This is one of those posts I can’t believe needs writing. Moving in the social circles I do, among intelligent and sensitive people, it’s easy to forget that unpleasant, obnoxious individuals exist in the real world rather than merely popping up in the pages of the Daily Mail.
I banter with my wonderful, intelligent, friends, and it is a hoot. Banter is fun, it’s lively, it’s an art form in and of itself. Outside of this bubble, though, it is something else. It’s used as nothing more than a word to add a veneer of acceptability to bullying, to oppression, to being a witless tosspot who fancies hurling a bit of abuse around without being called out on it. This is most obvious in the recent Unilad fiasco, where banter translates as threats of rape and violence for its braying mob of fans, though it has also been used as an excuse to cover for unacceptable language from pointless oxygen-bogarts Jeremy Clarkson and Ricky Gervais, to name but a few.
And it’s not on. Were banter-masters Oscar Wilde or Shakespeare alive today, they would wince at the sorry state of their art form. It’s time to reclaim banter. It’s time to kill the popular perception of banter as nothing more than bullying.
What is banter?
Numerous dictionary definitions of banter exist, and all fall on the same two crucial characteristics. Surprisingly, UrbanDictionary manages to sum up the meaning of banter rather well.
Supple term used to describe activities or chat that is playful, intelligent and original.
Banter is intelligent. It is witty wordplay, a game of verbal jousting. Banter is also playful: it is harmless, fun and pleasant. Vast swathes of the “banter” that the gaping chancres of lad culture struggle to preserve fall completely short of both of these goals.
Banter and wit
Most of the population believe they are more intelligent than everyone else. Statistically, almost half of them must be wrong in varying degrees of magnitude. It is due to this effect that grunting nincompoops tend to believe that their banter is worthy of Shakespeare himself. Chances are, you are nowhere near that level of greatness. You would probably find your arse intellectually handed to you by Stephen Fry and wander off thinking you had won, because that’s how your brain is set up.
Be aware of this; be wise to the fact you are probably not as clever as you think you are. You will be less likely to defend your banter tooth and nail if you consider every word to pour from your mouth to be a fecund fountain of foetid faeces.
A rather useful heuristic for checking if your banter is in the slightest bit witty is to imagine a six year-old child saying it. If you are faced with an amusing mental image of a precocious child saying something incongruous, then you might be on to something. If that hypothetical child sounds right at home speaking what you believe to be a blistering comeback, you probably lack the art of banter and should accept defeat.
The point of play is that it is fun for all involved. In some scenarios, there can be a fine line between play and abuse, wherein one person is having fun while the other is not. Banter is one such scenario. Sex is another. We can learn rather a lot from how to play safely in a sexual context and apply these insights to our banter.
The key thing here is enthusiastic consent from all parties. Some people don’t like to banter. This is fine, and you shouldn’t inflict it on them: it doesn’t mean they lack a sense of humour. For those that do, some topics are likely to be off-limits. If your verbal sparring partner appears to be upset by one of your remarks, apologise. Again, they do not lack a sense of humour. You (probably) unintentionally upset them, and most decent human beings do not revel in hurting others.
In short, exercise sensitivity and don’t be a cunt. I cannot believe there are people out there who do not understand this very simple matter.
Topics to avoid
Let us remember that humour hinges on something unexpected. It is therefore completely unacceptable to drag everyday oppression into your banter. Avoid misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and class hatred, for example. People from oppressed groups experience derogatory language and treatment throughout their lives. It ceases to be funny fairly quickly.
In a few select instances, it may be all right to use such topics in your banter. In general, it tends to go down better when your jests are about oppression itself rather than the colour of your banter partner’s skin or their genitals, e.g. Ultimately, make sure it is all right with your banter-buddy. If it is not, then, once again, they are not at fault.
The internet age has pulled banter from the parlours and pubs into the public domain. Other people are now party to your banter. Your banter may not take the form of a conversation at all, but a piece of writing. Even the conversations are visible if you are bantering through Facebook or Twitter. In this case, be super-mindful of all of the above. Perhaps the person you are tweeting at doesn’t mind you joking about rape. This does not mean that the whole world doesn’t mind you joking about rape: you may be called out on this by a complete stranger.
Once again, don’t be a dick. It is not their fault for being offended. Take this criticism with good grace.
Banter is an art, and it is one I would like to see survive. By not acting like a prick and by exercising intelligence, banter can be saved.