Musings arguments and gig reports from your favourite Goth lesbian transsexual vegan recovering alcoholic and drug addict sceptic rationalist atheist comedian chameleon and caricature.

Sunday 29 May 2011

no offence

Offence is easy to cause, often we do it without even thinking about it.  Sometimes we can brush it off without thinking too much about it.  "What someone I don't know thinks that something I did without realising was offensive?  Fuck 'em!"  Other times it's more difficult.

Today I managed to cause offence to someone I really liked via the medium of the internet and she blocked me before I had a chance to explain.  The internet makes us all autistic, it removes context and nuance from our words, often I've found myself getting really angry at something that someone's said to me on an internet forum and told a third party what they've said and the third party has responded "That's only horrible with the intonation you've given that.  Read it in a silly or daft voice or as if they're being sycophantic and then think about it?"

To which I always fly into a rage and tell them they don't know what it's like and then flounce out, before realising that I'm being unreasonable and then flouncing back in to apologise.

T'was ever thus.

In my line of work you face a lot of people who get offended about all sorts of things, for example one night at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club I saw George Cottier doing a bit of material where he suggested that all blind people were evil.  Now within the context of the piece of material you could see that this was the result of a logical phallacy, no one in the room was under any illusion that what George had said was anything that any reasonable person could take seriously, like Richard Herring's piece about how racists are less racist than non-racists.  But someone in the audience did take it seriously he stood up and said "I think that's offensive, and I've got a blind friend" he then pointed to his blind friend who was sat on the same table who said "Shut up you idiot, you're embarrassing me, that wasn't offensive."  somewhere else in the audience another blind man stood up and said "I'm blind and I didn't find it offensive, I found it funny so shut up you dick."

It's easy to make mistakes, and it's easy to offend people.  I try my best in my comedy to have no victims.  It's not something that I feel I can do.  It makes me feel uncomfortable and it goes against my whole philosophy of life.

There is in comedy the issue of messing around with status, and it's acceptable for someone who is low status to make fun of someone who is high status.  The Jester making fun of the king, this is ok because it challenges the status quo without ever changing the power balance.  That's why it's seen as ok to make fun of politicians, Their high status makes them easy targets for humour.

But if you are of perceived high status it's not socially acceptable to make fun of someone who is low status.

Chris Rock talks about this in one of his shows, saying it's ok for a fat woman to make fun of a thin woman, but not the other way round.  It's ok for black people to make fun of white people but not the other way round, and it's ok for poor people to make fun of rich people but not the other way round.

To a degree I agree with that, but I like to not perpetuate it, for example women making fun of men, I think that feminism's come a very long way, and any woman who thinks that she should be allowed to walk out of the house wearing what she wants and has the right to complain if she gets attacked is a feminist.

I hate the way that some women take the piss out of men for being men, I think it harms the cause of feminism as a whole, it makes some men, the ones who seem to think that women have complete equality and should stop yapping, think that it's ok to revert to old fashioned sexist comments.

This in it's own way harks back to my earlier blog on liberal guilt.  I sometimes wish I was right wing, because then I'd not have to worry about offending people, I'd assume that everyone was of equal status, or that status was there for a reason and that you should respect those above and be able to have a go at those below, and therefore never worry about offending people because the people being offended don't matter, and should respect you for being one of their betters.

When I started out I was a shock comic.  Partly because I didn't know how to be funny, I didn't know what it was about me and the way that I interact with the world that was funny, and in response to the horror that I was going through in my life, and all the associated madness that surrounded it I would say and do the most loud and shocking things thinking that that was a short cut to being funny.

Turns out joking about gang raping a horse, not as funny as I thought it would be.

Turns out, joking about children that have disappeared and the newspapers and societies reaction to them in a way that shows no empathy,  Not as funny as I thought it would be.

Turns out, joking about a friend's parent dying of cancer, NOT AS FUNNY AS I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE!

