The negative and ubiquitous reaction to The Chaser’s “Make a Realistic Wish Foundation” skit has been an indictment of the maturity of Australian society.
Comedy is meant to push the boundaries of what can be considered the sacred cows of culture. It has a utility beyond just making people laugh. In this case three sacred cows have been stepped on: cancer, death and children. Personally, when I watched the skit, I laughed out loud harder than I did to any other segment of that particular Chaser episode. My laughter was partly prompted by its irreverence / potential controversy. I can’t step into the shoes of people whose children have terminal cancer so can’t be totally definitive in my praise of the skit, but I know that when my own personal subjects of angst are made the object of ridicule, I laugh. That doesn’t mean that parents of dying children should have a similar ease of amusement. I’m sure that some do though, and I would bet that dying children would laugh more readily at the skit than the parents.
Western society has gradually over the past century cast children in a role of increasing vulnerability and dependence. I’m not sure of all the reasons, but some salient ones are that child mortality has plunged, that people have less children and have them at older ages, and that the opportunity cost of having a child has soared. It is, however, wrong and damaging to underestimate the strength and intelligence of children. Even twenty years ago parents didn’t feel the need to drive their children half a kilometre to school because of their perceived helplessness.
Another issue is proximity. Australians have reacted to a skit about a couple of hundred children who die each year of cancer but failed to react to other comedic stabs at, for instance, J’amie’s hilariously callous attitude to her African sponsor children in “We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year” or her “AIDS in Africa” fashion show vignette in “Summer Heights High”. Millions of children are dying of AIDS and malnutrition in Africa. Apparently their lives have less importance than those of Australian children.
The ABC should be ashamed that they’ve been bullied into censoring The Chaser and taking it off the air for two weeks. The demotion of Amanda Duthie of the ABC is a disgrace and an act of cowardice.
Another issue at play here is Kevin Rudd’s popularism and social conservatism. His condemnation of the skit contributed to the overreaction and the ABC’s disgraceful actions. This isn’t the first time he’s both rode the wave of talkback anger and contributed to it. He was wrong in demonising Bill Henson’s art. He was also wrong in attacking Germaine Greer’s words of sanity in the midst of the mass, unthinking canonisation of Steve Irwin after his death. Rudd should show some moral and intellectual leadership.