis: look no further for evidence than the 'Everyday Sexism' hashtag or first-hand accounts of school bullying.

Norfolk-based English teacher Mike Stuchberry, notable for banning banter in his classroom to tackle bullying, agrees. "Through the magic of repetition and social media, banter has become an acceptable, friendlier-sounding term for bullying," he blogged.

Significantly, this exposes the word as just another insult to the person on the receiving end by dismissing them as uptight or too stupid to appreciate what is apparently a superior level of irony, at the same time as ignoring the fact that banter is supposed to be mutual.

Worst still, if suggestions that the expression is inherently offensive seem somewhat far-fetched, there is no doubt that lad culture has colonised it. We see banter spilling over into both misogyny - reinforcing a false notion that 'catcalling', humiliation and physical harassment are part of a normal night out - as well as male degradation, with whether you can "take the banter" frequently defining your masculinity.

Although it must be acknowledged that use of the term often does take the form of parody, anyone who fails to avoid it altogether is perpetuating the outbreak. So, as the banter era shows no sign of abating, my New Year's resolution will be never to utter the word again - a decision that critics may choose to describe as "top banter".