Not just a joke: Why we should challenge anti-Welsh ‘humour’
Ifan Morgan Jones
I don’t usually respond to online anti-Welsh or anti-Welsh language jokes. More often than not responding to them just gives them the oxygen of publicity by bringing them to wider public attention.
However, I felt it was important to challenge the above joke made by prominent BBC political correspondent Chris Mason.
Unlike some random troll, he does have something of a platform to influence the opinions of others, and by making anti-Welsh jokes he can normalise that behaviour in others.
I also have a lot of respect for him as a journalist and was keen that he saw the error of his ways.
In reply, Chris Mason couldn’t see what he had done wrong, comparing his joke to the jokes people make about the fact that he’s from the north of England.
First off – I would argue that such jokes about the Welsh language just aren’t funny. If you’re a Welsh speaker you hear the joke hundreds of times a year.
It’s about as fresh and original as a ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ gag.
But more importantly, it’s not ‘just a joke’. It’s a joke that disparages a group in society that is discriminated against, just as a racist or sexist joke would.
Now, I’m not, of course, arguing that Welsh speakers have suffered persecution comparable with, say, black people, or have faced a battle for equal rights comparable to women.
However, Welsh speakers are a minority group who often come under siege, either via ‘jokes’ or direct attacks on their ‘useless’, ‘nonsense’, ‘dead’ or ‘barbaric’ language (for a full list see here).
Moreover, disparaging humour has been proven to have psychological effects, both on those who partake in the jokes and those who hear them.
First off, it makes those in the dominant group more likely to think it’s OK to discriminate against those from the persecuted group. It normalises discriminatory behaviour.
Sexist humour, for instance, makes men more likely to display sexist attitudes.
Secondly, it has an unwelcome psychological effect on those from the persecuted group, who are more likely to feel that their own identity is worthless are a result of being disparaged. It hurts.
This applies just as much to other anti-Welsh jokes, such as those endless ‘sheepshagger’ insults that people seem to think are the height of comedy.
The single joke may seem like a trifling issue – but what those making them must understand is that while they are making the joke for the first time, the persecuted group is hearing them over and over again.
It’s the constant barrage that wears people down.
‘Just a joke’
Of course, when challenged on this those making the joke will, of course, claim that it’s ‘just a bit of fun’ and that no harm was intended.
There was a suggestion, voiced by another BBC journalist here, that the Welsh are oversensitive and ‘can’t take a joke’.
See, this is objectively fairly hilarious.
But naturally it has caused a widespread sense of humour failure West of Shrewsbury. https://t.co/Ky92gYPfbL
— Matthew Thompson (@mattuthompson) July 6, 2018
This is, of course, a very effective argument as the defence doubles up as a second attack – the fact that you’re not willing to just take the insult shows that you’re psychologically weak and therefore are inferior, and deserve to be the butt of jokes.
It is, in fact, a kind of gaslighting, because the person making the ‘joke’ is insulting someone and then pretending that they weren’t being insulted at all, therefore normalising the insult.
Any harm done is the fault of the butt of the joke for interpreting an insult as such, not the person responsible for the insult in the first place.
We’re most familiar with gaslighting as a concept in a relationship between a dominant man and a woman, or a dominant boss and an employee.
But gaslighting also exists between dominant and dominated groups. It’s all about protecting the members of the privileged group at the expense of the oppressed.
So what do we do about it? Well, the best thing to do is to call people out on it and make it clear that it’s unacceptable.
And when the inevitable accusation that we’re being thin-skinned comes along, we just flatly reject that narrative.
Whether the person making the joke likes it or not, by doing so you’re making it clear that such ‘jokes’ (i.e. insults) aren’t acceptable.
The human brain tends to avoid behaviour it has been punished for in the past. A child that touches a hot stove quickly learns not to do so again.
In the same way, a BBC journalist making a Welsh language joke on Twitter who gets a lot of flak for it probably won’t do it again.
We should, of course, be aware that while we can be the groups discriminated against in some situations, we are very often the dominant groups in others.
I’m a Welsh speaker but I’m also a tall white heterosexual man, living in a rich western country. I’m part of a minority but I’m also very privileged in other ways.
I have seen far too many people who get very angry at jokes about the Welsh, or Welsh speakers, who have no qualms making sexist, racist or homophobic jokes themselves.
Being a minority group in one context doesn’t give us carte blanche to make disparaging jokes about others.
In fact, our understanding of being on the receiving end of such jokes in the context of Welshness or Welsh culture should make us aware of the dangers of the psychological impact of engaging in such ‘humour’.