Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs
The British sense of humour is second to none. The satire, innuendo, self-deprecation, and no-subject-is-off-limits attitude is one of those rather nice quirks of our national culture.
Or at least it was. While most people still have a sense of humour (at least in private), mainstream comedy has become yet another way for ‘liberals’ to signal their virtue – and our state broadcaster is leading the charge.
At the weekend, a clip from BBC Three ‘comedy drama’ Shrill was doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, a white woman was being scolded for asking for her hair to be styled in dreadlocks. Her crime? Attempted cultural appropriation, of course.
Typical from our state broadcaster, viewers were treated to what felt more like a moralising lecture on identity politics than any real attempt at humour. What was once the BBC’s brief to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ has seemingly become to lecture, re-educate, and bore. Political grandstanding comes first; humour comes a slow second.
And it’s not just the BBC (although if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through a few minutes of Have I Got News For You recently, you’d definitely know it to be one the worst offenders); it’s everywhere.
Stand up is now a minefield. On a recent pub trip in north London, I found myself in the audience of a comedy night. You could visibly see the anxiety on the faces of those taking part – and not just because they had stage fright.
One young man stopped short of cracking a joke about being overweight, presumably for fear of being offensive to the one chubby person in the crowd. Another act based her entire stand up around Trump and Brexit. How daring! The only genuinely funny contribution was a young woman who cracked jokes about her sex life; a subject the male participants noticeably avoided (again, presumably to avoid accusations of sexism). I can sympathise; the pressure to not offend can be oppressive.
But what so many of the ‘social justice’ left seem not to realise is just how conformist and earnest they’ve become. Surely being able to laugh at ourselves is one of the more charming things about the British public? But of course it’s only some subjects that have become taboo; the white working class are fair game for a certain type of ‘liberal’ metropolitan comedian. Presumably they don’t count as ‘punching down’.
As we know, comedy is just one British institution that has been affected by the illiberalism of the social justice movement. As Dr Steve Davies points out in a recent paper for the IEA, the ‘social justice’ left is the ideology gaining most traction in universities, just as it dominates the media, public bodies, and corporate life.
But could the fight back be underway? Last week’s news that the chairman of the National Trust had resigned was met with relief and a sense that perhaps this could be a turning point. Although the organisation has since told the Guardian that Tim Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion circulated by Restore Trust (the grassroots movement that campaigned against the ‘woke agenda’ of the leadership) the timing suggests otherwise.
If common sense can prevail at the National Trust, could it in the many other British institutions that have been captured by an excessively politically correct leadership?
We’re certainly seeing the creation of parallel institutions that are attempting to provide an alternative. Comedy Unleashed, the comedy night which promises a space for comedians to take risks with their humour without fear of being censored – or without feeling the pressure to self-censor – is an example of this.
When it comes to our universities, which are undisputedly home to some of the worst excesses of the modem left, it seems you can only push people so far before they snap. After Cambridge University set up a website for students to report their professors for ‘microaggressions’ (offences include raising an eyebrow, giving out backhanded compliments, or referring to a woman as a girl), academics pushed back, and it has been taken down pending review.
There is also a growing resistance against the excesses of the trans lobby, which may also come as a sign that the tide is turning. In attempting to control the narrative on gender issues, controversial LGBT charity Stonewall is suffering the consequences of over-reach; a particular low being when the CEO Nancy Kelley likened “gender critical” beliefs to anti-Semitism. According to the Daily Telegraph, several high-profile public sector employers, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have begun cutting ties with the charity.
However, it may be too soon to claim any broader victory for common sense, when you hear of a librarian at King’s College London pressured into apologising for “the harm” caused by sending a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh to colleagues because of his “history of racist and sexist comments”. Perhaps, in the future, we all should include a trigger warning at the start of our emails to avoid any potential upset? Although I don’t suppose that would be enough to appease those constantly seeking out offence.
Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has said that new safeguards to prevent statues and monuments from being torn down “on a whim” has encouraged councils, charities and heritage organisations to be “much more careful” about “bowing to a small number of very vocal people”. If this is true, it will come as much relief to those members of the public who have been horrified by mindless attempts destroy parts of our heritage.
While the Government may be making all the right noises when it comes to challenging the excesses of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the excesses of the social justice movement, no amount of state intervention is going to reverse the left’s long march through our institutions.
After all, we have a Conservative government, yet our universities, much of our civil service and corporates are largely on board with the modern left’s cultural priorities, the obsession with race and gender manifesting itself in unconscious bias training, speech guidance, and tedious diversity and inclusion campaigns.
Rather than knee-jerk legislation which can so often end up backfiring and curtailing liberty, what we need is a counter march of the institutions, which will only come with people power. Perhaps the small victory at the National Trust could mark a real turn of the tide away from the more authoritarian elements of left-wing activism and we can finally regain our collective sense of humour.