I had an email today from a very bright guy I've previously had some dealings with about the Paul Chambers case. Mark Phillips is a linguistics expert who became intrigued by the implications of this case and made numerous comments under articles in The Guardian's online Comment-Is-Free section back in May using the screen name 'justasillyjoke'. It is Mark who deserves the credit for formulating the line of thinking that suggests Paul was frustrated by a situation beyond his control and made an exaggerated remark assuming powers that he does not have in order to compensate for his feelings of lack of control. A very astute observation, I'm sure you'll agree. Mark was trying to post a comment to my previous entry but ran into some problems. With his permission, I am publishing what Mark had wanted to say:
This tweet was a joke. Not only was it a joke, it was very clearly a joke. Is a joke ‘menacing?’ Maybe, taken out of context. The point is, the CPS is trying to convey Paul as being knowingly ‘threatening, menacing’ etc. But, Paul is a joker, and he’s not pretending or even trying to be anything else.
Here is a linguistic breakdown of the joke. It is in ‘cartoon’ style. It builds on an exaggerated bluff, with the basic force of the joke being a stooge, the device being a bluff, and the special force of the joke being an ‘irony’. I’ll explain everything below. Enough to say, the bigger the bluff, the bigger the irony, and the bigger the joke! That is the linguistic recipe.There are four very visible cartoon elements in the joke:First, 'Crap!' This is derived historically from the interjection 'Holy Crap!', meaning unbelievable. As an interjection, it has been used extensively as an ‘entry’ into jokes. Think of ‘Wow!’, or ‘D’ya know what…?’, ‘You’ll never believe this…’, or more recently ‘I don’t believe it…’ (One Foot in the Grave). But it is perhaps best remembered in its cartoon form in Robin’s ‘Holy smoke!’ catchphrase from Batman and Robin. This 'unbelievable' meaning sets up the whole joke. After all, it’s not a joke if you believe it! The interjection is therefore the first ‘marker’ that it is a joke.Second, the jokes main ‘device’ is the weapon bluff, the ‘banana passed off as a gun’. In Paul’s case, it was some imaginary TNT, one might assume. This is hugely important, because it sets up the ‘stooge’ of the joke. The stooge has been somehow duped into believing the banana can pass for a real weapon (maybe they believe they can hypnotise people or some such dupe). Their ‘stupidity’ is therefore the essence of the joke; they cannot see that they appear ridiculous waving around a banana.Third, the bank robber takes his bluff weapon (the banana) and threatens to 'blow everyone's brains out' unless he 'gets the dough'. The exaggerated toughness (‘get your shit together’) gives the joke extra force, because it sets the stooge up further as a ‘fake’, as a weak character.Fourth, 'Sky high' is what we might call ‘the hyperbolic flourish’; it serves two functions, it ends the joke with the required flourish, i.e., a punch line, and it reinforces the ‘cartoonish’ nature of the joke, just in case you missed it (pay attention CPS!).The irony behind the joke is simply that although Paul sets himself up as the stooge, he knows that everyone knows that he knows the ‘banana is not a gun’. He happily sacrifices any appearance of intelligence (tweeting a bomb threat!), in order to set himself up as the stooge for his own joke.Of course, language doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All communication is ‘primed’, in the way that mention of the word ‘dog’ will invoke ‘cat’. It’s therefore correct to mention that ‘the times in which we live’ create some of the context here: travelling by plan[sic] brings up thoughts of terrorism, as does mention of Northern Ireland. No doubt, if Paul had been writing to a Thai girlfriend, he might have plumbed for a good joke about riding a Tsunami wave, if he was brave. You see, good comedy does require bravery, because it skirts the borders of acceptability and social embarrassment. More than that, it reveals our tensions about things, and by so doing, helps to alleviate them somewhat. Hence, all the jokes about marriage, about our boss, about travelling, about sex, and about terrorists etc.In fact, if we didn’t live in a world where we are more afraid of terrorists than ever, there probably wouldn’t have been much material there for Paul to joke about.