The untold joke

At best, larrikinism is a cover for the worst aspects of the Australian character. It excuses poor behaviour and indulges second-rate talent. It is a particular kind of unseriousness that avoids difficult questions and laughs at those who try to ask them.

Larrikins entrench the status quo by pretending to mock it. They keep in place this country’s fear of difference. It is no accident that all larrikins are men and all of them white. It is only through privilege that a person gets by on lazy jokes and terrycloth.

Ita Buttrose says she misses it. She misses Paul Hogan. She misses “spontaneity” in the workplace. She says the conversations she used to have with Frank Packer wouldn’t happen anymore. “We’re far too sensitive, I think.”

The chair of the most important cultural institution in Australia, the ABC, thinks political correctness has gone too far. “There are very few larrikins anymore … We’ve sort of suppressed that side of our character,” she says. “And I think we need to bring back the larrikin element of Australia and be very proud of it because it’s very unique to us.”

In an editorial, The Australian complains that “the public space for humour is now woke and bespoke”. Clive James is old and Bill Leak is dead. According to the newspaper, rebelliousness and irreverence are being killed. “At a time of rampant identity politics, young warriors forget the gains. Bit by bit, laws are altered, petty grievances are legitimised, normalised.”

Twice in the same leader, the newspaper complains about diversity. It says it is a progressive religion. There is a notion that to flirt with bigotry is brave – that, as The Australian puts it, “crossing the threshold of offence is the job description for these wild souls”.

But they are not crossing any threshold, they are not tearing down hegemony, they are trying and failing to keep the fences in place. The radicals and larrikins are mocking those who step out of line, who want the world to be different.

What is it that these people want to say but can’t? How much more awful could it be than what they already print?

It is hard to imagine the cartoons Bill Leak didn’t publish. It is difficult to see what restrains The Australian in its campaign against trans children. For those who miss “spontaneity” between sexes, picture maybe the people who now feel safe to go to work.

When we complain about political correctness, we are complaining about equality. We are not mourning the untold joke: we are sore at the fact the room has changed, and there are people in it to take offence.

To pretend that Australia is built on larrikinism is to be satisfied with a culture of subservience, a culture built on cringe and false confidence. The larrikins are the ones who tell us to laugh something off, because that’s better than changing it. The larrikins are cowards who keep the past in charge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 12, 2019 as "Lauding the larrikin".

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