I’m not really but unfortunately I’m pretty sure that that will be the message that a lot of people will take away from this so I thought I’d cut out the middleman.
So here’s the thing: I’m a stand up comic (depending on who you ask) and so I’m (somewhat) plugged into the comedy scene (the Canadian one anyway). Every now and then a comedian will be taken to task (and sometimes to court) for a joke they made and I get to watch my Facebook feed shoot itself in the face.
Usually how it goes is that a comedian will be getting some pushback either through social media or through an actual lawsuit or Human Rights Tribunal and this weird thing happens where a bunch of comedians will rush to that comedian’s defense no matter what that comedian may or may not have said. Then, another bunch of (somewhat more quiet) comedians will mutter (and sometimes yell… can you yell during a Facebook argument? OH YES YOU CAN) about how they’re not cool with what the comedian said. The latter group is seen as “politically correct”, a term which for some reason I think now always has to appear in quotation marks… usually sarcastically… yeah I think the quotation marks are actually there to get the sarcasm across if you’re reading it. Seriously you should picture whoever wrote “politically correct” semi-squatting, eyes huge with exasperation, doing air quotes while their head bobbles from side to side… oh and really draw out the “correct.” It should be pronounced “correeeeeeehct” and the “ct” should be spat out with contempt. You’re welcome.
Anyhoo, the comedians who defend the comic under fire almost always make the same points:
If you don’t like it you don’t have to listen to them, you can leave.
They offend everyone equally (a statement so stupid I’m not even going to bother defending it because anyone who believes it won’t understand a fucking word I’m writing).
It was satire (a statement that literally proves they don’t understand how satire works unless they were satirizing ignorant assholes and if so well done!)!
Freedom of speech!
They usually get to the freedom of speech one pretty quickly. They talk about how sacred freedom of speech is. This might shock some but I totally agree that freedom of speech is sacred. (PLEASE REREAD THAT SENTENCE 20 TIMES SO THAT IT’S CLEAR TO YOU THAT I MEAN IT). It’s really the canary in the coalmine for a society and we should do everything we can to protect it. My problem isn’t with the idea that freedom of speech is sacred, it’s with the idea that any of these guys actually give half a shit about freedom of speech.
I bring this up because the ONLY time any of these comics talk about how important freedom of speech is when someone is being taken to task for something mean (and usually super hacky unoriginal) that they said on stage. I’ve worked with Amnesty International since 2008 (IMPORTANT SIDE BAR: they are ALWAYS looking for more letter writers! You don’t have to pay for a membership you can just volunteer your time and you can decide how much time you want to dedicate to it! It can be as little as a half an hour a month if you sign up for something like the Urgent Action network and it’s really rewarding!!! http://www.amnesty.ca/ ) and I’ve never seen any of these “freedom fighters (yes, those quotation marks were totally sarcastic so please adjust your read appropriately) at the meetings. I (tried) to produce a Secret Policeman’s Ball Canada (but I suck at producing so it was literally the greatest show no one ever saw) and none of these great “voices of freedom” (okay can I trademark sarcastic quotation marks? Because they are the shit.) contacted me to be on it or to ask if I was going to do it again.
Sadly when most comedians invoke Freedom of Speech it’s as a sort of diplomatic immunity for assholes. Don’t like that I called you a fag/spic/nigger/cunt? Back off, Stalin! They couldn’t care less about the people around the world who are literally risking their lives to speak out against injustice, they just care that they might not be able to use “hilarious” (seriously sarcastic quotes: so fun) racist, sexist, homophobic and/or marginalizing jokes and slurs against people whose biggest crime was being stupid enough to be different and try to take in a comedy show.
I find that the “freedom of speech defense” (not sarcastic that time) is much like snark: it’s often used to mask a lack of originality or talent and to allow someone to get away with lazy writing.
AND LENNY BRUCE, JEEEEESUS CHRIIIST. STOP INVOKING LENNY BRUCE AS THOUGH YOU WERE TRYING TO MAKE SOME SORT OF SOCIAL COMMENTARY. YOU’VE LISTENED TO ABSOLUTELY NO LENNY BRUCE. MOST COMEDIANS HAVEN’T. LET’S STOP BULLSHITTING.
Lenny Bruce would hate your rape jokes
But that’s not the point. The point I’m trying to make is: if you’re going to be about freedom of speech, be about freedom of speech. Make it a regular part of your life and fight hard. Something like this isn’t just something you put on when someone calls you on being mean (and usually unoriginal). You can’t treat freedom of speech like it’s a shitty team that’s suddenly playoff bound (let’s get on that bandwagon before they get swept!).
A few years ago, Guy Earle who is a comic out of Vancouver and whom I’ve never met, was taken to a human rights tribunal for an exchange he had with some women in the audience. He lost. I don’t like the precedent it set but I also wouldn’t have liked the precedent it set if he had won.
There was a fundraiser held for him here in Toronto and he headlined it… and he ate it. Absolutely tanked at his own fundraiser (there was video online but I can’t find it now).
I’m not writing this to kick a man while he’s down. I honestly think it sucks that he had to pay that much money not to mention what are probably crippling legal bills but let’s get one thing straight: If none of that had happened and any random selection of Toronto comedians had seen him performing, there would have been some smack being talked at the back of the room. He was not one of us. But as soon as he gets into trouble with the Human Rights Tribunal then all of a sudden he’s promoted to headliner status on equal standing with the rest of us? What kind of sense does that make? You just have to harass someone and that’s the equivalent of years of actually killing on stage?
Do I think comedians should be charged whenever someone gets offended? No. But there has to be some sort of standard set so that lazy hateful bullshit isn’t allowed to be presented as stand up comedy.
I always thought that the cool thing about stand up comedy was that it could be used to fight the oppressor, not the oppressed. Comics who defend comedians in these situations often use the Martin Niemöller quote as their reasoning. But if there is no option for the person who gets hated on who speaks for them?