To lend this some context, at the time the only thing I was using my brain for was, as Russell Brand put it, "as a filter for various chemicals" mostly at this point alcohol and occasionally speed and ecstasy,  this combined with the fact that I was recovering from a nervous breakdown, going through a transitional period in my life, and the fact that as it turns out I've got quite a few autistic traits, and never noticed when other people got offended, or at least thought "That's their own problem, I'm a fucking genius, they're fucking idiots."  meant that I was in no real place to judge what was sound or reasonable.

I am, 10 years since my nervous break down and 2 and a half years clean and sober, still in a difficult place to judge what's reasonable, but at least now I'm not having to filter it through layers of booze, drugs and a heightened sense of madness.

So I surround myself with people who feel the same as I do, people who tell stories that they think are perfectly reasonable and get to the end of the story and suddenly notice everyone's sat, slack-jawed, staring.

Anyway as I've gone on, I still tell stuff that's shocking, but it's also about me, it's the stupid stuff that I do because I think it'll be fun or funny.

Which is why if I ever end up in a hospital with something stuck up my arse, that'll be what I tell the doctor.  "I thought it'd be fun"

If there was an afterlife, after the accident that will undoubtedly finally claim my life that's what I'd tell whoever I saw first when they ask "Why did you do that?"  I thought it would be fun or funny.

But the difference is that now, there's no victim in the comedy that I do, or if there is, it's me.  The oldest joke in comedy is "Man fall down"  in this instance the man is in fact a woman and that woman is me.

Remarkably, I don't actually like causing offence to people.  I like to make people laugh, I like to make people feel better about themselves.  That's the thing that's right at the core of my being.  And when I upset people it makes me feel really really sad.

I still cringe years after the fact when I remember stuff that I'd said that would have upset people, or made them feel slightly uncomfortable, I feel complete shame when I realise what I've said or done it's horrible.

And I know that there'll be another one of those moments added to the already bulging roster of moments to make me feel like that after what happened this morning.

I've had enough arguments on the internet with people to know that they make me feel really shitty very quickly, and they leave me feeling awful for days.

A month or so ago I'd said something in an interview that when taken out of context had really upset someone, I felt awful, but tried to place my remarks in context and explain why if they'd seen the whole thing it wouldn't have come across quite so badly.  We argued back and forth for a good 24 hours, all this time I was away on the road and feeling more and more anxious and upset, but I never put that across, nor any emotion across in my arguments because I know that once you do you're lost.  I've learned this through years of discussion and debating with people in real life and online, and from years of having to stick up for my right to exist when people tell me that I shouldn't.

In the end I got fed up with feeling so bad and blocked them.  They then emailed me to tell me what they'd meant in a longer than 140 character message, and I told them that I'd blocked them because I was away from home and feeling really vulnerable and it was clear we'd never reach consensus and I was feeling horrible and just needed a hug and was going to be away from home for at least another 10 days before I could get a hug.

Sometimes when the feelings come out they come out all in one go.

The person who I'd been arguing with said "I didn't realise you felt like that because what you were saying came across so dispassionately"

Words are my business, but they fail me as often as they fail anyone.

This morning they did that.

Someone on twitter who I really like was upset by last night's episode of Dr Who because of the pregnancy storyline, she felt it was inappropriate and was really upset by it, she'd checked with some other mothers who were also feeling the same way.

Over the course of the morning she'd said a few times that the programme makers mustn't have wanted mums to watch it, and that they should have been in the kitchen tidying up the dinner plates and the like.

I felt that saying this sort of thing was unfair, and it was projecting a meaning on to the programme that wasn't there, and projecting her own problems on to it and taking the stance of a victim.

I told her this and she blocked me.

She was probably right to.  Reading back what I'd written I'd phrased it wrongly, and should have opened a discussion about it rather than just saying that.

But it's kind of how I felt.  I was totally wrong to voice it like that, but at the time it was how I felt.

Let me get one thing straight though,  You're entitled to be offended by anything that you see or hear or touch or taste or smell.  And I will never say any different.

You are entitled to your offence, take ownership of it.

When Russell Howard's Good News did a sketch about a British version of a Thai Ladyboy airline, lots and lots of trans people were upset by it, they found it to be massively offensive.

