What kind of Free Speech can save Satire?
By Greg Scorzo –
The ‘Art of Thinking’ about Satire
On February 24th, Culture on the Offensive did an ‘Art of Thinking’ about Satire” event with Andrew Doyle. Andrew Doyle is one of the UK’s most hilarious and provocative standup comedians. What makes his work provocative is it deals with contemporary political controversies, while managing to inspire near universal laughter in an audience that may have political commitments Doyle does not. Andrew Doyle, after all, co-writes Jonathan Pie with actor Tom Walker. Pie is a staged piece of fly on the wall reality TV, ostensibly about a news reporter who can angrily rant about the ridiculous political events he’s reporting on, once the cameras are no longer rolling.
Pie is hilarious, in part, because he says things many think, while also saying the things many think but which no one in mainstream media could blurt out without the risk of being sacked, or at least being the target of a particularly vicious twitter storm. Pie lampoons the Tories, Theresa May, and Trump, like most of the more successful UK comedy acts also do. But alongside these barbs, Pie also takes aim at the contemporary activist left, particularly modern identity politics, and its positions on free speech. Although Doyle and Walker’s fictional creation is indeed, fiction, Pie has been accused of being both a dangerous reactionary, or a front for its dangerously reactionary, “alt right” creators. This is, in part, because Jonathan Pie, like Andrew Doyle, does not take the socially acceptable position on free speech that has become a staple of BBC media.
The conversation I had with Doyle during our “Art of Thinking about Satire” event got me thinking about what this socially acceptable position on free speech actually is.
In the first few months of 2018, freedom of speech has been at the forefront of Western news. This is in part because the West had been embroiled in a culture war over free speech (among other things), happening since about 2014. A culture war is what happens when it seems like society suddenly becomes highly politicized, with two (or more camps) fighting in some way to change the values of its culture. One could argue that western society hasn’t been this politicised since the late 60’s.
The current culture war is often mistakenly characterized as one between free speech and its opponents. This is because neither side will grant that the other is promoting a version of free speech. Not acknowledging this fact results in an obfuscation of the real free speech conflict in this culture war, a conflict between pluralistic and anti-pluralistic conceptions of what free speech ought to be, in practice.
Pluralistic conceptions of free speech involve the toleration of a diverse array of views, even when such views are morally wrong, endorse false claims, or promote bigotry and discrimination. In a society with a pluralistic free speech culture, you will certainly be argued with if you say stupid, ignorant, or backward shit. But you will not exist in an environment in which it is unusually difficult to spout such tosh. You will not be socially rejected, sacked, sent death or rape threats, trolled on social media, or have either a thriving business or successful career destroyed. There will instead be a separation between you and your views, such that you will not be deemed a threat to society simply because you have views which may be wrong, or even harmful to other people, if institutionalized in law.
The obvious risk of pluralistic free speech culture is that views that are dangerous and harmful to society will have fewer obstacles to persuading others. The benefit of this pluralistic free speech culture is that correct but unpopular (or even offensive) views will also have fewer obstacles to persuading others.
This is why in today’s culture war, anti-pluralistic free speech is very much the mainstream position.
Anti-pluralistic free speech tolerates a much smaller set of views than pluralistic free speech, ensuring that views which are morally wrong, involve the endorsement of false claims, or that promote bigotry and discrimination, are socially unacceptable. Although both pluralistic and anti-pluralistic conceptions of free speech want all political speech to be legal, it is the anti-pluralistic conceptions that create massive psychological incentives designed to drive dangerous and harmful views underground. For the anti-pluralist, you can legally say whatever you want, but if you say the wrong thing, your life will be made a living hell.
This is why most of our modern culture war has thus far been over unofficial censorship. Unofficial censorship happens when anti-pluralistic activists try to stigmatize a view they dislike using strong social pressure, public demonstrations and disruptions, financial boycotts, humiliation tactics, intimidation exercises, or no platforming. Unofficial censorship attempts to reproduce the psychological incentives not to express certain views that happen when such views are officially prohibited by the state. Today, the target of unofficial censorship is typically culture that, according to modern left-wing activists, promotes racism, misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, body shaming, or bigotry against the disabled.
