It is with heavy fingers that I press my keyboard into the service of defending the execrable Mr Jeremy Clarkson and his infantile television programme, “Top Gear”. He, and his fun-filled comrades on this boy racer, climate-change-denying apology for a waste of my licence fee and pollution of the air waves, were having a jolly spot of repartee about a Mexican sports car. Apparently Mexicans and sports cars are an ill-matched pairing owing to the formers’ fecklessness and flatulence. I should have thought that those qualities were exactly the ones required by someone whose indifference to the needs of their fellow inhabitants of the planet is symbolised by their ferocious consumption of fossil fuels; the addition of their flatulent methane would seem merely to be a further step upon a logical continuum. It was Mr Clarkson’s contention that this gung-ho dissing of the entire Mexican citizenry would go unnoticed, as the Mexican ambassador would doubtless be fast asleep anyway. Unfortunately that part of the stereotype has proven groundless, and the said ambassador has indicated his displeasure by complaining to the BBC.
So what are to make of this sorry affair? The BBC has felt it necessary to offer the piqued ambassador a fulsome apology. The managers at our national broadcaster are getting rather practised at this: only a couple of days ago it was Mr Stephen Fry’s “QI” programme that was being apologised for, in that case for finding humour in the unlikely survival of one Japanese gentleman despite his having been present at both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions. There’s something very wearing about this, and it’s becoming a pointless and empty charade. Somebody on television makes a joke. Someone – either the actual butt of the joke or, more often, someone who’s decided to get worked up on that person’s, or people’s, behalf – complains that the joke is tasteless. The broadcaster in question apologises. Someone else on television makes another joke. And so on.
This is an exercise in empty gesture. Neither the affront that everyone seems only too ready to take about everything, nor the arch apologies that follow, seem to me to get us anywhere. Humour cannot be subjected to a textual analysis more suitable for deciphering the latest opaque political spin-doctor’s pronouncement, or the Bible’s approach the The Last Things. Every day I hear or read people taking the living piss out of things that are important to me. Sometimes those comments are hysterically funny, sometimes they are merely offensive or banal. But it never occurs to me to complain that my sensitive ears should be protected from other people’s sense of humour. And the same applies to countries, or national stereotypes. Does the Mexican ambassador really think that the asinine views of some two-bit presenters of a fatuous television programme have any bearing on someone’s view of his country or its people? If you already believe that Mexicans are feckless and flatulent, then hearing Mr Clarkson or Mr Hammond reiterate that view is hardly like to make you believe it more: and if you don’t suffer from such simple-minded toss-pottery then it’s very unlikely that you’d be tuned into “Top Gear” in the first place. And that’s the true lesson for ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora. If he hadn’t made such a pious fuss I, and many others, would never have known about the incident. Own goal.
The same logic applies to all these bits of choreographed offence followed by insincere apology. A great proportion of humour, certainly of British humour, is based on taking the piss. On irony. On prejudice. And frankly, very frequently, on stupidity and ignorance. The problem is not the humour. It’s the stupidity and the ignorance. The cause cannot be corrected by attacking the effect.