Cruel jokes are just a symptom


At least we now know how, if you are a comedian whose career is becalmed, you can make yourself the centre of attention. You deploy one of the new swearwords. “Spaz” and “retard” are favourites and, as this week has, shown, “mong” can do the trick pretty well, too.

Soon everyone will be talking about you, and not just as a needy self-publicist. A moral debate will break out, with people shouting at one another on local radio phone-ins.

Clearly, Ricky Gervais has done a serious disservice to free speech with his silly disability-based jokes on Twitter. When a character in the American TV series Glee used the term “eppy”, there was a point to it. The insult “retard” in a South Park episode has a satirical edge. But when Gervais writes “two mongs make a right”, it is merely pathetic and unfunny.

More interesting than the antics of a comedian is the reason why, in our culture, making sneering references to the disabled has become a sign of cutting-edge coolness.

The truth is that, in spite of all the ecstatic displays of public caring on occasions like Red Nose Day, we live in the age of the bully. Racial abuse may have become trickier, but contempt for the truly weak and disadvantaged is everywhere. There is a direct connection between the faux-ironic nastiness of Gervais or Frankie Boyle, to the humiliation of members of the public on TV reality or talent shows, and to the institutionalised mistreatment of the old and vulnerable in hospitals and care homes.

Somewhere along the line, an essential component of society, a basic kindness towards those less fortunate than oneself, has lost its place. Once an assumed good, now it is a skill to be learned, something which has to be acquired with effort and training.

The problem with modern nurses, an expert solemnly announced last week, is that they were are no longer taught empathy. Joan Bakewell made a similar point, blaming the decline of faith and the influence of the church.

Are comedians and nurses really the victims of a lack of a moral education? If so, it is still difficult to understand the general belief that we are becoming kinder as a society, that we have entered a new age of empathy.

The outward evidence may be there – we cry more easily, we take offence at the drop of a hat, we make a great show of charitable giving – but those things, without unfussy, everyday kindness, have little significance. Once we expected heartlessness from the sharp-elbowed sons and daughters of Thatcher. Now it is to be found among liberal comedians and in hospital wards. It has become fashionable to be nasty.

Independent, 21 October 2011