The free speech debate isn't just about offence – it's about oppression | Paul Case says comedy can be appalling AND responsible

The free speech debate isn't just about offence – it's about oppression

Paul Case says comedy can be appalling AND responsible

There is a burgeoning, politicised movement for ‘free speech’ in comedy at the moment. Comedians and gigs promoters, from Ricky Gervais to the Comedy Unleashed stand up events, are explicitly stating they wish to protect the right to ‘offend’. 

I wonder what that word means to them? Is it simply something which can upset someone else? And if someone is upset, are they just ‘offended’ - too sensitive, too mollycoddled, too much of a snowflake to cope?

To my mind, there seems to be a huge amount of confusion – some unintentional, some wilful – around the word. Too often, offence appears to be conflated with another word: oppression. To be clear on my definitions: offence is, generally, a personal response to something which upsets us. Oppression is structural domination that marginalises and causes harm to people with less power, and uses a combination of state apparatus, media, the economic system and the reproduction of social behaviour. This reproduction includes jokes. 

Of course, offence and oppression are frequently the same thing, such as a racist joke that both upsets us personally and also plays into a system which discriminates against and actively harms people of colour. 

However, there is a difference between the two.  The classic defence of being offended is ‘just don’t listen/switch it off/don’t go’. Or just ‘fuck off’, as the host of the Comedy Unleashed night reportedly advises. Which is fair enough advice if you’re just offended. I can, and do, avoid things that fill me with spluttering irrational rage. 

But what if the thing you avoid contributes to oppression it perpetuates regardless? A Muslim avoiding a Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown gig avoids hearing his bullshit, but they can’t avoid the wider Islamophobia it contributes to. 

It suits self-styled libertarian comedians to confuse these terms, whether intentionally or not. It effectively allows them to say whatever they like, and if you feel that it’s discriminatory, they can just accuse you of being easily offended instead of someone who recognises the broader negative impact of some forms of comedy. In this way, it can effectively silence the calling out of discrimination. 

And because the mainstream discussion around this topic has been reduced to the notion of offence, rather than using a wider range of terms for causing harm, you can then be accused of impinging on their right to offend you as an individual, their ‘freedom of speech’. And of course, what they will really mean by ‘freedom of speech’ is ‘the ability to say what I want without. being made to reflect on it in any way’.  This may not even be conceited, since the discussion has become so confounded by muddled terminology. The sole focus on offence in comedy, when offence isn’t really the problem, is at best reductive and at worst a wilful confusion of the issue.

And so an uncritical adoption of an anti-censorship/pro-freedom of speech stance appears to have developed to protect the right to ‘offend’, maybe without even realising the wider damage it can cause. 

Are homophobic and sexist jokes complicit in contributing to a society that produced the recent, terrible attack on a couple  on a London bus? Could ableist jokes contribute to the continued marginalisation of disabled people, which allows the government to slash their health and social care with little popular resistance? Are these partly helped along by a section of the comedy circuit that strictly adhere to notions of freedom of speech that seem to disregard the blatant inequality in our society?

In a tacit but meaningful way, I really believe they are. 

I’m not accusing Comedy Unleashed and its like of being a hive of discrimination, and I’ve never been to one of their gigs. What I am saying is there are very real implications to the anti-censorship ethos it adheres to.

It’s worth noting at this point that sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a wakeup call for free speech evangelists about what their ideology actually means, such as when Milo Yiannopoulos basically got sacked as editor of Breitbart News for going all Ancient Greece on us and speaking out in favour of grown men having sexual relationships with teenage boys .  And then - oh my! - it turns out there are limits to freedom of speech. It turns out some things shouldn’t be said. It turns out some things people say really do have a wider effect. So where’s the line? 

There’s plenty of amazing, outrageous comedy out there that doesn’t require an open season for free speech. To my mind, shows such as Chewing Gum and Fleabag, stand-ups such as Stewart Lee, and Frankie Boyle’s more recent work make anything Ricky Gervais says look pretty tame, but they clearly don’t exploit the liberties of their platform to kick downwards. These are great examples of how you can be funny, frequently appalling, but also – God, I know, boring right? – responsible. 

If freedom is what these comedians and organisers want (as well as, you would hope, for everyone else) then untangling offence and oppression, and knowing how to reflect on and take responsibility for the impact of your work, is crucial. Otherwise, it’s just abusing political language to bolster privilege and maintain the status quo while others are trampled underfoot. 

Paul Case is a spoken word artist. He tweets at @captainrant.

Published: 17 Jun 2019

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