Libertarian sociologist who defended robust ethnic humour against the self-appointed ‘joke police’
CHRISTIE DAVIES, who has died aged 75, was that very rare academic beast, a libertarian sociologist; a regular contributor of columns to The Daily Telegraph in the 1970s and 1980s, he was best known for his studies of the sociology of humour and for fighting a rearguard action against what he called the “Canadianisation of Britain”.
Perhaps his most important work was a trilogy on ethnic jokes – Ethnic Humour around the World: a Comparative Analysis (1990), Jokes and Their Relation to Society (1998) and The Mirth of Nations (2002), in which he challenged the theory that ethnic jokes are “an expression of conflict, hostility and aggression”.
Serious ethnic slurs, he argued, are quite uncorrelated with ethnic jokes. In Europe there are many ethnic slurs against the Poles, but very few Polish jokes. In the US there are plenty of jokes about Poles, but very few ethnic slurs. A murderous anti-semite takes his anti-semitism far too seriously to find Jewish jokes funny.
Moreover, the propensity of the Scots and the Jews to tell jokes against themselves was “fatal” to the “humour is hatred” theory. Nor did selfmocking jokes of the Jewish kind necessarily emerge from a history of persecution: “There is no anticaledonianism corresponding to anti-semitism.” Instead, he considered such jokes to be a response to the factors the two peoples have in common – high levels of education and a passion for intellectual argument – as shown in the Talmud and the works of Scottish theologians.
Christie was taking issue with the modern academic tendency to seek subliminal meanings or attitudes, usually undesirable ones, behind texts. This had led, he argued, to the “joke police”, self-appointed guardians of acceptable thinking, constraining people’s right to make jokes in public.
Thus cracks such as “How do you conduct a census in Scotland? Drop £5 in the street and count the crowd” or “A message for our Malaysian viewers. A dog is not just for Christmas. With a bit of care, there’ll be enough leftovers to last into the New Year”, though well within the robust tradition of British humour, “could not be broadcast today”.
He described this process as the “Canadianisation of Britain”, recalling that he had once stopped at Toronto’s Speakers’ Corner, which claims to be modelled on the London original, only to be confronted with a list of all the things he was not allowed to say. “A vibrant sense of humour,” he insisted, “is a sign of a tolerant, open society … It was one of the reasons Britain, unlike most other European nations in the 1930s, did not have a significant fascist movement. The British found all those uniforms, rallies and goosestepping rather comic.”
John Christopher Hughes Davies was born on Christmas Day 1941 in Cheam, Surrey, to Welsh parents who returned to Swansea where his father became an inspector of schools. His mother was a teacher.
He was educated at the city’s Dynevor School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he took a double First in Economics, was president of the Union and toured with the Footlights Annual Revue. Later on the university granted him a PHD on the basis of his published work.
In 1964, he found himself at the University of Adelaide, Australia, confronting the challenge of teaching Economics to an all-male class of engineers. “I invented a thing called teaching economics through obscenity,” he recalled, rendering economic models as ambiguous looking diagrams and employing “various obscene analogies” so they would lodge in the student memory. It sparked an interest in the sociology of humour.
After two years as a radio producer on the BBC’S Third Programme, followed by three years as a sociology lecturer at the University of Leeds and a stint as a visiting lecturer in India, in 1972 he was appointed a lecturer at Reading University, where he remained until his retirement in 2002, from 1984 as a Professor of Sociology.
He made frequent appearances on radio and television and published numerous articles in the press and in magazines around the world.
Alongside his books on humour (which began in 1973 with The Reactionary Joke Book and ended in 2011 with Jokes and Targets), Davies wrote many articles and books on criminology and the sociology of
morality. In studies such as Permissive Britain: Social Change in the Sixties
and Seventies (1975) and The Strange
Death of Moral Britain (2006), Davies turned his guns on what he called Left-wing “underdoggery” which blames lawlessness and other social ills on bad housing, poverty or unemployment.
He demonstrated that the first half of the 19th century in Great Britain was marked by high levels of public drunkenness, theft, violence and illegitimacy, all of which dropped to remarkably low levels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite high levels of poverty.
What changed was that attendance at Sunday schools rose steadily throughout the latter half of the 19th century. In 1888, 75 per cent of children in England and Wales attended religious schools.
When attendance fell off in the 20th century, crime, dishonesty, illegitimacy and disorder increased: “The fastest rise in the incidence of crime overall in England and Wales occurred in the late 1950s and in the 1960s, a time of rapidly rising incomes, negligible unemployment, and a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor”.
Davies once defined the word “social” as “Adjective that automatically reverses the meaning of any noun to which it is attached. Thus a ‘social market economy’ is not a market economy, a ‘social worker’ is not a worker, ‘social democracy’ is not democracy and ‘social justice’ is not justice – indeed, its pursuit leads to injustice”. Yet he confessed to some regrets about the passing of the Eastern European form of socialism, observing at a conference in 2007 that the jokes were a lot better when the communists ran the show.
Research in former Eastern bloc countries had found that there was an official humour in the workplace, and an unofficial one. “Party leaders would typically have a style of humour which put the blame on people at the bottom of the hierarchy. And the people lower down the hierarchy would have a humour which lampooned the people at the top.” He decried the growing use by British employers of “humour consultants” to jollify the workplace as an undesirable US import: “We have a very different culture here – in the US they are more likely to believe in corporate bulls---.”
In 1983 Davies published an outlandish plan to move Hong Kong’s 5.5 million people to Northern Ireland after the handover to China. The piece was well received in Hong Kong, where it was recognised as humorous, but was taken seriously by some elements of the Irish press, and in 2015 memoranda that British civil servants wrote in response were released by the National Archives. These included one by a junior official in the Northern Ireland Office who wrote to the Foreign Office that such a “replantation” would help reassure unionists, prompting Davies to observe that “the Irish do not understand satire and have no sense of humour so I guess some of them took it seriously.”
It seems the joke was on him, as one of the civil servants involved, interviewed by the BBC, explained that the papers had been “a spoof between colleagues seeking some light relief at a difficult time in Northern Ireland”.
Davies was a past president of the International Society for Humour Studies. His other books include Dewi the Dragon (2005), a collection of humorous fantasy stories. At the time of his death from cancer he was putting the finishing touches to a book on illegitimacy.
He is survived by his wife Jan.
Davies: he took issue with the ‘humour is hatred’ theory