Why are we laughing when babies are dying?
Listeriosis memes and puns expose our fantastic callousness
Just so I’m clear: when 140 mentally ill patients die in the care of Life Esidemeni it’s a national scandal and a moral outrage, but when 180 people die of listeriosis because they’ve eaten processed meats it’s hilarious?
Look, I get it. I like cracking jokes and sharing memes about current affairs as much as the next compulsive attention-seeker. I understand the impulse to fire off another baddum-toosh gag based on a headline and pulled out of a deep well of self-loathing masquerading as hip misanthropy.
But, dear jokers, babies are dying. I’m sorry to be a buzz-kill but that’s actually happening. Longed for, dreamed of, they arrived like a miracle and then they got killed by this vicious little bug, and now their parents’ hearts are broken and nothing can ever by funny again, not really – except for you, for five seconds, until the next meme pops up on your screen.To be fair, I expect this kind of thing from the shock-jocks and the comedians who bill themselves as “edgy”, that holdall word that incorporates everything from visionary iconoclasm to sordid gutter brawls. It’s their job to be unpleasant and you can support them or ignore them as you see fit. (I once took some flak from one “edgy” comic after I suggested that certain jokes were off limits. I met him later and discovered that he is actually a very kind and gentle man who is just an arsehole for money.)
But what has startled me is the rush towards polony jokes by people who usually pump empathy onto social media or who scold others for being callous or selectively deaf to the plight of the oppressed. Had anyone made a joke about the Life Esidemeni victims, they would have been leading the outcry; but here they are with their memes and puns, reminding me that for all our good-natured stoicism and slow-burn humanity, we South Africans can also be fantastically callous when we want to be.
Nobody can prescribe comedy. Some comics have lines they won’t cross. For others, everything is fair game. In the end it all comes down to personal taste and what people are willing to do to stay seen in an attention economy.
My subjective view is that there are limits: just because you can make a joke, doesn’t mean you should. And as far as I’m concerned, laughing at the unbearable pain of young mothers or pensioners left suddenly, shockingly alone isn’t edgy. It’s just shitty.