Jan 14

Public Speaking: Causing Offence (or not)

There have been some interesting things going on in British newspapers this past week or so. We had Prince Harry’s gaffe reported as he was on videotape calling an army friend a “p*ki”. Immediately on the tail of that we had his father, Prince Charles, in the papers for having called an Asian Businessman “sooty”.
We’ve then just had not one, but two, “offensive” jokes told by Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen (mentioned in the Gervais article) at the Golden Globe Awards.

What I always find fascinating is how there are certain words which still have a powerful enough effect to cause offence. Often, in this day and age I think, we forget how powerful some words can be. For starters, Prince Harry, not one to shy away from a bit of controversy being caught on video using derogatory language.

Yes, he shouldn’t have said it, no it isn’t right, but the thing that a lot of people forget is that none of us were there. That means we don’t really know the circumstance under which it was said. I am in no way condoning what he said, or justifying it, because it was inappropriate.

But I also know that many groups of friends who use abusive language in affectionate ways  (in my experience, I think it’s a curiously British past-time). But as we all know there are times when it can go too far. I know myself, I have a small group of very close, very dear friends whom I can talk absolutely frankly to and in such a way that outsiders who might hear us think that we don’t like each other. When that’s not the case. But like I said, it can go too far. I lost a very good friendship a few years ago, partly because of a similar situation.

The thing is, it’s easy to go too far. And I believe that P.H. just went too far. On top of everything else he’s a member of the Royal family and should know better, but he also did it on videotape. Of course it’s going to get out to the press and cause widespread offense.

As for Prince “Charlie”, I don’t know. From what I’ve read (again, we only know what we read or get told) it’s a term of affection that he has used for years. This is clearly not a case of accidentally going too far. As an outside observer it just seems a little foolish and that, somehow, the Royal Family are beyond reproach. Maybe they were a few hundred years ago, or even in the early 1900s, but not now.

Alf Garnett and Archie Bunker thinking….?

You can’t go around using expressions and terms like this that were last “fashionable” in the 1970s.

Then we have Ricky Gervais…

Personally, I’m a fan. I like Gervais and I think he’s a very funny man. And along with Stephen Merchant they have created some great work. He made a joke at Kate Winslet’s expense at the Golden Globes recently. He was referring back to her appearance in an episode of his sitcom “Extras”. If you hire someone like Gervais, you know that he’s not going to be innocuous. That’s part of his sense of humour and charm.

Anyone who has seen his sitcoms or his live shows should know that he often talks about taboo subjects in an ironic way, so that he comes across as a bit ignorant. The man’s not stupid. He wouldn’t be where he is today if he was.

But should he have made a joke about the Holocaust? You could argue that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but I might have to disagree on this one. Even though it was more than 60 years ago (at time of writing) it was such a horrific event and point in history that I’m not sure that it can be joked about. Even a movie like Life is Beautiful didn’t mock the Holocaust itself, but rather found humour in other situations so that Roberto Benigni’s character could keep his son protected.

Then we have Sacha Baron Cohen’s jokes about Charlie Sheen, Posh Spice and Madonna. To be honest I don’t think the jokes that he made were offensive at all. His comedic targets are quite common ones and I don’t think that it’s nearly as offensive making jokes about celebrities as it is about a major tragedy. But again, with Baron Cohen you know what you’re going to get.

So on the one hand, we have two people using words to cause offense (whether deliberate or not) and on the other we have two comedians using words which are deliberately designed to cause offense. But can we put all four men in the same bracket?

I don’t believe we can, no. Comedians for decades have been at the cutting edge of humour. Some more so than others. Comedians have the licence to say things that a lot of people think (or not in some cases). Even going all the way back to court jesters they have a certain licence and a freedom of speech. That said, I think you really need to be careful in certain situations.

I did a charity gig a couple of years back and the organiser was pleased when I said that I worked clean because she had taken a group to a comedy club recently and was upset when they went “off message”. In a situation like that I think it’s difficult to expect a comedian not to go off message when you’re on their turf. A comedy club is a comedian’s home-ground, where they have that freedom.

However, in a corporate environment, you’re on the client’s ground. And what they say goes, especially if you want to get paid. If that means no swearing or offensive material then that’s what you deliver.

I guess we are super sensitive with comedians at the moment because of the recent Russel Brand-Jonathan Ross “scandal”.

Whereas, with the Royal Family, who are constantly on display should absolutely be more careful of what they say. Often words get thrown around, which makes people seem “casually racist”. I don’t believe that they are racists, but they do bandy around terms in a casual manner without really thinking through what they’re saying and the wider impact that that might have.


2 pings

  1. kare anderson

    Your backgrounder re “a term of affection” is most helpful for us over on this other shore. Bet it was a “learning moment” for him…
    I hope you continue to blog as I enjoy it!!

  2. Jason Peck

    Hey Kare

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, “terms of affection” seem to be a curiously British trait. However, I think there are even limits to that. I’m sure it was a learning moment, but it seems he’s no stranger to them. I guess it’s tough being third ion line to the throne.

    Thanks for the compliments too.



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