Banter but I guess you're not ready for that conversation yet...
If you know me personally, you would know that I am the type of guy who likes jokes of any kind. In fact, in the right mood, I am so numb to things that dark humour does not really phase. However, this piece isn't about whether I would or wouldn't laugh at your joke. It is about my personal experience with British banter. How it needs to be better and we need to be better. We keep preaching that people need to be nicer on social media, especially due to the mental health issues it can cause, but quickly forget that this is a result of years of the ignorance of words: The fact that a word as simple as 'banter' could be used to defend any insult because humour is subjective; The fact that we have developed a culture of self-interest.
When I was younger, I was a big fat entitled baby. Yeah, you weren't expecting that. But it was true. I somehow worked out that crying = adults listening to me and tried to use it as much as possible even into primary school. By the time I got to secondary school, I learnt that crying did not help and it only made things worse and now I barely cry at all so I guess I learnt my lesson too well. This is all to explain my first reaction to getting bullied in secondary school. I cried. Yeah, it probably wasn't the smartest move but I was in a new school with new people and this was one of the first times I was the butt of everyone's joke. My school was different in that we didn't have the set groups of jocks, nerds, goths etc. Social status was based on how cruelly you could insult people, or how everyone seemed to see it, how good your 'banter' was. Yes, after my first cry which alerted the teachers to my pain, my so-called friends at the time described it as banter and I was seen to be over-reacting and a snitch.
And you know what, I probably was over-reacting and a snitch. It probably was one of the tamest jokes made at my expense while at that school, something about me looking like an alien because my head was a weird shape. Unfortunately, this got into my head that everything said in a jokey manner was 'banter' even when it wasn't funny. I spent secondary school having horrible things said to me and pretended it did not matter, that it did not have an effect because it was just 'banter'. If it did have an effect then I was just weak or did not get the joke. Of course, eventually, I would fight back and also hit them back with more 'banter' but I could never win when everyone already established my status as being the loser guy who was black, clumsy and a little weird. Eventually, I was just allowing random people and some of my closest friends at the time to get away with saying terrible things to me. And it wasn't just me. I definitely said or allowed other people to say disgusting things to other students or even teachers. There was infamously a substitute teacher who was essentially bullied by my entire school. They would not respect his authority, say harsh things to his face and basically make his work life hell all in the name of 'banter'.
You might be thinking, "what is the big deal? It's just some jokes, kids are cruel." However, by not fighting it, by allowing it to continue, I was condoning their behaviour. This was fine when it came to me because I worked out my ways to deal with what was said to me, albeit unhealthy ways. However, not everyone they meet will be like that. Most of the kids grew up and learnt the error of the ways but there are still several who did not and go on to say and do more harmful things in later life. I am not removing their own autonomy and guilt from their actions but I do believe that teenage years are an incredibly important time in the development of a person. I do believe the toxic adults of today, the trolls on the internet and the bullies in workplaces were all people who got away with saying horrible things as a child as 'banter', who were never taught the consequences of the words because sticks and stones are the only things that break bones.
I think what's kind of worse in my situation is that most of the 'banter' definitely crossed the line into actual racism which I never called people out on. I remember vividly someone saying a bunch of racist slurs and calling me Kony (a Ugandan general with a child army) when I made fun of the fact he could not sing and everyone else in the conversation said I got 'roasted'. When I finally tried to draw a line in sixth form by telling my friends that the n-word is not funny and neither is saying stuff like "because you are black/a n*****", I was met with the response of "it's not funny to you so I will stop saying it in front of you". (I would like to point out that this was non-black POC, not even Caucasians). In case you were wondering I, as a black person, do not think anyone should say the word so I try to not use it myself but that can be a conversation for another day.
In addition, I believe such banter culture, especially with guys, makes them not want to be vulnerable with each other. I am probably more open with my friends now than ever but this was after years of not opening up in fear that someone would use that to make fun of me. I just felt like I could not really trust anyone and most of my emotions I kept locked down and to myself. I was lucky that I had my Christian faith and eventually got real friends at university but for other people, the toxic masculinity which is inherently tied into banter culture can be dangerous and lead to serious mental health problems.
What can be done about this? I was reading this post about white privilege the other day and I think the same rules apply here. We need to teach children from an early age to be nicer to each other and especially not go with the crowd. I know a lot of the people who said horrible things to me weren't terrible humans itself themselves but trying to fit in with the toxic environment. If children aren't taught why this is wrong, they will just join in when everyone else does it. Plus I think there needs to be a re-evaluation of what is funny: what is 'banter'? If we raise generations on the idea that cruel things are just a joke when will they ever understand the consequences of what they say? Why should they care when a teacher gives a lecture on behaviour when all they think is that everyone does not understand the joke? I do understand that not everything needs to be taken so seriously and there is context to everything but if you had to explain some of the things said under the guise of 'banter' I do not think you will find it that funny after all. Children, and adults, will always think their fun is just being ruined if they do not see why what they say is damaging.
I hope in the future I become successful. Not because I want to be famous or really be rich. I want to be able to march back into the school that had brought me so much pain, stand there in front of students probably going through the same thing as me and have the influence to actually teach bullies a different way. Kids can be cruel, I get it. However, without knowledge of the consequences of words, the trolling, cancel culture and toxic environment of the internet will always be prominent and this can also carry out into real life and into adulthood. This is not just about hurt feelings or young people being 'snowflakes' (a term which is just as toxic as banter culture). As I highlighted in my introduction, this culture can lead to mental health issues in adults. It can lead to death. Especially when the banter culture removes the outlet for someone to properly express his or her feelings. Banter can also easily lead to something equally sinister. What starts as a joke can slowly but surely lead to you subconsciously looking down at groups of people. These jokes can (and do) normalise bigotry. We can only teach kids a better way.
There is more I can say but I just wanted to keep this to my own personal experience. Maybe one day I might write out this article as a journalist but until then here are a few articles on the matter: