How did we end up here?

By Max Glynn

‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ On the 21st March this quote by George Orwell was as important as ever before when YouTube comedian Mark Meechan, better known by his username “Count Dankula” was found guilty of hate speech over a video where he trained his girlfriend’s pug to do a Nazi salute whenever he said “gas the Jews”. While his name and the entire context of this situation sound like a storyline from a satirical comedy, the implications of what has happened are anything but humorous.

The presiding judge, Sheriff Derek O’Carrol, ruled that the video was not a joke and that it was ‘anti-Semitic and racist in nature’ and ‘aggravated by religious prejudice’. This conclusion is arguably true but what is disturbing is that the judge ruled that the context of the video did not matter. English and Welsh law, as well as in this case Scot’s law, is based on precedents such as these, and by ruling that context does not matter Sheriff O’Carrol has undermined our most fundamental liberty to freedom of speech.

The fact is that context does matter. It always matters. Everyone behaves differently in different environments: people will make jokes among friends that they wouldn’t dream of making among strangers. I would wager that all of us are far more open about our more controversial opinions when we are surrounded by likeminded individuals. If I offend one of my friends with an poorly-judged joke then they have the right to challenge me, berate me and stop talking to me. Indeed, a private company should have the right to fire someone if their behaviour breaks the code of conduct that was agreed when the employee signed the contract with them. Likewise, if a comedian makes a joke that offends a large crowd of people while performing, the crowd has the right to boo them off the stage and leave their reputation in tatters. None of these examples, however, should carry legal consequences.

Throughout history, most humour has been and is still tendentious, i.e. the jokes contain some form of victim. Whether you find a joke funny is irrelevant as humour comes in all shapes and sizes. In our lifetimes we shall all be at the receiving end of a joke, in this situation we all react differently – whether we laugh along, get offended or say nothing at all is all down to our own personal choices as guaranteed by our freedom of speech. But we cannot claim some form of moral high ground as a basis to legal action with regards to humour. Our culture, life experiences and upbringing are but a few examples of what affect our sense of humour as individuals. So it is highly unlikely that two people will ever have the exact same sense of humour. What one may deem hilarious another may deem either mundane or even offensive. I for one enjoy comedians such as Dara O’Brien while I find others such as Amy Schumer highly mundane. Still my own personal preference of what I find funny should not have any bearing on what comedy others can enjoy. We all must have the right to make this distinction for ourselves, we are not automatons that abide by a pre-set list of rules over what we can and can’t find funny. While certain jokes may indeed become taboos with attached social stigmas this does not mean they should be censored.

The individual who brought Meecham to court obviously has the right to be offended. This video was an example of fringe humour that mocked the most horrific and evil event in world history. Yet the right to be offended should not supersede the right to be offensive as for genuine freedom of speech to exist nobody can have the right not to be offended. J.K Rowling is a figure I often disagree with, however, one area where I support her unanimously is on freedom of speech, when asked about her opinion on whether Trump should be allowed to make sweeping statements during his presidential campaign such as when he infamously insinuated that all Mexicans were “rapists and drug dealers” she said yes, as long as Trump has the freedom to make such bold claims her own freedoms were guaranteed as well.

Where then do we draw the line? For there is a fundamental difference between offensive humour and incitement to violence, in the same way that there is a difference between a nuanced analytical criticism of a religion or an ideology and a deliberate call to arms that seeks only to incite violence. It is this distinction that is so important and that has been overruled by Meecham’s guilty verdict. At its heart, Meehcam’s video was a joke, his girlfriend’s pug was so cute that it could even do a Nazi salute and still be cute. Was this joke in poor taste? Yes. Is making a joke about the genocide of Jews appropriate? Never. Indeed, many find it vile. But whether one finds this funny or vile is irrelevant as it should be protected by freedom of speech as it was not delivered with any intent to incite violence.

At the end of the day, when we are convicting comedians for telling jokes, we must ask ourselves: how did we end up here? Should we tolerate our basic freedoms being taken from us just so that a few individuals can go without being offended? In the long term this could very realistically allow those holding positions of authority to silence their critiques by claiming slander or hate speech against anyone who mocks or satirises them to point out their shortcomings. An outcome that would ultimately result in totalitarian control of popular thought, with your speech controlled by those in authority and the right to mock and criticise being all but abolished – a truly Orwellian outcome indeed.