A friend of mine sent me a joke by email. Let’s call him ‘Fred’ (not his real name).The email came with a photo of a pretty young Muslim girl wearing a pink head covering. She had a coloured parrot sitting on her shoulder. It was a wonderful picture.
Here is how the joke went:
“I was in a pet shop when I noticed a Muslim with the most amazingly coloured parrot perched on her shoulder.“Where did you get that from?” I asked.
“Christmas Island, Australia,!!!…There are thousands of ’em!” ……..said the Parrot.”
In response I emailed ‘Fred’ saying that I found the joke offensive and not funny. He replied and apologised as he didn’t intend to offend me.
While it is strong and courageous to apologise, he misses the point.
I didn’t seek an apology. Rather I would have preferred a realisation that the ‘joke’ was wrong as in our society many don’t see the harm ‘jokes’ like this can lead to.
In reply I asked ‘Fred’ to think back a few weeks to when the two French girls were yelled at on the bus in Melbourne. (see here
I reminded ‘Fred’ that some bloody idiot thought it was somehow OK to abuse the French girls for the great crime of not speaking English. The Youtube commentators and international media asked not only why this yobbo yelled at the girls, they also rightly asked why no one on the bus came to their aid.
That is a good question. The abuse was bad, but a bus load of silent onlookers is perhaps even worse.
When failure to intervene becomes the norm, then abuse can get worse until you see things like commuters on an Indian bus remaining silent as a girl is raped. Silence is deadly over the long term.
I was a soldier once. In officer training we were taught moral courage and leadership. We were taught to look into our own hearts to know when things are right or wrong, when things are funny and when they are reinforcing stereotypes, or increasing hatred. We were taught to stand up when we see wrong being done.
I met ‘Fred’ during that Army training all those years ago. It is why we are still friends, and why I chose to take issue with him rather than just add his address to my spam filter. I said all of this to ‘Fred’ in a return email.
‘Fred’ is a grandfather now, so my email returned to the issue of the picture. The picture was pretty. Lovely girl. Probably a happy child.
But how would SHE feel knowing what her photo was used for, I asked Fred. How would ‘Fred’ feel if a photo of his granddaughter was circulated as the but of a joke?
I asked Fred how far we should let silence or consent continue? Is it ok to pass on a joke? Is it ok to stand by and watch someone bully a kid in the street if they were a Muslim? How would you feel if a big ‘Aussie’ bloke in the street yelled at a child and told her to take the headscarf off because it was ‘un Australian’?
You think it wouldn’t happen? Well ask the French girls how many people intervened to help them.
I still have faith that in his heart ‘Fred’ knows that a better thing to have done was to not send the ‘joke’. I’m sure he just needed a reminder of the lesson from army training that we all need to start with our own actions – or inactions.
I chose to remind him of the lesson of army training those years ago because Fred had been a trainer back then, not a student. He was one of the people that taught me the very lesson he seemed to have forgotten.
I was curious to see where ‘Fred’s’ email chain started so I scrolled down to see who initiated the ‘joke’? Surprisingly, even though the joke mentions Australia, the email began in the UK, a country with a greater proportion of Muslims than ours.
The issue of staying silent is not an issue between friends or even an issue that is just in Australia. It is global and we are all connected. It’s time we all stood up to vilification and to the tone of where our global society is heading – getting more polarised each day.
This becomes the point. We all know the old saying that all it takes for evil to triumph is when good men stay silent. But how many people stay silent now?
How many people reading this are thinking ‘it was only a joke, don’t get carried away’, or ‘what are you, the thought police’? How many people reading this article today have received ‘jokes’ like that and stayed silent, or worse still, hit the ‘forward’ button?
We must all ask ourselves where to draw our own line in the sand. Where does our moral courage start and finish? In the end this email exchange was not about Fred or my offence. It is about all of us. It is about where we choose to stand up, and when do we choose to stay silent. Think about your response next time you receive an innocent ‘joke’ in your email box.