Of prostates, Asian women and Australia's first dude

Last night, Tim Mathieson, while delivering an address to the West Indies cricket team, decided to bring up the question of prostate health. Why an otherwise genteel evening at The Lodge was considered an appropriate time to bring up prostate health hasn't been covered in the ensuing uproar, although it does strike me as one of the more pertinent questions at play here. I mean, I understand that the guy is a men's health ambassador, but dinner with a visiting cricket team still strikes me as an odd moment to broach the topic of rectal fingering. And broach it he most certainly did.

Look, some people aren't built for public speaking. I get that. Tim appears to be sufficiently uncomfortable that he's gone a curious shade of sweat-drenched orange. And you do have to feel sorry for those unfortunate partners dragged into the public spotlight by their upwardly mobile other halves. From what I can understand, Timmy boy is a country bloke who likes sport and a well-coiffed set of bangs. That he looks like he's delivering a ham-fisted best man speech is perhaps to be expected.

But the line ''We can get a blood test for it, but the digital examination is the only true way to get a correct reading on your prostate, so make sure you go and do that, and perhaps look for a small female Asian doctor is probably the best way" does have a certain, uncomfortably awkward ring to it. Oh yes, but isn't this the sort of thing we just love. We swoop and castigate. Apologies are demanded, comments are sought. In the Sydney Morning Herald story, no less than 11 separate people provided comments on the matter. 11. I doubt you could cram that many interested parties into a story on climate change and the brutalisation of the Queensland countryside. But it's an election year and unfitness for office is a question mired in sleaze and sensationalism. It appears to be all we really have patience for these days.

A lot of the ensuing commentary has settled on this strange question of whether the joke was funny or in poor taste. Now, even at their best, jokes are rarely funny when subjected to this much scrutiny. It is perhaps part of the reason why it's so easy to go to town on a joke transcribed into a newspaper or a website. Without context and cadence, the constituent words of a joke become oddly weighted, the offending articles standing out like an Asian in a running race [SEE?]. Nevertheless, this isn't a particularly canny quip and unfortunately for Tim, delivery is nine-tenths of the art anyway. From the moment he chose to remove all his full stops this thing was doomed.

On the other hand, poor taste is one of those meaningless phrases beloved of people who don't understand humour, or who remain convinced that comedy hasn't been improved upon since the early work of Phyllis Diller. You say it's in poor taste because it's too difficult to say anything else, to explain exactly why you're offended. Poor taste becomes a stand-in, a way of setting up an unarguable fortress of disapproval. "Poor taste," said with a slight grimace. It's a handy way of stoking outrage, or taking part in it, without actually putting in the hard yards of justifying why this makes you so mad. You just know it to be true, and you challenge someone, anyone to tell you why what you feel is wrong.

But this isn't an argument about comedy. And it's not entirely clear that there's anyone mad here either, even if the way we've responded makes it feel like there should be. It's about something much simpler than all that: a misjudged, well-intentioned attempt at introducing levity into a serious topic. Bar for the multiplying effects of social media, it might have gone the way of a milder Prince Phillip gaffe. A moment talked about with a wry shake of the head and a joke about not letting him out in public any more. They're the sorts of jokes and asides that say more about our understanding of appropriateness than any amount of self-righteous fulmination could. Much like a joke itself, describing why something is so worthy of vitriol often saps that thing of its potency.

We don't hear a lot from Mathieson, perhaps for obvious reasons. He goes about his business quietly, trying to get men to talk about their feelings and prostates in the way that men respond to. That is, quietly. If there's any good to be drawn out of this empty foofaraw, it's that it probably represents the highest point of prostate awareness in the past five years. (Although, general screening for prostate cancer is its own medical controversy). But the entire thing still strikes me as banal, a lazy curlicue of a media with not enough to cover without Question Time around. It almost makes one long for the commencement of the Parliamentary season proper. At least then our controversy detectors are stirred up by people we actually elected to stir up controversy. And we can leave Tim to being a socially awkward, well-meaning, largely invisible goon. 

And hey, look at it this way: yesterday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Silvio Berlusconi said that Mussolini did the right thing by partnering up with Hitler. Our First Bloke has a long way to go if he wants to join the storied ranks of the world's great faux pas artists.

profile of lukeryan