Classist culture, interestingly, is rarely a target of contemporary unofficial censorship. That is, we rarely see protests over the depiction of working class or homeless people, compared to the routine furor over problematic depictions of non-white peoples, women, or the LGBTQIA community.
What’s also fascinating is this unofficial censorship is quite difficult for pluralistic free speech activists to vociferously oppose. Most of the tactics that produce unofficial censorship seem themselves like expressions of free speech. This raises another difficult problem: If you’re a pluralistic activist protesting anti-pluralism, you’re kind of being an anti-pluralist about anti-pluralism. The best you can do, staying on the side of pluralism, is passionately disagree with anti-pluralism, but not to the extent that you wind up undermining the freedom to protest.
This is difficult, because with the exception of no platforming, most unofficial censorship appears to be the inevitable product of passionate political protest. This is perhaps what explains the paradoxical nature of political protest. Protest often appears like a tantrum that achieves its goals through means other than convincing the public. Yet it also appears like democracy in action, as well as the social force responsible for making western democracies so much more humane than they were in previous decades.
We tend to sacrilize the protest tradition because so many libertarian and egalitarian features of contemporary society seem to be the result of it. Even something as basic to the west as universal suffrage is a result of our protest tradition. Protest seems, at least in it’s ideal form, a tool of social emancipation. What we often forget is that the protest tradition can also create change that is reactionary and oppressive. And it can do this through tactics that are deliberately designed not to change majority opinion, but to do whatever it takes to make the majority comply with activist demands.
Despite these dangers, we should also not forget that the protest tradition can be pluralistic in its position on free speech. This was true for much of the 60s and 70s, because the pluralistic position was of great benefit to the left. There was a time when talking about sexual liberation, women’s rights, gay rights, or structural racism was considered potentially offensive. However, as of late, left protest has been effective not when it makes society more pluralistic to promote it’s messages, but when it limits pluralism to stop its messages from being challenged or undermined.
The backlash against these attempts to limit pluralism has largely been what the content of our culture war has been about. Sometimes the backlash consists in affirming politically incorrect positions that anti-pluralists activists have worked hard to make socially unacceptable. Other times, the backlash consists of voices that support pluralistic versions of free speech, despite agreeing with anti-pluralists about the very stances those anti-pluralists want to stigmatize opposition to. And still other times, the backlash consists in everything from light-hearted humor to caustic satire, memes, vitriolic abuse, trolling, un-pc pranks, or other attempts to either ridicule or antagonize the anti-pluralist activist.
The Easy Slide From Unofficial to Official Censorship
Where the UK in 2018 has departed from the typical patterns of this new culture war is in the prosecution and conviction of youtube comedian Markus Meechan (aka Count Dankula) for the crime of hate speech. Here, official censorship, rather than unofficial censorship, suddenly became the social mechanism employed by the UK to deal with speech that anti-pluralists wish to drive underground.
The speech in question was a youtube video Meechan posted in 2016 where he trained his girlfriend’s cute dog Buddha to respond enthusiastically to the Nazi ‘seig heil’, as well as the phrase “gas the jews.” The video was intended as a joke to annoy Meechan’s girlfriend. Not only was Meechan not promoting Nazi-ism, but his joke presupposed that Nazi ideology was one of the most terrifying ideologies ever produced by mankind.
If Meechan were trying to endorse Nazi-ism, his joke would itself be incomprehensible (as a joke). The joke only makes sense because the audience is supposed to laugh at a cute dog responding enthusiastically to something universally acknowledged as morally reprehensible. This joke is certainly cringy black humour, yet this cringiness derives from the fact that the joke is against, rather than supporting, Hitler’s Third Reich.
The joke’s intent, of course, is part of the context in which the joke was made. The sentencing that Meechan will face deliberately ignores this context. Sheriff Derek O’Connell found Meechan guilty of inciting racial hatred under the 2003 UK communications act, which states that a person is guilty of a crime if he or she “sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character.”1Because Meechan’s video was deemed grossly offensive to Jews by the court, Meechan’s joke was also judged as “anti-Semitic and racist in nature.”2
What’s important about this verdict is the intention of the person posting a social media message is not a protection from prosecution. In other words, a person can be convicted for posting a grossly offensive joke online, even if the intension of the joke was not only inoffensive, but nearly ideologically identical to the stances of those who find the joke offensive. Being against Nazi-ism is suddenly no protection against an offensive joke that presupposes Nazis are horrible.