I didn't, I didn't make the connection between the sketch and trans people, nor did I think that the sketch was about all trans people, mainly because I didn't make the connection between that sketch and trans people to begin with.  I personally think that the whole of Thai Culture in regards to that particular area of the sex industry is massively exploitative and forces young men who look feminine but who are not trans into doing things that they shouldn't be doing, because it's a way out of poverty.  It's why I hate the fact that local authorities and gay pride events seem to invite The Ladyboys Of Bangkok to perform as often as they do, it makes them, and anyone who goes to see them complicit in this form of exploitation as far as I'm concerned, and makes it more difficult for trans people in their daily lives.

I've lost count of the number of times when I've spoken about being trans on stage that someone's come up to me afterwards and said "I liked what you said about being trans, I've been to see the Ladyboys of Bangkok." and expect me to see that as some sort of compliment.  Do these same people go up to black comics after their set and say "I liked what you did about race, I've been to see a minstrel show."?

You are entitled to your anger, your upset, your offence and I will never tell you any different, I will argue with you over it if I don't think it's offensive, and if I think that what was said or done was justified but I will never tell you you aren't entitled to feel the way that you feel.

But use your offence.  Take ownership of it and use it as fuel to fight and to make the world a better place for yourself or for others.

To take offence and then to turn it round and personalise it, to complain in a way that makes it look like the person or thing that has caused offence has done so deliberately to upset you, to subjugate you, to pick on you is to just play the victim.  From experence I've learned that that doesn't help anyone.

That just says "poor me!"  and is asking for sympathy, that's saying "They always do this and I'm powerless to stop them so rather than fight I'll hope that someone notices that they're being horrible to me and stops them." it's passing the buck.

That this makes me angry is a personal bugbear from years of being an active alcoholic and drug addict.  Nothing was ever my fault, I was sad and lonely and everyone hated me and I couldn't afford my rent and I never got a break, and everything was wrong in the world and that was why I drank, that was why I got high.

Poor me, born in the wrong body, poor me, didn't have any money, poor me, my career was going nowhere, poor me, I was single, poor me, poor me, pour me another.  It was the world that was at fault and I was the victim.

Bit by bit and day by day I started to retake control of my life.  I stopped drinking.  Yay!  but managed to turn all that addictive power into drugs and a relationship!  Boo!

Got over the relationship break-up and turned some of that addictive power into my career, Yay! And the rest of it into drugs, Boo!

Got clean and turned the rest of it to my career.  Yay!

Every day though it's a new challenge, and it's keeping on top of it, it's looking at these things and saying "I'm the one who's responsible for this."

I'm not responsible for being an addict, that was there before I had my first drink, and the first drink activated it, it's still there now I've been clean and sober for 2 years, and it'll always be there.

I'm not responsible for that mental illness.  I am responsible for how I behave in relation to it.  I can manage it by not drinking, by not taking drugs.  And it is a daily thing.  for as long as I've been clean and sober it doesn't matter, I could finish writing this sentence and go and open a bottle of vodka and down it and tomorrow I'd have been clean and sober for as long as it was before I had a drink.

I take responsibility for my actions.  I take responsibility for my career.  I take responsibility for my own health.  I take responsibility for my car, my cat and my flat.

And I take responsibility for the things that offend me, and when I am offended I call people on it, and explain why, and we talk it through and we come to some agreement.

I don't allow myself to be a victim, I try not to project my own issues on to the work of others, I have done this in the past, I used to do it all the time.

If I go to a piece of art or a book or a film or a comedy show and something in it makes me feel uncomfortable or upset or makes me think about something that I have difficulty dealing with, what I do is take that as an opportunity to explore why I feel that way, to find some way round it, to decide what is it that causes those feelings and if there's some way I can work through them.

I think it's because once I'd got one thing sorted in my life, the thing that underpinned everything else, the thing that once it was sorted finally got me in a place to start slowly dealing with the bits and pieces of every day life, getting help with my gender identity and living in the life and body that I should have been living in it seemed like anything else was achievable.

