Thursday, 11 November 2010

With the Conviction of Paul Chambers, it is now illegal to be English

There is something deeply and shockingly offensive about the conviction of Paul Chambers for his Twitter joke, almost unbelievably reaffirmed today at the Crown Court in Doncaster. It goes beyond the normal anger anyone would feel at a blatant injustice, at a piece of prosecutorial and judicial overkill that sees the might of the state pitted against a harmless, unthreatening individual for no good reason. It goes beyond even the pointless waste of public money expended on bringing this man to "justice." No, it's worse than that. This conviction feels personal. It feels like an offence against nature. In reality, it is an offence against culture. Our culture. It is an offence against the deepest principle of Englishness. And I don't mean justice, fair-play or common sense. I mean humour.

The action against Paul Chambers has rightly been dubbed the "Twitter Joke Trial". Not just because it was a joke of a trial - though certainly not a funny one - or because it centres on what everyone involved acknowledges to have been a joke. What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever. Against that age-old national instinct to make light of adverse circumstances - the spirit that got us through the Blitz - we now find a new and alien notion that there are some things that are beyond joking, that even an obvious joke must be treated seriously. Because it's no laughing matter. Because you can't be too careful. Because any imagined threat, however patently absurd, must be ritually investigated. And the person making the joke must bear the responsibility for the time-consuming and costly process of investigation, even though the possibility of such an investigation never crossed his mind, just to drive the message home that You Cannot Make Jokes About Terrorism.

Any more than you can make a tasteless joke about wanting to stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, it would seem.

It's not Paul Chambers' fault that the authorities feel they must investigate even farcical, obviously humorous pseudo-threats. But given that they do feel this way, they must pretend that it is his fault when they follow their demented logic. For to decide otherwise - to exercise a bit of common sense and not waste time investigating his light-hearted "threat" (made for the benefit of a handful of friends who followed him on Twitter) to blow an airport "sky-high" - would be to question the very principles on which the Terror paradigm rests: Everything Must Be Investigated and You Can't Be Too Careful.

The upshot of this is that it becomes illegal to make a joke. In other words, it becomes illegal to talk in your native idiom.

In other cultures, writes social anthropologist Kate Fox,


there is a time and a place for humour; it is a special, separate kind of talk. In English conversation, there is always an undercurrent of humour. We can barely manage to say "hello" or comment about the weather without somehow contriving to make a bit of a joke out of it, and most English conversations will involve at least some degree of banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, mockery or just silliness. Humour is our "default mode", if you like; we do not have to switch it on deliberately, and we cannot switch it off. For the English, the rules of humour are the cultural equivalent of natural laws - we obey them automatically, rather in the way that we obey the law of gravity.

Watching the English


And that, of course, is precisely what Paul Chambers did when he vented his frustration at being unable to catch a personally significant flight by Tweeting:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!


If you don't instantly recognise that this is a joke, then you're probably not English. You'll be German, or possibly Canadian. I'm not going to analyse its comedic structure, or how it plays subtly on ideas of impotence, self-importance and bombast in the tradition of Tony Hancock, or how the exclaimation mark at the end is a dead giveaway. All that matters is that it's an instantly recognisable joke. (Though you can find a thorough linguistic analysis here.)

Graham Linehan writes today that the trial "is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who get it, and the people who don’t." But he goes on to say that what people are getting or not getting is the Internet, specifically Twitter.

The people who get it are those who are living in a world that the internet has created. A new world which would have been unimaginable as little as 15 years ago... The people who don’t get it are the people in charge. Politicians (for the most part), judges (for the most part), the policemen who came to Paul Chambers’ place of work and arrested him for posting a piece of frustrated, jokey hyperbole on Twitter. These are the people who, more than anyone, need to understand the modern world. And they simply don’t.


He's wrong. This is not about modern technology, but about the new threat to deep-seated English habits of mind. What has changed is officialdom's loss of a sense of proportion, or of their ability to use discretion and common-sense. That represents a more radical change than the coming of Internet. And the police, the CPS and the judges are on the leading edge of it. The old-fashioned traditionalist who doesn't get it is Paul Chambers, doing what comes naturally to almost any English person and finding himself in the kind of situation once described so eloquently by Kafka. Who wasn't English at all.

Twitter may have made Chambers' witticism accessible to a member of staff dredging the search facility for mentions of Robin Hood Airport. Without Twitter, his joke would never have become public. But the medium is just that - a medium. What the police, the prosecutors and the judges didn't get is the joke. Except that, being English themselves, they almost certainly did. That's what makes this whole saga so tragic.

PS There's talk of a possible appeal. You can donate to Paul Chambers' legal defence fund here.