On Winston, Wongs, name puns and a sense of humour
Winston Peters wasn’t taking a friendly jibe. He was using humour to make a serious point, and that is how his joke should be judged.
Almost all of the commentary following Winston Peters’ “two Wongs don’t make a right” joke has focussed on respect, historical context, how old the joke is, whether people of the name Wong find it funny, and indeed, whether it’s funny at all.
I’m glad to see ample criticism, but these are all the wrong questions. These commentators talk about his joke as if Mr Peters made some sort of ill-chosen, insensitive punchline, as if he needs better jokes. It was indeed insensitive, but it wasn’t just some error of judgement. Mr Peters wasn’t cracking some light-hearted joke. Mr Peters was trying to make a point—to remind his audience that the Chinese are taking over our country—and he used humour to achieve it.
This should not be a revelation. Humour is a common, and effective, rhetorical technique. Good orators, like Mr Peters, use it well for persuasive effect. In this case, Mr Peters was rebutting the claim that, because Labour once did similarly, National is justified in continuing their relaxed approach to foreign ownership. “As they say in Beijing, ‘two Wongs don’t make a right’.”
The joke is clever precisely because it plays on the racial group that Mr Peters has been targeting for some time, particularly with regard to foreign ownership of property. He was a vocal critic of the sale of farms to the Shanghai Pengxin group, accused the Huka Lodge of selling out to Chinese buyers, and jumped on the bandwagon after the Conservatives’ Colin Craig exposed the Lochinver Station sale. (He was strangely silent on a $1 billion deal involving Canadians.)
Absent that context, the line would have made no sense. Imagine if he had made a joke about a common English or Dutch surname. Whether it would’ve been offensive isn’t the point—it just would have looked completely random. Conversely, if Mr Peters’ crusade against foreign ownership fretted the Canadians, or just the world in general, the joke would have come out of nowhere. You would’ve been confused, not amused.
In other contexts, it’s appreciable that the same joke might be made light-heartedly. It’s not surprising that some Wongs are used to it: name puns aren’t necessarily offensive. But name puns only work when the target is actually involved—otherwise it’s not a pun. The pun here is that the topic of foreign ownership is about the Chinese. It’s only funny if you have at least some sympathy for that position. If not, there’s no double meaning to form the pun.
This is the reason the joke is racist. It’s not intrinsically culturally insensitive: as Mr Peters says, a sense of humour is still worth having. And it’s not merely ignorant. It’s offensive because Mr Peters had a genuine political point to make, and he chose his line deliberately to do so. As much as he wants to talk about how he heard it in Beijing and how his companion there found it funny, it remains that he wouldn’t have used it in the first place if he didn’t have the Chinese in mind. And at the point where there’s a specific class of people you want shut out, you’ll have no qualms cracking a joke that makes fun of them.
It’s a good joke—but only if you agree with Mr Peters’ racist stance. I hope that applies to no-one.