The Problem With Banter: Why Freedom Of Speech Doesn't Mean Freedom Of Responsibility

Harmless joke making? Or justification for hateful speech? It’s time we had a serious talk about the phrase “It’s just banter.”
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Harmless joke making? Or justification for hateful speech? It’s time we had a serious talk about the phrase “It’s just banter.”

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In October 2011 during a West London derby game, Chelsea captain John Terry would call Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt”. Terry’s defence of calling the incident a misunderstanding and a bit of match day “banter” didn’t cut it with the FA and his comment started a chain of events that would see him banned for four matches, fined £220,000, retire from international football and raise a serious debate on racist abuse in football.

In December 2013, a 20+ stone man with a shaved head drunkenly cornered me in a bar before calling me a “fucking black cunt”. It started a chain of events that ended in me buying him a pint of ale before we both ended up under the table from too many sambucca shots.  For he’s a teammate on my rugby team and told me in a drunken embrace “I don’t like many people Carl, but you, you fucking big black cunt, I fucking love you.”

Two incidents. The same phrase. What made one comment banter and the other taken as a hurtful racial comment? Is banter a codeword for outdated, sexist, bullying or misogynist language and attitudes? Or simply, the language of the working-class? How has the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks turned into one of the most difficult and obtuse words in the English language, a catch-all for all sorts of behaviour, from match day pub talk to threatening to kill someone via Twitter?

Previously on this website I’ve written about why I view blacking up as wholly unacceptable and I received a lot of comments in response, with the majority of the counters calling the donning black face paint as “just banter.”

For banter to work, it has to be funny on both sides. The problem with the “It’s just banter” defence is that it implies passivity. “It’s just banter” doesn’t work as a defence because by its very nature, banter requires both people to be in on the joke. “It’s just banter” implies foreknowledge that not everyone knows you’re  *trying* to be funny. It’s the April Fools of joke making gone bad – cause someone distress before saying “I was just joking”. Everyone has a laugh and you’re absolved from responsibility.

Except April Fools jokes are mostly the preserve of children for a reason. Sooner or later, “I was just joking” stops absolving you;  sooner or later you need to start explaining and apologising putting salt your in someone’s cup of tea, lest you find yourself ostracised. Without wanting to be too churlish, if you’re of the disposition to make some form of “get back in the kitchen” comment to a woman in this day and age, expect to be called up on it, be prepared to explain yourself and have the decency to stand up and be eviscerated for it.

Freedom of speech doesn’t work as a defence either; freedom of speech does not mean freedom of responsibility.

The problem with “banter” being such a widespread term now is that so much of what is now called banter barely qualifies as decent conversation. Twitter contrarian of the moment Katie Hopkins is the Michael McIntyre of controversial “banter”, – spoon feeding an audience warm diarrhoea, taking swipes at fruit so low hanging they’re practically potatoes. A lot of her work and accounts such as “True Lad” can fall under this “it's just banter” umbrella. Except banter implies a degree of self awareness and intelligence that so many of these self styled “tell-it-like-it-is,” characters sorely lack.

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One can’t discuss the problem with “banter” without making mention of its past. Banter, by and large, is considered the language of the working class, so why has it changed so much in recent times? Owen Jones’ book “Chavs: The Demonsiation Of The Working Class”, makes mention of Thatcher and New Labour policies taking traditional working class ideals such as strong community and the whole family units, and using them for Middle England. Jones notes that the  “tattered remnants of the working-class were left on the wrong side of history”,  forced to “be made to join 'Middle England' like the rest of us” or suffer demonsiation. I think a similar point can be made around banter – what used to be the language of male dominated environments and a means for people to show their love and affection for each other has become a word someone who’s never seen a day of hard labour uses to justify spreading hateful rhetoric to people they barely know on the internet.

This isn’t to fetishise the working class and demonise the bourgeoisie, or to blame the internet for the destruction of the art of conversation; the issue of  “banter” is one that somewhat runs concurrently with than both arguments.  I’m sure the Bullingdon Club members are skilled in the art of ribaldry, just as we’ve always had “trolls” in society, but simply called them “wind-up merchants” a generation ago. As a further disclaimer, everything I write here should be taken with the great rule of language; for every rule there is an exception and context is everything.

Throughout my life I’ve been in the types of male dominated environment where banter thrives. I was born in the primarily working class area of Leytonstone in East London, went to private boys school for my education, spent several years in the male dominated Army Cadet force and I’ve played for a number of rugby teams. Be it pub, locker room, army, banker, name, dole or the many other forms of banter I have been privy to, one consistent thing that unites “good banter”, for a playful comment taken well by both parties, is sincerity.

A friend of mine once visited his sibling who’d lost a limb serving in the army in hospital. His gift? A bag of grapes and a copy of Runner’s World magazine. It was his way of saying to his brother that he shouldn’t feel too sorry for himself and how he’d rather have a brother missing a leg than no brother at all. It was somewhat offensive, known to be a sign of affection on both sides – both parties were in on the joke, and if it failed, the person who did it certainly wasn’t above explaining themself if it went wrong.

This is a difficult subject that many of us wrestle with everyday and yet so few of us talk about what we are doing. On one hand, a problem with banter is that it often makes light and trivialises serious issues and misdemeanours and this can lead to what we see today, with sexist, racist and homophobic comments brushed aside with little more than a “Grow up mate, it’s only banter.” On the other, I don’t want to find myself on the wrong side of a tricky freedom of speech and “correct” usage of the English debate; if my friend wants to express his fondness for me while making note of my race and a woman’s genitalia, then who am I to tell him he is wrong? As with many things in language, for every rule there is an exception, and context is everything.

It’s said that the very best satire comes from a place of love. For someone to properly skewer a subject they much have a level of familiarity and affection for its ins and out.  I think the same lies at the heart of any “good banter.”

Banter is a complicated thing often misused and misdiagnosed, but I think there’s a place for it in today’s society. The day you can’t call someone a cretinous mollusc for behaving like a cretin is a sad day indeed.  Like many things in life, banter just has to be used properly and responsibly and we should talk more about why it sometimes goes wrong.

Enjoy, share, comment and criticise. And if you want to be meaner than the comments below will allow, and call it banter, here is Carl’s Twitter….