Howard Feldman

Living in a post-humour society

2018-04-26 14:18
SA Flag. (IStock)

SA Flag. (IStock)

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Earlier in the week, when the news of former president Jacob Zuma's nuptials broke, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about the forthcoming wedding.

I wondered out loud how the couple met, if they have a special song and, given the 52-year age gap, if he needed assistance in standing up after he went down on one knee to propose. Because nothing ruins the mood quite like a groom-to-be frozen on the beach in a kneeling position with the sun setting rapidly in the background.

One could catch a death of a cold.

The column was not published because it could be perceived as being "culturally insensitive". And indeed, it might have been. I can hardly blame the editors for keeping as far away from a potential social media storm as possible. When it comes to Twitter outrage, it is no longer true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. 

Simply put, there is no easy way for a 49-year-old white male to make light of the marriage without coming across poorly.

It just so happened that earlier that day, I was told that it would be better to not publish the column. I engaged in an interesting conversation on my morning radio show. The incident I debated was about a guy in Scotland who had been fined because he taught his girlfriend's pug to enact a "Hitler solute" whenever he said the phrase "Heil Hitler!" As a practising Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, I am aware how offended I should have been by his actions. But the more I watched this wrinkled hound raising its front paw the more I laughed. And then I felt guilty for doing so. But then I watched it again and laughed some more.

Another incident occurred on the same morning show when I discussed the mid-flight airline disaster. The event occurred when an engine exploded, broke a window and almost sucked a passenger out. She later died. I took a moment to appreciate that it is possibly the one time that those of us who are overweight are in the best position. No amount of vacuuming will be getting me through an airplane window – no matter what the force. And although most listeners enjoyed the discussion, there were those who most certainly did not.

Apparently, I was both insensitive to the suffering and to the overweight (of which I am one).

The obvious question – given all of this – is where does it leave us? One needs only to tune in to most SA radio channels to know how "humourless" and "safe" we have become. We speak incessantly about "Issues", which we need to do. But we do so at the expense of personality, of irreverence and laughter. And in doing so, we make those conversations more difficult to have.

Because, sometimes, it is easier to get closer to discomfort with humour than without.

The death of humour is not unique to South Africa. One look at the American late-night circuit and it is clear that pretty much the only so-called humorous subject that is open for business is Donald Trump. It is almost as if a memo went out saying that until further notice, Donald Trump is funny.  Make fun of him. And his wife. And his children. And anyone associated to him. But that's it. Don't cross the line into anything really funny. Because we might be offended.

With all this, South Africans are funny. Naturally and really funny. Especially on Twitter where we can see just how clever, irreverent and cheeky we can be. I believe that we are also not quite as sensitive as we make ourselves out we are. We are smart enough to know when someone is being racist or prejudicial and we won't hesitate to say so.

That is something worth protecting.

Take it from this 49 year old, overweight, white Jewish male – I won't be offended.

- Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the afternoon drive show presenter on Chai FM.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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