How Boris Johnson hijacks comedy to oppress | According to one academic © Arno Mikkor/CC BY 2.0

How Boris Johnson hijacks comedy to oppress

According to one academic

Populist right-wing leaders like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have hijacked the subversive ideals of comedy to prop up the unfair status quo, one academic has claimed.

They deploy notions of free speech, defiance and punching up against an elite – but use them to suppress people.

That's the view of Sarah Ilott, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Speaking at a seminar on 'comedy, censorship and free speech' yesterday, she explained  that the sort of humour deployed by the leaders 'makes people less free and encourage structural violence'.

She used the example of Johnson's notorious Daily Telegraph article comparing veiled Muslim women to 'letter boxes' and 'bank robbers', which she said superficially followed the rules of humour as it was based on an incongruity. But she said it the metaphor was designed to 'see the women not as human but as objects... The joke does account for the experience of the women. '

And Johnson's use of the word 'we' to describe his own point of view placed the women he was describing as outside of what was considered 'normal'.

One monitoring group reported that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent in the week after Johnson's comments.

Ilott,  whose publications include Comedy And The Politics of Representation: Mocking the Weak,  said Johnson and Trump 'blurred the lines' between punching up and punching down by positioning themselves as attacking an elite of 'humourless snowflakes' who would silence them.

'Boris is portrayed as the real victim,' she said. 'The spectre of censorship appeals to freedom of speech ideals.'

At the same event, Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson said Johnson was not genuinely funny, but a 'Daily Telegraph sub-editor's idea of funny'.

And he said that although Trump and Johnson appear to have a sense of humour about themselves, it was a form of control to protect their 'microns-thin' skin, explaining:  'They take possession of the joke so we laugh with them not at them'.

He also sought a distinction between satirists and comedians, placing cartoonists and impersonators in the first camp because 'we take possession of the thing we are satirising', rather than merely commenting on it.

Rowson also said that despite recent law changes, the use of copyright was a risk to parody, calling it 'censorship through ownership'; and added that editors and proprietors are often the 'enemies of free expression' for not publishing the most challenging satire.

Comedian Sajeela Kershi said she 'had a problem' with any form of censorship because of her experiences in Pakistan where speaking politics in public was expressly forbidden.

And she said she would welcome right-wing comedians who do not share her liberal ideology to her club in Reigate, Surrey,  so she would be exposed to different points of view.

All were speaking at an event in Brunel University in Middlesex organised by the Centre for Comedy Studies Research.

Published: 7 Nov 2019

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