If this absence of protection holds in the case of Markus Meechan in 2018, it seems to hold for John Cleese’s 1974 comedy sketch where Basil Fawlty can’t stop himself from mimicking Hitler to a group of shocked, German hotel costumers. In fact, it seems to imply that most beloved 20thcentury British comedy is such that, if created today, it could result in its creators going to prison.
It’s not an exaggeration to acknowledge that most 1970s jokes about sex and sexual orientation are (if we take the Meechan ruling as precedent) illegal to record and distribute in the UK. And no, I’m not just talking about Bernard Manning or Chubby Brown here. Even Monty Python’s gay military sketch could land its creator (gay writer and performer Graham Chapman) a prison sentence for gross offensiveness to the gay community.
This bizarre fact makes me wonder what Chapman would make of 21st century Britain, a place where the liberating acceptance of homosexuality is coupled with a strangely puritanical intolerance of Chapman’s joke about homophobia. It’s an intolerance that mirrors that of the religious conservatives who found the televised mention of homosexuality obscene, during the 1970s.
However, it’s more powerful than that conservatism, because this new intolerance dresses itself up as a continuation of our beloved 20thcentury civil rights tradition. It uses the mask of social justice to push forward its deeply intolerant, censorious agenda, making it much harder to rail against than either mid-20thcentury middle England or Thatcher’s Britain.
Yet this intolerance isn’t simply an odious (and temporary) public mood. It’s the outcome of a way of thinking about society that has been gaining traction long before Chapman and Cleese were offending vicars by satirizing saviors and messiahs. In fact, it’s a form of anti-pluralism that was held by those very conservatives who originally protested everything from Frank Zappa’s performance at the Royal Albert Hall to the selling of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
This version of anti-pluralism goes something like this: the public is like a group of wayward children. A group of experts that run government, the legal system, and mass media, function as the adult guardians of these children. The guardians are sometimes referred to by the children with other names, such as “the elite,” “the establishment,” or “the moral majority.”
The job of the adult guardians (among other things) is to provide these wayward children with good messages about how to run their lives, and have a naughty step for the bad kids who promote contrary, hateful messages. The naughty step is more often than not, social pressures that result in unofficial censorship. But in the case of the Meechan ruling, it looks like the naughty step can sometimes include prison.
What’s important about this way of looking at society is that it views the public as lacking the capacities that adults are supposed to have. Adults, after all, can accept good messages by being persuaded of the merits of those messages. Adults can be trusted both to look after themselves, and be responsible for making poor choices. But according to the adult guardians, only the guardians themselves are capable of this level of autonomy. Everyone else needs to be prodded into good habits, and shielded from bad ideas. The guardians try to shield the public from “hate” and “offensive language,” in much the same way that parents shield their children from sexuality and swearing.
Hate for Thee But Not for Me
The concept of “hate” being used in this anti-pluralism is a strange one. It doesn’t literally mean psychological hate, because if it did, there would be little difference between racists and their passionate opponents. Both seem to hate each other.
What is officially meant by “hate” is speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender. But even this definition lacks the contextualization necessary for understanding how it is practiced by the legal system. If ‘hate’ were consistently criminalized, most left-wing identitarians would be prosecuted, given the youtube videos they routinely share attacking white, straight, cisgendered, or male demographic groups.
And not only that. Anyone who wrote a scathing piece about Tom Cruise being involved in “the cult of scientology” would be potentially guilty of a punishable offense. So would anyone writing similar attacks on Isis or the KKK. In fact, attacks on pedophiles could be prosecuted, because such attacks are effectively attacking someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. If mental health professionals decide that personality disorders fall under an accepted theory of disability, it may be prosecutable to write an op ed advising singles to look out for psychopath warning signs on a first date.
Yet we all know that none of these things would ever be prosecuted, because that’s not how hate prosecutions work.
