May 03 2014

A Thought on “It’s Just a Joke”

Two days ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was found uttering the N-word in unaired footage (video):

In the unseen footage – which was later edited out of the show – the £1million a year TV host is seen swinging his finger between two cars, while reciting a racist version of a children’s counting rhyme. Clarkson can be heard chanting: “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” He then mumbles: “Catch a n***** by his toe”.

Clarkson initially denied using the word, after which the newspaper released the video footage proving it. Yesterday Clarkson made an apology video where he claimed that he knew it was a racist word which he “was extremely keen to avoid”, and that it “did appear” that he actually used the word and that he was moritified. And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means. It’s hard to take him seriously when he and Top Gear have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia and just all-round harmful offensive marginalising shit. For example, just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted a photo of him sleeping with a sign saying “gay c***” pointing at him, with one of his Top Gear lads smiling smugly behind him. Or just a month ago when Clarkson refered to a Thai man as a “slope” – a racist slur referring to facial features.

But this post isn’t just about Top Gear, it’s more about people who say and do such things, and when others complain, they respond “it’s just a joke”. Here’s a thought I had on dealing with such people. When someone says “come on it’s just a joke”, ask them the following question:

Could you give me an example of something which you think should not be joked about?

Hopefully they do have such a thing. If they say no, there’s isn’t any such thing – and they really mean it – then this is probably a fruitless exercise, as this is someone who doesn’t have much intelligence or ethics. But presumably, for most people, there is such a thing. Then hopefully what you could do is get them to self-examine the premises behind their conclusion it’s okay to joke about X but not Y. They would have to come up with relevant dissimilarities between X and Y to justify their conclusion, and maybe if they do that exercise honestly, they’ll realise that actually there are many relevant similarities and few relevant dissimilarities between the two. So they ought not to joke about X either.

Maybe it’s a long shot, but hey a humanist can dream, right?

I’ll end this short post with one of my favourite comedy sketches ever – British comedian Stewart Lee skewering Top Gear. It’s excellent political comedy as well as all-out hilarious:






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  1. 1
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means.

    I guess that means he’s posessed by demons and therefore not responsible for actually saying things. You know, he was powerless against his own brain and mouth and vocal cords actually saying that word.

    More in general, there is a very simple rule I’m teaching my children: A joke is when everybody laughs. If the butt (even the collateral butt) of your joke is crying or really upset, then it wasn’t a joke but a cruel thing to say.
    I had an emotionally abusive childhood and the “it’s just a joke” excuse was permanently employed to when I objected to the gaslighting and nagging, making me feel even more wrong, because I was not only not good enough, but I also had no sense of humor and couldn’t take a joke.

  2. 2
    Al Dente

    “It was just a joke” is what bullies say when they’re justifying their bullying.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    Very close to “it’s just a joke” is “it’s just my opinion” – a flourish that attempts to both defend and repudiate the speaker’s own words. Lee is absolutely right, it’s cowardice. It’s an attempt to say something mean, then slag it off as not meant.

    I did a take on this subject in my deviantart journal years ago, here: http://mjranum.deviantart.com/art/Just-My-Opinion-154250808

  4. 4

    When I say the Pledge of Allegiance, I make a point of using the original, one nation indivisible version. Once in a while I slip and use the version I’ve said thousands of times before, one nation, under god, indivisible. This does not mean that all of a sudden I’ve started believing in god.

    If you take this one comment all by itself, all that it means is that he has used the take a n…. version many many times in his life. That implies that he grew up in an area where casual racism was rampant. Where I grew up, by the 1960′s the N word was considered a very inappropriate word and I was taught catch a tiger by the toe.

    If this was an isolated incident and he had never said anything else racist or sexist, I really wouldn’t think that much of it. As he has a shown a regular pattern of casual sexism and racism, it is one more piece of evidence that he, at the very least, has racist tendency.

    I don’t think that this goes under the it’s a joke excuse. It’s more of a slip of the tongue because I said it too many times when I was young excuse.

  5. 5
    Mary L

    “You have no sense of humor,” really means “You don’t have my sense of humor.”

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