Christie Davies

Lib­er­tar­ian so­ci­ol­o­gist who de­fended ro­bust eth­nic hu­mour against the self-ap­pointed ‘joke po­lice’

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries - Christie Davies, born De­cem­ber 25 1941, died Au­gust 26 2017

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

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