The things that get prosecuted in the name of hate are attacks on groups society believes are innocent minorities (or genders) that have had a history of being oppressed by the majority (or men). You don’t get prosecuted for attacking groups society is leery of (like scientologists, pedophiles, or people with brains that make them exhibit frighteningly anti-social behaviors). And you won’t get prosecuted for criticizing a group with a disability that society doesn’t consider particularly important (like extreme introverts who complain that their employers demand that they attend Christmas parties which socially exhaust them).
You get prosecuted for attacking groups western society feels guilty about oppressing in the past, and for which many activists believe are still oppressed in the present. In other words, you get prosecuted for saying things that violate the norms of contemporary western identity politics.
This is why a joke about the holocaust is seen as a threat to society, while a joke about the ottomon empire genocide is not. There’s a worry in the west that anti-Semitism is bubbling underneath the surface of our society, even though we try so hard to appear as though we condemn it. According to this worry, anti-Semitism may rise to the surface, if given the right trigger. Some worry that even political stances that are critical of Isreal’s treatment of the Palestinians could constitute such a trigger.
What makes these matters more difficult is that there is some disagreement about what anti-Semitism is. How critical of Isreal’s foreign policy can one be before one unwittingly slips into anti-Semitic territory? If fans of yours make anti-Semitic remarks online that you disagree with, are you anti-Semitic, via guilt by association? If you are critical of Isreali foreign policy but refrain from robustly condemning an anti-Isreali work of art that contains Jewish stereotypes, are you an anti-Semite?
The contested nature of these questions is partly what has caused so much trouble for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. And it is also partly legitimized the worry that a trigger of anti-Semitism needn’t even be a direct endorsement of an uncontroversial example of anti-Semitism. A trigger of anti-Semitism could simply be jokes, or comments made in jest.
Many believe anti-Semitism may only be kept underground if we create a social environment where it is spoken of only in the harshest tones of solemn condemnation. Even a joke that presupposes the holocaust is bad can fail to sustain this environment, because it risks trivializing something that can only be properly thought of with the utmost seriousness.
One can, of course, take this thought much further, and believe that all forms of social violence require an environment in which they cannot be trivialized with humor. That is, you could say that any joke about murder or torture is as dangerous as a joke about anti-Semitism, because such a joke risks undermining a social environment that stops murder and torture from becoming widespread social epidemics.
Many feminists have taken this line about rape. It’s fascinating that they take it about rape, but typically not about murder or torture.
Such feminists often argue that unwanted or rude male banter must be socially unacceptable, because it is part of a continuum of sexual violence that extends to rape. But such feminists rarely campaign against boxing, on the grounds that boxing is part of a continuum of violence that extends to beating someone to death with your bare hands.
This fact is slightly ironic, as boxing is much closer to murder than male banter is to rape. In fact, murders occasionally happen in the boxing ring. Rape, on the other happen, never happens during even the most crude and vulgar expressions of male banter. But if misogynistic jokes are part of a continuum with rape, then it seems that generically mean-spirited jokes are also on a continuum with misogynistic jokes. Funny jokes may, of course, be on a continuum with generically mean-spirited jokes, which are also on a continuum with misogynistic jokes, which are already part of a rape continuum.
If you follow this line of thought to it’s conclusion, pretty much everything is on a continuum with something else which is horrible. If that’s the case, it looks like one should never trivialize anything, including triviality. A world with no tolerance for triviality, if it’s not already obvious, is a world with no tolerance for laughter.
Another problem with this anti-pluralistic free speech culture is it attempts to enforce ideological norms as though they were moral norms. Moral norms are those norms about harming others that everyone can agree on, norms that facilitate public safety as well as basic components of sociality. We must enforce and presuppose moral norms in order to have anything like a functioning society. This is why we have laws, and why there are both social and legal penalties for anti-social behaviours. Such behaviours can range from murder to fraud.
Ideological norms are things that, by contrast, are inherently contestable. And even when there are institutionalized rights that reflect certain ideological stances, these rights are always precarious. They are precarious because the public could always discover that it’s prior positions were mistaken and in need of revision.
Without the ability of society to change its mind about even its most deeply entrenched ideological stances, society stops being able to progress. It remains static, with ideological conformity enforced in a way that bypasses the thoughts of the actual population. A society that is static in this way can be neither liberal, nor robustly democratic.
