Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Censoring comedy: why Australia needs the Chaser's War on Everything

They’ve done it all. They breached security at the APEC summit in a fake motorcade. They flew a blimp over the Vatican, advertising “young boys”. They sold fake weapons to football fans before a game. They approached the prime minister with a running chainsaw. They did an infamous eulogy ridiculing the public mourning of deceased celebrities like Steve Irwin and Princess Diana.

But last week, Australia’s most popular comedy show – I’m talking, of course, about The Chaser’s War on Everything – last week, they finally went too far. The Chaser boys did a black comedy spoof of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, suggesting that terminally ill children should be invited to “Make a Realistic Wish” (instead of that trip to Disneyland, we’ll give you a pencil case). After all, the skit concluded: “Why go to any trouble, when they’re only gonna die anyway?”

Well, next morning the whole country seemed abuzz with outcries of complaint and condemnation. Everyone was talking about it. The Chasers were roundly condemned on the news media (if there’s one thing that really gets the media excited, it’s a good lynching!). Even the prime minister televised a public statement, condemning the skit as “absolutely beyond the pale”.

The Chaser boys themselves were forced – kicking and screaming, no doubt – to make a heartfelt public apology. And, as a “precautionary” measure, the show was censored: it has been pulled off the air for two weeks.

Now everyone agrees that the skit was tasteless. But it seems to me that the really interesting question here is not about the skit itself, but about the way our society reacts to a skit like this. Our public discourse in Australia gives so little thought to questions of virtue, the common good, the moral formation of society. So why all this public moral posturing all of a sudden? Why do we respond with such vehement moral outrage to a mere television show? Why do we cry for blood, demanding immediate censorship, intervention, retribution? In short, what does all this moral outrage tell us about ourselves?

My own hunch is that a society like ours – a society lacking any public discourse of virtue and the common good – actually needs moral outrage. It’s our compass: it’s all we have left to assure ourselves that our public life is not devoid of all moral shape. When the prime minister solemnly protests that a TV comedy skit is “beyond the pale”, he is appealing to our lingering intuition that there is some public “good”, that there must be more to life than the blank cheque of liberal “freedom”, that our society must be something more than a morally vacuous crowd of consumers governed by the neutral apparatus of democratic capitalism.

In short, when virtue disappears from public life, we fill the gap with moral outrage. And that’s why Australia needs the Chaser’s War on Everything. What else will we do on Wednesday nights, now that the show has been censored? Where else will we go to find our weekly dose of moral outrage? Who else can we blame and excoriate, in order to assert our own moral uprightness, in order to assure ourselves that all is well?

Late capitalist societies thrive on moral outrage: our public life demands it. But that is nothing to be proud of. All our pompous spluttering should remind us that we have lost something vital; that at the centre of our public life is a dark vacuum; that all our moral posturing is finally nothing else than a thin band-aid applied to a deep and festering wound.

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