Humour that hurts and harms

The following opinion piece was originally published on on 2 June 2017.

If you missed the International Day Against Homophobia the other day, I doubt you were alone.

On the other hand, it would have been difficult to avoid the recent hoo-ha over Alfred Ngaro’s speech to the National Party’s Auckland regional conference. The alleged strong-arming of non-governmental social service agencies filled a fair chunk of column inches and airwaves. That was hard to miss.

Unremarked in the mainstream media, however, was the way in which Ngaro spoke of the Salvation Army’s Alan Johnson. First he told conference delegates, “The Prime Minister said ‘I need you to get close to him. I need you to love him’.” Ngaro replied, so he said, “How close?” and added “Because I’m not going to get that close, Bill. I’m not like that.”

The delegates laughed.

They laughed again when he went on to report that later he and Johnson “got close, but not too close, and there were other people there.”

So why did they laugh? It doesn’t take much to work out that Ngaro was injecting a little touch of homophobia into his speech. Make a joke at the expense of gay men, get a laugh, what harm can it do? The idea of two men getting emotionally and, perish the thought, physically close? Haha. Yuk.

This is not, of course, the first time there has been such a display in New Zealand politics in recent years. Who can forget John Key’s mincing walk on the runway at the Rugby World Cup back in 2011. So funny. Everyone knows male models are gay. Everyone knows that’s how gay men walk. Haha.

The sad thing is, neither case is funny. They’re not funny because they’re homophobic. And homophobia is not funny. If you make people the butt of humour because they’re different from you, you’re ‘othering’. You’re saying that those people are not like us, they’re not one of us.

Of course, people – the ones who aren’t being laughed at – will say what does it matter, harden up. But it does matter. It matters first for the effect it has on the people whose perceived difference makes them the target of such ‘othering’. If you’re gay and you see society doesn’t accept you, that society mocks you, well, let’s be under-stated here, it’s difficult to accept yourself. Could this be why LGBT teens and young adults have disproportionately high levels of suicide?

It also matters for the effect it has on the audience, on the people who think such displays are funny. It legitimises their own intolerance. And through this othering, this decision to exploit minorities for humorous effect – and your own advantage – you create an environment that accepts further expressions of intolerance. There is, after all, a clear link between the bullying of LGBT teens and suicide.

It doesn’t end there. Examples are easy to find. Like South Korea, which has seen a recent outcry after a ‘witch hunt’ against gay servicemen in the military.

And at times intolerance develops into brutal expression. In Chechnya gay men are reported to be rounded up, and some murdered. In Indonesia, two gay men were attacked in their home and later sentenced to 85 lashes in public. You might have caught that news story.

And all of these inevitably arise from intolerance, from ‘othering’, and no doubt politicians contributed to this climate.

But if you think ‘othering’ is simply a case of anti-homosexual sentiment, you’re wrong. Othering is something many groups have experienced.

A recent example would be the vigilante policing of New Zealand roads after news reports of foreign drivers – code for Asian, perhaps – causing accidents. No doubt the citizens dobbing in foreign drivers –who just happened to be, to look Asian – felt they were doing their bit for safer roads. But did the media in their creation of the story, did the good citizens in their response to the media’s stories, ever wonder why the foreign driver – that unwelcome ‘other’ – was being portrayed as Asian? Many parts of Asia drive on the same side of the road as us. All those Americans, Canadians, Europeans don’t.


Do the politicians who jump on that bandwagon ever wonder about the effect of their words?

So what’s the answer? Perhaps we just need to start thinking a little more critically. Perhaps we just need to develop an awareness of how we – and politicians – construct the ‘other’. And how we respond. Maybe, when we recognise our prejudices being played to, we should take that as a cue to develop a bit of tolerance and understanding.

Which would be a good start towards a better world, a world where, say, an International Day Against Homophobia was no longer necessary.


John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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