Recently, I witnessed a scene of abuse carried out on an innocent person. In a fast food restaurant, I watched in horror as a group of drunk students hurled insults and poked fun at a woman attempting to clean the floor. They threw their drinks near her, shouted insulting names and laughed at her for, in their eyes, having a menial job. Before anyone could step in to the aid of the woman, the group were thrown outside and banned from re-entering. Their excuse? It was only a joke - it was only 'banter'. I wish I could say that this was an extraordinary event, but unfortunately it is just one example of how the term banter is used to defend a rich tapestry of sexist and racist abuse. Luckily for me, banter is only just audible above the sound of my teeth grinding.
It is the idiot language of the 'lad' - you know the type. Loud, generally unpleasant. Played American football at university. Tries to have sex with anything that casts a shadow. Boris Johnson is the epitome of the 'banterous' (yes, really - an adjective) lad. At the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum at City Hall in July, he 'joked' that women only went to university to find a husband. During a panel debate with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, it was stated that 68% of university students in his country were women. Good old Boris jumped in and said: 'They've got to find men to marry.' For goodness sake, when will this nonsense end? Labour's Shadow Equalities Minister at the time Kate Green summed up my point exactly, when she commented that 'he may think his buffoonery allows him to get away with his outdated opinions but this isn't funny.' Banter is irritating, yes. But when you delve into the noxious meaning behind the word, it transforms from the irritating into the downright abusive. It becomes a justification of misogynistic, racist and immoral remarks, thinly disguised by the veil of 'witty' humour.
It's difficult to pinpoint where banter originated, but for Boris, at least, his might have picked up his penchant for making not-so-wise wisecracks at his little university group The Bullingdon Club. Oxford University's male-only dining club, infamous for breeding - pardon my French - little shits. The club was known for its destructive binges, with other alumni including David Cameron and George Osbourne. Yes, you get the idea. One dinner ended up with a restaurant being smashed up, with Johnson and his pals having to spend a night in a police cell. While he stated that it was a 'shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness' - he also added that at the time, 'it was wonderful to be going around swanking it up.' One can only imagine the banter while they ripped apart restaurants in their £3,500 uniforms. Buller!
Banter. It is so many things. It is the Dave channel, which sells itself as being the 'home of witty banter' - now, there is an oxymoron if I ever saw one. It is the double denim imbecile Jeremy Clarkson, who - when he isn't blowing up caravans - is mouthing off about women, Mexicans and cars, because he lacks the personality to appear on television for any other reason. It is BBC radio commentator John Inverdale, who commented that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli would have to 'be scrappy and fight' because she wasn't a 'looker'. Banter is all of these things rolled into one, doused in Lynx, smeared in insults and topped off with a Loaded article about breasts. Incidentally, the magazine for 'men who should know better'.
And banter continues to be a destructive force. This week, an independent enquiry into the Glasgow University Union was published after allegations of sexism were made by two female students. The two women - who attended Cambridge and Edinburgh universities - stated that they received misogynistic heckles and comments about their appearance, as they spoke about how religion affected women's rights at a debate organised by the GUU in March. Perhaps they could not take a joke. Perhaps the students who hurled the insults at the two women were only having a laugh? Perhaps, just perhaps, they felt vilified by being insulted in public - not simply with an opposing opinion to their argument, but with upsetting comments about their appearance.
Earlier this month, the world witnessed a group of hockey players from Stirling University chanting sexist songs about miscarriages on camera, while performing Nazi salutes. Other students watched in horror; too afraid to do anything to stop the perpetrators. This is what banter is. It is grossly misogynistic. It is racist. It is hurtful. It is ignorant. It is the vindication that justifies all of these things - all in the name of a harmless joke. And it needs to stop.