It cannot be liberal, because it can’t tolerate any expressions of speech that go against the prevailing ideological norms. It cannot be robustly democratic, because society becomes institutionally structured so as to have its guardians manage and manipulate the population. The population becomes a threat to the ideology that guardians see as ensuring liberty, equality, and justice for all. When the public’s views are seen as a threat to an ideology, rather than the basis of all public ideology, this ironically destabilizes liberty, equality, and justice.
This destabilisation is the deepest danger that comes with the current version of anti-pluralism.
Opposing pluralism this way destabilises liberty because it undermines the environment where the public can freely discuss the pros and cons of taking certain ideological stances. Instead, it makes such conversations permissible only on the condition that the ideologies contested are those that the guardians find acceptable to contest. Conversations outside the parameters of what the guardians find acceptable are criminalized at worst, and heavily stigmatized at best.
In such an environment, there can be no free or diverse media, where we trust the public to see perspectives and attitudes it may have good reasons to accept or reject. In the absence of this free and diverse media, there can also be no comedy, satire, or social criticism that challenges conventional wisdom.
Such an authoritarian atmosphere additionally undermines equality. It actively privileges those whose ideology conforms to the norms of the guardians. If it turns out the dominant groups in society agree with the ideological norms of the guardians while marginalized groups do not, inequalities between the two will become exacerbated. This authoritarian atmosphere also marginalises dissidents, eccentrics, or people who have an unusual understanding of guardian ideology they may even agree with. The Meechan pug joke is an example of this, as it does not actually challenge the mainstream sentiments against anti-Semitism. It agrees with the ideological perspective of the guardians regarding Nazi-ism.
What Meechan’s joke challenges is the anti-pluralistic public as children perspective that has become so pervasive.
When guardian ideology is sealed off from even this kind of criticism, we stop a range of potential injustices from being rectified. If the guardians promote the idea that one gender is inferior to another, for example, it becomes virtually impossible to criticize laws that discriminate against that gender. On the other hand, if the guardians promote the idea that genders have no collective preferences that are not culturally determined, it becomes impossible to argue for laws and social norms that accommodate, rather than deny, these collective preferences. If it turns out that true facts cause offence to the guardians, it looks like citizens can be imprisoned for asserting such offense causing facts.
The Risks of Authoritarianism
We can, of course, agree with the guardians that freedom and diversity of thought carry certain risks. Through a free media and a pluralistic social climate, people can indeed by persuaded to embrace morally repugnant values and laws, or even directly oppress others. But fundamentally, if one refuses to take these risks, one creates a stiflingly conformist social space that already embraces morally repugnant values, in addition to creating the conditions that make society ripe for various oppressions.
Without an atmosphere where one is free to challenge deeply entrenched social norms, we lose the freedom to understand how such norms fair when they are robustly challenged. Thus, we collectively understand our own social norms far less.
When we lack understanding of our deeply entrenched social norms, we lose the ability to refine them so they continue to benefit humanity, as society changes. The norms stop responding to the demands of an evolving populace. When social norms don’t respond to the demands of the population, they become more anti-social than social. And when social norms become anti-social, social change is more likely to happen through violence than discussion and debate.
In a similar manner, jokes are never without risk, because it’s always possible to laugh at the wrong things. It’s always possible to normalize injustice by only seeing the funny side of it. But on the other hand, our laughter can be a signal that we don’t agree with the moral norms we think we should agree with. Sometimes this divergence between our chuckles and our commitments means we can’t live up to our own moral standards, psychologically. But other times, it means those standards need to change.
A laughter free world is fundamentally a dangerous world, since it prohibits the best mechanism for allowing us to see when we are being ridiculous and funny, especially during those times it’s important not to be.
Like empathy, laughter is perception.
To see the whole conversation with Andrew Doyle CLICK HERE
Image 1: Cover Image: John Cleese as Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. Copyright British Broadcasting Corportation, 1974. Written and Performed by John Cleese.
Image 2: Courtesy of Pixabay
Image 3: Courtesy of Pixabay
Image 4: Title: A Mother Telling Off her Son. 1958. From gettyimages.co.uk. Poperfoto. #83091246
Image 5: Courtesy of Pixabay
Image 6: Courtesy of Pixabay