An attempt at humour by a Belgian politician which has backfired spectacularly has once again raised the question about whether it is ever appropriate or advisable for people in positions of political power to use comedy.
The ‘joke’ – which centred around a story involving Flemish and Walloon fishermen – was relayed to the Dag Allemaal magazine this week by Paul Magnette, the leader of the Socialist Party. Reinforcing certain stereotypes, the attempt at humour has angered many Walloons and has resurrected the debate over the use of comedy by politicians.
Magnette’s office played down the furore, saying that his "stroke of humour" had been "twisted by some" to the point of presenting it as "a political statement". This raises the question whether anything a politician says is in fact a political statement by default and therefore all content should be carefully considered before delivery.
"Humour, and even more so irony in the context of political communication, is an excessively dangerous weapon," Alain Raviart, a specialist in political communication, told Le Soir. "Controversies arise more often as a result of statements in the written press because the transcription is in the hands of the journalist. In good faith, he or she does not always specify that it is necessary to present the remarks with a laugh written in parentheses, for example. We know that Paul Magnette has a theatrical spirit and that is lacking in politics. However, you have to do it in the right place and be sure of your target.”
“We know that in today’s world, to make people laugh is to expose yourself to the mood of the time and you risk seeing the words exploited by opponents on social networks," Raviart continued. "Talking about the Flemish and Walloons is risky. We know that someone, somewhere will be offended.”
But the expert added that humour should not be totally eradicated from political speech, but did urge caution. “We can afford to be bold, it is even desirable if we do not want to die of boredom in this world, but on the condition of having everything well framed and secure before putting it out in the media,” he concluded.