Dear Professor Attwood,
I am writing this open letter following your talks at the National Autistic Society’s Autism and Mental Health conference in Reading on the 23rd May. I have read of considerable discomfort and distress from autistic members of your audience because of humour aimed at them (who said they felt “abused” and “exploited”) and subsequently engaged in social media conversations around the issue.
It’s of interest for me because I’m a researcher in humour (currently writing up my PhD at the University of Leeds) and also a professional stand-up poet, having just recorded my second comedy series for BBC Radio 4.
I’m also currently seeking an official diagnosis of autism and have done work for the National Autistic Society as an ambassador.
I’m aware that you’ve fielded complaints about your use of humour which makes autistic people the butt of your jokes before (For example, here: https://asdculture.wikispaces.com/Tony+Attwood+is+a+Bully%3F) but I wanted to share with you some psychology studies you may or may not be aware of. I’d particularly like to draw attention to social psychologist Thomas Ford’s recent work on disparagement humour. I attach an article which also has further links to his excellent papers but, in extreme summary, he concludes that when marginalised people are joked about, it gives other people a sense that it’s okay to disparage them too. (Link here: http://theconversation.com/psychology-behind-the-unfunny-consequences-of-jokes-that-denigrate-63855)
As a professional comedian, who places great value on the use of humour to confront difficult issues, and sees it as something that shouldn’t just be light and fluffy but can be used to break taboos, hold people’s attention and shake up dull academic presentations, I am the very last person to ask someone to stop using it, and very much admire people who are good at it- as it sounds like you are.
But I believe studies like Ford’s are a great illustration of how having the skills to deploy humour comes with power and responsibility- as do those of being an expert in your field who, I’m aware, has done much good for Autistic people and who is listened to with respect.
I think you could still use humour in your presentations, and get just as high a laughter rate, but without consistently making significant numbers of autistic people feel so upset. You would just need to consider more carefully (and with the savvy of a professional stand-up) how to take account of the fact that you are speaking to some sections of your audience as a “You” and some as a “We”. Stereotyping that minority we, who are already a stigmatised group, is as fraught with offence as the strategies of sexist and racist comedians who thankfully no longer get mainstream airtime. However, there are laughs to be had from specific situations you’ve found funny, from the stigma that Autistic people face and the quirks of NTs. As well as, I’m sure, your own quirks and idiosyncrasies.
I’m afraid the reactions of your audience members suggest that you’re not “laughing with”, but rather “laughing at”, (certainly by definition if they’re not actually laughing with you) and by using stereotypes and caricatures of autistic people, you’re “Othering” them.
I’m aware of the sad irony of writing a painfully earnest post about humour. I make audiences laugh all the time in real life and have sometimes inadvertently caused offence myself and resent the idea that I should forever walk on eggshells. Someone will always be offended. I don’t think comedy should be safe. But if I was consistently getting complaints from a group of people, over a period of years (There were at least five people on Twitter who talked about being upset at that one event alone), particularly stigmatised people who I was helping in other areas of my work, then I would rethink my comic strategies. Perhaps come to the International Society of Humor Studies conference and hear some current research (In Montreal this year, I’m sure you can think of plenty of good Canadian jokes), or attend a stand-up workshop (maybe I should start running them for the ever-growing numbers of men who inadvertently offend conference-goers).
I am making this an open letter via my blog so that it can be shared by others and will be copying in the NAS, as I would hope that it is of concern to them that a speaker is deeply offending some of the people they’re set up to help and advocate for.
It’s also quite a big thing for me to do this openly, as I am not officially “out” as seeking diagnosis. However, I have noted how often adult Autistic women in particular have their voices silenced in public discourse, and felt I had something useful to add here.
I hope you’ll consider what I’ve said and wish you all the best and many future laughs at your talks, which I’ll look forward to attending in person one day (while hopefully not feeling I’m being laughed at, in connection with my autism. That’s something reserved for people I’m comfortable with, rather than when I’m in a minority among an audience with more power than me. I’m also happy to laugh at myself). Perhaps you’d reciprocate and come to one of my shows one day.