A time comes when you have to say: "Enough!", when you can no longer put up with the misanthropic and amoral trash produced under the rubric of postmodernist, post-structuralist thought. The last straw, the defining moment, came for us when we attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach.
Candidate Michael Noonan's thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. The thesis abstract explained that "Laughing at the Disabled is an exploration of authorship and exploitation in disability comedy, the culmination of which will be the creation and production (for sale) of a six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities.
"The show, entitled (Craig and William): Downunder Mystery Tour, will be aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain." (Editor's note: the subjects' names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory, which in our view entails moral relativism. He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights.
In the tradition of reality television, the locals were not informed that Craig and William were disabled. But the candidate assured us some did "get it", it being the joke that these two men could not possibly understand the content of the interviews they were conducting. This, the candidate seemed to think, was incredibly funny.
Presumably he also thought it was amusing to give them an oversized and comically shaped pencil that made it difficult for them to write down answers to the questions they were meant to ask. The young men were also instructed to ask the locals about whether there were any girls in the town as they were looking for romance. This produced a scene wherein a drunk Aboriginal woman amorously mauled William.
Capping off this reality show format, the candidate asked Craig and William on camera what they would do if a girl fancied both of them. When William, a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome, twitched and was unable to answer, the university audience broke into laughter. Then Craig replied: "We would share her." This, it seems, was also funny for the university audience. They had clearly "got it".
It's worth noting that William's condition may make it difficult for him to understand the subtexts of social interaction. AS sufferers struggle to read facial expressions and body language and are often unable to predict what to expect of others or what others may expect of them. This leads to social awkwardness and inappropriate behaviour.
Much was made at the seminar of the potential for all humour to offend and of the ancient nature of the tradition of mocking the disabled. But the purpose of humour is not just cruelty. The butt of a joke usually has some undeserved claim to dignity and the funny incident takes him or her down a peg.
Humour undermines the rich and powerful, and it can be politically subversive. But we don't think it's funny to mock and ridicule two intellectually disabled boys. We think we, and the university, have a duty of care to those who are less fortunate than us.
At the seminar we were told there was a thin line between laughing at and laughing with. There is no such thin line. There is an absolute difference that anyone who has been laughed at knows.
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About the Authors
John Hookham has worked in the film and television industry in England, South Africa, New Zealand and the USA. His films have won a number of awards and have been screened internationally at festivals including Locarno, Montreal, Goteborg, Amsterdam, Durban and Cannes.
Dr Gary MacLennan was born in Northern Ireland and has worked internationally as a teacher of English, writing, literature and Australian film. Areas of expertise include documentary theory and practice, critical realism, cultural studies, current affairs and the media, film history and theory. Gary is an educational consultant with the Institute for Social Ecology. He has been a long term community activist and very dedicated Marxist and has been involved in struggles around Civil Liberties, Trade Union Rights, Palestininian Human Rights and Community Rights.