Off Limits

Many years ago I read a book – The Cat who went to Paris, by Peter Gethers – in which the author proclaimed that there are no times that are inappropriate for humour. I have to agree with him – I have laughed in some of the worst moments of my life, and it may be the reason that I survived them. My husband is singularly skilled at making me laugh, and helping me to survive those dark moments. But I have recently been pondering the question – are there things we should not laugh at?

The Chaser team have been firmly told that some subjects are off limits. Indeed, their skit about terminally ill children (which I must confess I didn’t see) certainly upset people. But does that mean it was inexcusable? Does that mean it is never ok to make jokes about terminal illness? I know from experience that people who are terminally ill joke about it. Is this one of those situations, where you can only make the jokes if they’re about you? Laugh from the inside out, but not from the outside in?

Many years ago my best friend was killed in a car accident. She was the other half of my brain, an integral part of my being. I consider myself very lucky to have had a friend that close. Her death ripped my heart out. But it turns out that even when your heart has been ripped out, it is still beating. I laughed at her funeral – at some very inappropriate jokes – because even though she was dead, I was still alive, and I had to survive somehow.

A year or so later, Princess Di died in a car accident. The media coverage of the event and its aftermath was amazing. It was impossible to avoid. For me, car accidents and death were incredibly raw subjects, and I couldn’t bear to talk about it, think about it, or be reminded of it. For those of you who have never lost a loved one, the second year can be harder than the first, as the shock wears off and you have to get used to life without them. I stopped watching television and reading newspapers, but even staring out of the car window, headlines screamed from outside milkbars and newsagents. It was painful in the extreme. But not because of those headlines – it was my own pain. It didn’t make my pain worse. It just stirred it around a lot. And I wouldn’t for a moment argue that there should not have been media coverage of that death, in case it upset people who were already bereaved.

The Chaser skit certainly poked hard at raw nerves. But they didn’t make the raw nerves. They simply triggered pain that was already there. Did it make things worse for those people? My guess is that it stirred up emotions that were already there.

Are there things we shouldn’t joke about? I don’t know. There are certainly things that aren’t funny – but if they’re not funny, don’t watch them/read them/listen to them. That’s a personal choice. Should people be hounded and vilified for making jokes that are in poor taste?  I don’t believe so. If you don’t like it, don’t listen. It would be nice if that sort of behaviour didn’t rate, but let’s face it, it does. Shock jocks like Kyle Sandilands, hate merchants like Andrew Bolt – they rate, and they sell newspapers. Should we censor them? I think it would be vastly more productive to talk about them openly – to use their behaviour to trigger rational public debate.

I’ve found that one of the hardest things about death is the taboo that surrounds it. The painful hush, the editing out of the dead person’s name, in case it upsets someone. For me, talking about things openly is the road to health and sanity. But talking about death is something we don’t do very well, as a society. It’s the same with miscarriage – when I had one and was open about it, I was amazed at the number of people who contacted me quietly and said “hey, we’ve been there” – and some of them were close friends. But there’s this taboo. You don’t talk about grief, and you don’t talk about death. And as for laughing about it…!

So far with the Chaser Skit, and Kyle Sandlilands’ comment about concentration camps and weight loss, the ‘debate’ has mostly consisted of a lot of moral outrage. I think it’s ok to be outraged. But let’s use it as a prompt to talk about things that are “off limits”. Making things off limits makes them, in my experience, vastly more potent, and immeasurably harder to deal with. Let’s talk about terminal illness. Let’s talk about death. Let’s talk about abortion, miscarriage, depression and drugs. Let’s talk about being human.

I agree with Peter Gethers – I don’t think there are times that are inappropriate for humour. I do think that jokes that hurt people aren’t funny. But they’re not a crime (at least, they shouldn’t be!). Instead of banning them, and beating our breasts in horrified outrage, let’s learn from them. Let’s use them to advance debate, and to talk about taboo subjects. Bring death into the room and recognise it as part of life. Learn to get over those taboos. I think it’s the road to health and sanity for all of us.

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2 thoughts on “Off Limits

  1. In brief: agreed. One of the hardest things about my grandfather’s death (cancer) was the way everyone stopped talking about him. It was like an edit button got pushed. My cousins and I got very stroppy about it and still find everyone else’s dodging tricky. But this is the thing; we all have different taboos and different stages of taboo, which means problems get pushed under the carpet in friendships, relationships, and ultimately to oneself. I don’t know how we fix that and still stay ‘civilised’ or maintain people’s dignity.

  2. lindamciver

    That’s a really good point, Chelsea. It certainly has to be done in a way that allows people to switch off if it is too much, or if they are not in a space where they can cope with it right now. I certainly had to switch off from all the coverage of Princess Di’s death (didn’t help that my friend was Di, too!). You can’t force people to break their taboos. But I think you can break taboos down, gently and gradually, by being more open about things.

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