There was nothing I couldn't do, I felt, and so from that day on I've treated life like a constant exercise of self improvement.  Bit by bit, day by day I'm getting better at the things that I think need improving, I'm trying to be a better person every single day.

Sometimes I fail, and sometimes I hold people up to my standards when they shouldn't, and sometimes I get annoyed at people for various things.  Using text speak in tweets, the things that they think are massively important that I don't think are, people who I think think they are better than me when clearly that's not what they think at all, People who get very invested in things that I think are nonsense.

I get so short tempered about all of these things, and it's all linked back to my addiction, I just want to be in control of something!  Anything!  Everything!  That's the problem, I can't, and I need to accept that, I need to accept that there are things I can't change or control, and chiefly amongst those are the actions and thoughts of other people.

In this instance I said something that was out of line because I thought the person I was talking to would function in the same way that I do, and they clearly didn't, and my reasoning behind what I said was based on the 32 years of collected experience that I'd brought to the table, and those were my experiences, not hers.  She dealt with it in her way and I misunderstood that and filtered it though my experiences and said something that was massively out of order.

I can come across as massively belligerent, as uncaring and thoughtless, and that's because I am, but afterwards I always realise that I've been the one out of order because people are people and they're wonderful and horrible and marvellous and stupid and geniuses every single one of them.

I love people, but often don't feel like I am one, I feel like your world is not for the likes of me and that I'm better staying out of it and watching from the periphery.  But I keep on trying to join in.

So if I've caused any offence through my apparent bullishness then do let me know, because the odds are I don't realise that I've done it, and I do care about hurting other's feelings.


Jennie Kermode said...

Personally, I avoid comics who go in for shock humour and humour based on snide stereotyping because I just don't find them very funny. Ultimately, the jokes are all structured the same way and it gets very boring. It's a lazy way to do comedy.

As far causing offence inadvertently, we all do it sometimes, often due to youth, inexperience or a more general failure to imagine ourselves into others' positions. On the receiving end it can be very painful but part of being a friend is being prepared to make allowances for that sort of thing (within reason) and try to understand where it's coming from.

The difficulty with mass market comedy is that offence, whether deliberate or inadvertent, can have a knock-on effect. We all know that jokes get passed around and when they're jokes which are easy to use maliciously against vulnerable people, that can be very damaging. Of course those who want to hurt others will find ways to do it anyway, but comedy does contribute to the public discourse and the ways that we perceive and think it acceptable to treat people.

I'm with you on the thing about being seen as not caring. In the work I do I have to maintain an emotional distance so I can deal with other people's strong feelings, to the point where they often seem to forget I have feelings of my own. Then I'm told that I'm shutting people out or that I'm outright dissembling. One can't win.

Bethany Black said...

I completely disagree about it being a lazy way to do comedy, if you're trying to make an audience laugh it's a lot more difficult to do that with material that's shocking than it is with material that's nice and cute and cuddly, it requires a different skill set and a level of ability and an understanding of status that takes years to learn to do properly.

It's like the argument that swearing is a short cut to being funny, it isn't, you can't make something funny by putting the word "Fuck" in the middle of it, often things are funnier without swearing, and again it takes a certain amount of skill to be able to pepper a stand-up set with swearing that's relevant and funny.

First thing that used to happen when I'd start to die on stage is that I'd nervously start swearing and that would put an audience off, and then I'd get worse and swear more and so it would go.

I can totally understand how shock comedy might not be your thing, but it's not a lazy way to do comedy.

Osymandus said...

I don;t believe word's fail you at all . The issue is with other poeple , who you cannot life for nor save or police . It is your resbonsibilty to police and judge yourself and your own actions , and much like liberal guilt, other peoples reaction are beyond you to control.

You are brilliant comic , a joy to watch and you are one of the lucky ones who transcend the material (and I'm sure I've compared you to Lee mack before in delivery). I love reading the blog's and the cathartic release is great but please use it for material and don;t let it drag you down . Many fans are there for you and im sure many more will be . You make us laugh will "support" you when we can (ps still a pint of orange juice in Southend if your ever there ).