Britain is recognised worldwide for having a unique sense of humour and the ability to laugh in the face of gritty reality. This stood us in good stead through two World Wars and continues to serve the people of the country well, even in these politically unstable times. However, no matter how right we are to be proud of being a nation who can stiffen the upper lip and find humour in even the most treacherous of situations, we do need to stop on occasion and ask ourselves if some of this humour is actually funny.
I genuinely detest the word 'bants'. In my view it has become a get out clause for people who want to make statements designed to offend but who lack the back bone to stand by their convictions and express their dubious sentiments directly. Too often I have seen the defensive reaction that a comment was 'only bants' when a person is pulled up on what is more often than not a deeply intolerant and divisive viewpoint.
I'm not at all sure that some of these people actually realise they are being offensive. Undoubtedly there are probably a small number who do manipulate the concept of humour to make prejudiced and intolerant comments "safely" but there seem to be many more who believe racist comments, of a nature that most of us believed had died out in the eighties, are now the acceptable face of humour in the new millennium.
"It's free speech!" they cry when tackled on it, "just a joke. It doesn't do any harm."
And there is where the problem lies. Because racist speech does cause harm.
As individuals our voices are small but as a collective our communities have very powerful voices. Every comment, every opinion, every belief expressed goes toward weaving the tapestry that will become the community and ultimately the world we live in. When you make racist and hateful comments this is your strand of the tapestry, this is what you are weaving into the world. One or two comments may not make a difference but, as the tapestry grows with threads of hate, the hate becomes stronger and harder to erase. Eventually hate becomes too deeply ingrained to ever be eradicated.
It is also a concern that over time people become inured to any concept, even one as abhorrent as racism, so in order to keep telling the jokes that rely on shock value the boundaries have to keep being pushed back. Every racist comment contributes to the normalisation of discrimination in our communities. Every joke moves the boundaries of what we consider acceptable. The danger of this is that eventually we stop seeing racism as a problem. The line has been both drawn and crossed and what started out masquerading as humour has become acceptable. Hate has been legitimised.
Perhaps most importantly though is the fact that racism hurts people. Have you ever noticed how all racist jokes involve the invoking of a stereotyped characteristic? These racial stereotypes foster ignorant preconceptions and relegate the object of their joke to no longer being an individual but a caricature, a parody of their own race. Dehumanisation is not a sound basis for humour, it breeds a culture of hate.
Most of this 'bants' takes place online where people can hide behind anonymous accounts. The unwillingness of Twitter, in particular, to react to hate speech has been a major frustration for many anti hate groups, including Resisting Hate, who are constantly reporting extremist accounts only to find no action has been taken. The fact that so much of the hate is hidden in jokes makes it harder for social media to determine what is and what is not intended as genuine hate speech and makes it more difficult to identify which accounts need suspending from social platforms.
One account making racist jokes took umbrage at my criticism of his humour, telling me it wasn't a problem because comments on Twitter are not real life. He missed the point. Just because a view is expressed online does not mean it is divorced from the real world. Hate posters may be behind a computer but they are still real people, attacking other real people and putting very real hate into the world. It isn't enough to say Twitter isn't real life. It doesn't excuse people who choose to press send and put that hate into the world. And it doesn't make the people on the receiving end of the hate hurt any less.
I make it a point to challenge racism whenever I see it and the reactions of people when challenged speak volumes about their attitudes toward their own humour. One "friend" was genuinely astonished when pulled up on making a joke about a person of colour with the worrying response: "But nobody here is black..."
Ultimately (and tediously predictably) the average racist joke teller inevitably ends up with: "I'm just telling a joke. I'm not a racist."
Well I'm sorry to tell you this but yes, yes you are a racist. If you make racist jokes you are a racist, end of. It isn't appropriate, it isn't funny, it isn't 'bants'. It's racism. And racism ruins lives.