Daily Rumination No. 24: The Value of British Humour

Normally, before I start to talk or write about a show or film that I have seen, I try to finish it in order to reflect on its overall themes, plot and quality. That’s hardly unusual—you don’t leave a film halfway through it and then write a review.

Watching Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix show After Life, however, I have some thoughts to share after only the first episode. The story follows a miserable, middle-aged Englishman who is struggling after the recent loss of his wife to cancer. He treats others brutally and acts in a completely nihilistic fashion.

As much as I enjoy American comedy, there is something about the British that cannot be matched and After Life is a perfect example. Within only 28 minutes of television, Gervais and the supporting cast make legitimately funny, sophisticated jokes about death, paedophilia, suicide, mental illness, drug use and obesity. Thrown into the mix is a healthy amount of blunt profanity. Are any of the situations in the show even slightly offensive? Not at all.

British comedians like Ricky Gervais manage something that American comedians, as funny as they are, just can’t. They take crushingly awkward, embarrassing and even emotional moments and deliver them to you in a way that makes you cringe and chuckle simultaneously. Gervais is a master because he can make you sad and entertained at the very thought of cancer.

Such comedians and writers don’t seek to denigrate people or belittle their troubles, they seek to unravel situations that are seen unreasonably as sacred, taboo or just downright untouchable. In the process of avoiding topics such as death and mental illness, we don’t end up talking about them at all. In such a vacuum, harmful ideas and misconceptions take hold. As I watched the show, I thought about people I’ve known who are now dead, and I felt both sad and heartened. There’s an authenticity to British presentation and it enables us to grapple with our own personal negative experiences.

Unfortunately, too many people hear profanities from comedians like Gervais and switch off. They miss the subtlety, becoming offended without ever understanding the brilliance of the delivery and the potential relevance to their own lives. The world could do with more British humour, whether in the current era of Gervais or earlier style of Monty Python (which certainly couldn’t be written or broadcast today).

Satire and observational humour hold a mirror up to society, enabling us to mock and therefore understand ourselves better.

Daily Rumination No. 23: The Productivity-in-Transit Lifestyle

In today’s world of hyperconnected, digital capitalism, we hear constantly that careers should be rewarding, fulfilling endeavours that create meaning for our lives. This is in no way representative of most people’s experiences, particularly for those who commute long distances. Work doesn’t give meaning to your life… it just becomes your life.

I saw great evidence of collective worker misery this week whilst commuting to Sydney for two different events. For a little over three years, I also commuted to Sydney from my home town of Wollongong, optimising the trip over time to the point that I couldn’t make it any shorter. My two recent trips were a dark reminder of that earlier period.

People of all ages and backgrounds pile into overcrowded trains, jostling for seats and tiny gaps in which to stand in the stairways and vestibules. It’s always either too hot or too cold in the carriages and passengers turn to their iPhones for any kind of basic amusement, usually in the form of exploitative, free-to-play games with in-app purchases.

The people whom I pity the most are those who do their work on the commute before they even arrive at work, frantically sending emails in the hope of achieving inbox-zero before the end of the week.

Many would say that working on the train is an efficient use of time that would otherwise be spent staring out the window. I don’t believe this at all. It’s an illness. Not only do people waste months of their lives sitting in the same odorous carriages on the way to work, they then further sacrifice their time by doing extra work for an organisation that neither knows nor cares about it.

Digital devices and services that are meant to make our lives easier have become tools of oppression, enabling this productivity-in-transit lifestyle. It seems that for many, flexible work can quickly become even more work, just away from a desk.

I’m glad that I escaped this daily death march to work in Sydney and I only hope that more people can do the same. We need to ask ourselves what we’re working for and why we are motivated to do certain things. Long-distance commuting has become an unfortunate norm and I fear that many just accept their circumstances, never stopping to achieve better balance in their lives. A sacrifice will always have to be made. In most cases, that will be one’s health and time with family.

Daily Rumination No. 22: Questioning Common Sense

It is interesting to consider the term ‘common sense’. What does it mean exactly? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as ‘good sense and sound judgement in practical matters’. The issue here is that what is ‘good’ and ‘sound’ will vary from person to person. What is common sense to me may not be common sense to you.

To me, common sense is found in logic, reason and most importantly, evidence. We can reason logically that there probably isn’t a god (or gods) because of the overwhelming scientific evidence about the nature of life on Earth, its evolution and its origins, not to mention the wonders of the observable universe.

I extend this way of thinking and the dangerous concept of common sense to psychics. These people who claim the ability to connect with the dead or see into others’ futures are either brilliant liars or completely deluded.

In recent conversations, I discovered that a number of people whom I know, both professionally and more personally, believe in the power of psychics and fortune-telling. They were also people who were not terribly religious and in some cases even criticise religion. This was somewhat of a shock to me. How could these people believe in something so nonsensical when they reject other commonly held spiritual ideas?

Furthermore, when I questioned them about this politely, they stated that they only believed in elements of it or thought that some psychics and fortune-tellers were better than others. Yet, interestingly, none of them could define why or how they believed in it, how it could work or even how you could judge or measure their effectiveness.

I believe that this stems from the intrinsic human desire for a good story with a happy ending. If you lose a loved one or need ‘closure’ (as is the common term) for something, you want to believe that there is some genuine way to reestablish that connection and bring things to a comfortable conclusion. I don’t wish to denigrate this desire because loss is a very real thing and I also like a good story with a happy ending. What I do wish to critique, however, is the role that psychics play as exploitative storytellers, preying on these emotions. They’re just more like priests who do freelance work without a specific deity.

Although psychics are the ones who are manipulating people’s emotions, it is the cynics and doubters—think atheists—who are heavily disliked if they question such a belief system. Like for religious individuals, when one dares to ask a probing, logical question about a belief in fortune-telling, a believer is often unwilling to consider the other side at all. They take such questions as a personal insult… an interrogation of and an attack on their identity.

With this in mind and with reference to my earlier mention of ‘questioning’ believers whom I know, I have tried to adopt a new approach in how I speak with any kind of believer. First of all, do not assume that someone shares the same common sense as you. If someone presents a spiritual or religious idea that sounds downright ridiculous, don’t nod and agree just for the sake of politeness and don’t just brush it off. Instead, ask questions and attempt to learn why they believe this. By agreeing or leaving something unchallenged, you validate what they have to say. By questioning in a polite manner, you are able to listen respectfully and allow them to share their thoughts. In the subsequent discussion, as I have seen, a spiritual interlocutor will start to question their own ways of thinking, because they have never been challenged before. When they don’t have the answers, they start to ask questions of themselves. It’s hard to consider the alternative when you’ve never looked at it properly.

This is what I think is missing from the world and something that is exacerbated by the prevalence of social media. When people come up against ideas that they don’t like, they turn away from or just yell at others. If you listen and pose questions, you may not agree with what you hear, but a discussion will take place that may unravel what another believes to be common sense. At this point, we can realise the potential for constructive discourse and understanding.

So really, the next time that someone says something ridiculous that you know to be false, don’t lose it or turn away. Instead, engage with them, ask them questions and see if they actually have the answers. With any luck, you may start to share common sense.