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Having a Laugh?

“It’s just a joke.”

“But he uses that nickname about himself.”

“Don’t you have a sense of humour?”

These are all excuses used in littering our workplaces with toxic cultural cues, often about those who do make up the majority.

John Amaechi OBE, former basketball player and now psychologist, talks about how tolerating bad behaviour is like letting litter build up around the office. Many of us just tolerate such incremental incidents against colleagues. The most we do is ‘tut’ - just as when a sweet wrapper is dropped on the street; each instance can be seen as ‘too small’ an issue and we let it go. But before we know it, we’re surrounded by it.

This leads to toxic cultures and all of us have to face up to our own culpability in creating them and maintaining them. By that point any change can be an uphill struggle. Most of the worst excesses of #MeToo were created by such instances of cultural littering where colleagues were letting the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world get away again and again with such behaviour. And small piles of rubbish turn into big piles of rubbish and seemingly meaningless behaviours escalate.

I was, confronted with this situation recently when a young women working on a legal team I know told me she had been the victim of sexual harassment by a senior lawyer there. This was the second time he had done this. He was allowed to leave quietly, possibly with a large payout. It’s another example of how organizations and the people that work in them are complicit; presumably this organization was thinking of its reputation and wanted to hush it up. So they decided to sweep this under the carpet or someone else’s carpet if this lawyer gets another job with an unsuspecting company. Some of this harassing behaviour took the form of ‘jokes’.

Another GC I know mentioned being shocked recently at some big law firm Christmas parties he was invited to in December by the sexist jokes and sexual innuendos that he saw. Again it was ‘just a joke.’

It’s easy to explain away such toxic behaviour as ‘having a laugh’, ‘just a joke’, something that’s not serious, And how many women, myself included, have put up with things over the years to avoid being asked “don’t you have a sense of humor?”

The link between humour and toxic stereotypes aimed at minorities and the complicity that many of us still have in toxic cultures, makes me to think of Trevor Griffiths play Comedians from 1975. It’s a play I both studied and taught in the past. Despite being 44 years old Griffith’s message is still as resonant today. Perhaps more so given #MeToo and #TimesUp.

Griffiths wrote it partly in response to Granada’s popular 1970s TV show The Comedians, in which the standup routines of Bernard Manning and his ilk took aim at women, ethnic minorities and gay people. In the play, a retired comedian, Eddie Waters is nurturing six working class men via an evening class and teaching them stand up, but trying to instil in them the notion of truth and morality in humour. The culmination of the course will be the opportunity to audition for Bert Challenor, an agent who can offer the promise of fame and riches in the comedy circuit, but only if they abandon Waters ideals and revert back to the use of easy stereotypes in their jokes.

Griffiths’s genius is in making the audience complicit by having them be the ‘audience’ for the would-be stand-ups routines. The play invites the audience to laugh at these stereotypical jokes but them forces them to face what they’re actually complicit in. The culmination of the play is when Waters reveals that he stopped performing after a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he discovered “there were no jokes left”.

It’s not to say there should be no jokes, but what Griffiths play invites us to do is to interrogate jokes that are ultimately built on hatred. To link to Amaechi’s theory of cultural littering, letting that little sexist/racist/homophobic joke go is just the beginning of a huge rubbish pile…


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