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To Banter Or Not To Banter?

There is a virulent infection stalking the land. From pubs to TV studios, from classrooms to sports pitches, it is spreading with remorseless rapidity, its tentacles seemingly reaching into the heart of every institution in these fair isles. Fear and trembling follow in its wake. Nobody, it seems, is immune. I am, of course, referring to the modern plague of Banter (or Streptococcus clarksonii, as the medical professionals have labelled it).

Symptoms include: ranting and raving, an unsightly rash of inappropriate comments, brain ache, coughing up racism, an alarming haemorrhage of braying laughter, the complete loss of the ability to apologise and, fatally, the total cessation of cogitation in the pre-frontal cortex. People who have encountered Banter sufferers often complain of feelings of dizzying nausea and extreme fatigue in their presence. A cure seems a distant prospect, though prevention may be aided by wearing protective clothing, such as ear plugs, when in the vicinity of a person in the iron grip of Banter. Samples of text messages or tweets from people with the virus should also be viewed with extreme caution. Treatment can include regular intravenous injections of The Guardian and washing the ears with soap but they can only ameliorate its worst excesses. But what is the provenance, the aetiology of this dread malady? In which fetid sink of malodorous bacilli did it germinate?

I exaggerate for (hopefully) comic effect, of course – but is Banter truly malevolent? Banter is defined as “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks”or “to exchange remarks in a good-humoured teasing way”.  There is also an emphasis on its “good-natured” and “light-hearted” character; it is well-meaning and playful. That is, though, to miss the point. It is not the intentions or motives of the Banterer that are at issue but the effect it has on the Banteree. It is no use making ribald and offensive comments about a waitresses breasts and then placating her with: “Lighten up, darlin’, I was only  light-heartedly and good-naturedly Bantering with you”. Most Banter of this sort is used to demean and humiliate.

It seems to me that Banter is akin to that proud rallying cry of right-wing commentators and shock-jocks – political incorrectness. These people revel in ‘saying the unsayable’, in shocking the liberal metropolitan elite with their blunt home truths. They clothe themselves in the righteous garb of defenders of free speech and accuse their detractors of po-faced miserabilism and thought control. Nowadays, in the same way that ‘iconic’ is replacing the word ‘famous’, Banter is replacing its antecedent. Seemingly, any outburst of sexist, racist, homophobic bile is now sweepingly excused as being merely Banter – and, therefore, harmless and good-natured. One infamous recent example was when the League Managers’ Association (LMA) defended the alleged offensive messages sent by Malky MacKay. The LMA said, in a risible statement, that MacKay was “letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter”. (Note the use of the weasel word “friendly” here again). Rightly, the LMA then had to issue a grovelling apology for this absurd comment – but the fact it reached immediately for the Banter excuse speaks volumes about the mind-set behind it, and the exalted place Banter has now attained in some parts of our culture

Now, I’m not going to clamber on to the moral high ground and issue thunderous fatwas on those who indulge in Banter. I, too, in the past have indulged. I used to drink in a working men’s club and the conversation was often pretty derogatory towards women, homosexuality, anybody who didn’t like football or booze. We also, of course, made pretty derogatory comments about each other, which is also a crucial aspect of Banter. I made some cringeworthy comments that I am not proud of: Let him who is without Banter cast the first stone. At the time, it seemed like the only way of joining in the conversation, of not feeling excluded. It was a way of belonging to a particular community, however small, of like-minded working-class men. And, yes, I enjoyed it, I had some great laughs.

What did become clear, though, is that Banter also became a kind of defence mechanism. It was a way of keeping real feelings at bay, of treating everything with the same contemptuous curl of the lip and barbed rejoinder. There were times when it was obvious that some of the men were going through difficult, stressful times, whether at work or at home, and were clearly struggling. Yet to admit it and to want to talk about it in such an environment would have broken one of the golden rules of Banter; a social faux pas that could have led to ostracism. In this sense, Banter can be a straitjacket, imprisoning men in a style of communication that fossilises and stunts their ability to express themselves emotionally. There were times when I was desperate to talk about my struggle with depression but the lead casing of Banterdom prevented me, instilling a fear of the consequences.

So, let us men not fall for this pernicious and widespread belief that anything we say can simply be put down to Banter and therefore absolves us of any responsibility for the pain and distress it may cause to others. Let us by all means engage in witty repartee and scintillating one-liners. But don’t let Banter dominate our conversation to such an extent that we cannot speak in any other way and therefore prevents us from showing our frail, vulnerable, frightened selves to each other. That is truly who we are, not the bloke trying to impress his mates by Bantering with a waitress.

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