TOM UTLEY: Heard the one about the Irishman who can't count?

TOM UTLEY: Heard the one about the Irishman who can’t count and the columnist afraid to share the joke?

Heard the one about the two Irishmen, striking a bet as they trudge home from the farm? Dermot says to his friend: ‘Hey, Paddy, if I can guess how many ducks you’ve got in that sack, will you give me one of them?’

‘I’ll do better than that,’ says Paddy. ‘If your guess is right, I’ll give you both of them!’

Dermot (after much head-scratching): ‘Erm … three?’

Before I go any further, I must apologise to readers for dusting off such a wizened old chestnut, which I first heard at my prep school back in the 1960s. To the nine-year-old me, it seemed hilarious.

But I must admit that after hearing it for the zillionth time over a pre-lockdown pint the other day, I found it had lost much of its power to tickle my ribs, almost six decades on.

Indeed, the fear of causing offence made me think long and hard before opening this column with a Dermot-and-Paddy joke.  In the end, I decided I could probably get away with it, if only because I myself have a good few pints of Irish blood sloshing around in my veins. What’s more, I’m extremely proud that my ancestors on my mother’s side came from the land that gave the world geniuses such as Edmund Burke, Seamus Heaney and Oscar Wilde (pictured)

Oh, and I’m very sorry, too, if I have offended any Irish readers by repeating a joke that depends for much of its comic effect on a grossly unfair national stereotype. I can only assure you that this was very far from my intention. 

I accept, however, that in strange times like these, when people are so quick to take offence where none is meant, you can’t be too careful.

Innocent

Indeed, the fear of causing offence made me think long and hard before opening this column with a Dermot-and-Paddy joke. 

In the end, I decided I could probably get away with it, if only because I myself have a good few pints of Irish blood sloshing around in my veins — a fact reflected in my own middle name, which happens to be Dermot.

What’s more, I’m extremely proud that my ancestors on my mother’s side came from the land that gave the world geniuses such as Edmund Burke, Seamus Heaney and Oscar Wilde — as well as a huge number of wonderful songs, which I’ll be happy to sing to you when I’ve had a few (if the pubs ever reopen). All too happy, some of my fellow regulars might say.

However, I don’t feel in the least bit insulted when people crack jokes about the Irish, based on the harmlessly stupid English comic convention that the Irish are idiots.

Frankly, I don’t really see why anyone else should mind either. But, as I say, these are very strange times, in which a small but hypersensitive minority seem ever ready to scream ‘hate crime!’ over even the most innocent remark or attempt to amuse.

Mind you, I’m not saying it’s altogether a bad thing that journalists, comedians and broadcasters are very much more wary of causing offence than they were when I was starting out in this trade, some 45 years ago.

Nowadays, almost all of us in the media are careful to ask ourselves, before putting into the public domain anything touching on a minority: ‘Will anyone have reasonable cause to feel hurt by this? If so, is the point I’m making sufficiently important to justify that risk — or will I simply be causing gratuitous offence?’

Such self-examination can only be healthy. It’s not so much ‘political correctness gone mad’ as ordinary consideration for the feelings of others.

However, I start to get seriously worried when militant minorities invoke the charge of ‘hate crime’ to try to silence those with whom they disagree on matters of clear public interest.

Take the outcry from some in the trans lobby against women who oppose admitting to women’s prisons and lavatories people who are anatomically male but identify as female. Whichever side we may take in the debate, can we really not agree that those women are entitled to raise their concerns without the risk of being ‘cancelled’ and hounded from their jobs?

It’s more chilling still when the law gets involved, and the police come knocking at the door of people accused of sinning in a public forum against the doctrines of political correctness. Yet now there are moves afoot to extend legal restraints on free speech even further, so as to cover what we say in the hitherto protected privacy of our own homes.

Chilling

Under the law as it stands, the so-called Dwelling Exception to the Public Order Act of 1986 allows us to say any offensive thing we may take into our heads, as long as we say it at home and it can’t be heard outside.

But under the increasingly authoritarian regime in Scotland, legislation is already working its way through the Edinburgh parliament which would scrap the Dwelling Exception, making Scots answerable to the law for any offensive remark they may mutter at the telly from their sofas.

In the words of Roddy Dunlop, Dean of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Advocates, this could mean that ‘everyone’s least favourite uncle becomes the subject of a complaint to the police because of what he said over the Christmas turkey’.

If the legislation is abused, he says, it could even be deemed an offence to crack jokes about ‘stingy Scots’ (or mathematically challenged Irishmen, he might have added).

Before anyone gloats that such a law could never be imposed south of the border, where an Englishman’s home is his castle, I have to say: ‘Oh, yes it could!’

Even now, our own Law Commission is inviting comments on a 500-page report, in which it proposes that England should follow Scotland’s lead in scrapping the Dwelling Exception, where it applies to remarks likely to stir up hatred.

Which brings me at last to the man who seems likely, at the time of writing, to be the next President of the United States. I confess I burst out laughing when I opened this week’s Private Eye and saw the photograph of Joe Biden with a speech bubble emerging from his mouth, saying: ‘Did I win? Which one am I?’ Very cruel, I thought, but very funny.

It also goes further, proposing an extension of hate crime laws to cover not only matters of race, religion, disability and sexual orientation and identity, but offensive remarks about women (does this mean I’ll no longer be allowed to claim the fairer sex, on the whole, are not very good at football or parking?)

Meanwhile, it asks for opinions on whether a wide range of other groups should be protected by hate crime laws. These include sex workers, the old, the young, people who hold various ‘philosophical beliefs’ and even followers of ‘alternative subcultures’, such as Goths.

Terror

Freedom-lovers everywhere should be alarmed, too, by the Commission’s suggestion that newspapers and broadcasters could be denied the current freedom to report offensive remarks made in Parliament or evidence raised in court.

How much longer before we’re all reduced to a state of terror, like the downtrodden citizens of East Germany, who used to turn up the volume on the gramophone, for fear of being overheard saying something controversial and reported to the Stasi?

Yes, I know there are some who will argue, as they always do, that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. And no, perhaps we shouldn’t mock the afflicted, or say nasty things to our family and friends about the dress-sense of Goths or poor old Robert Peston’s stammer — at home, or anywhere else.

But how many of us, I wonder, can honestly declare that we’ve never cracked an offensive joke, or said something offensive in the privacy of our homes that we wouldn’t dream of repeating in the presence of anyone who might be hurt?

As for me, I won’t be snitching on any guest in my house for making off-colour remarks (that’s assuming this panic-stricken Government ever allows us to entertain guests again). I shall also do my best to resist reporting my boys to the police for the hate crimes of ageism and disabled-ism the next time they tell me I’m a deaf, senile fool.

Which brings me at last to the man who seems likely, at the time of writing, to be the next President of the United States. I confess I burst out laughing when I opened this week’s Private Eye and saw the photograph of Joe Biden with a speech bubble emerging from his mouth, saying: ‘Did I win? Which one am I?’ Very cruel, I thought, but very funny.

How much longer before it’s deemed a hate crime to laugh at anything at all?

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