Politics

This is What Threats to Free Speech Actually Look Like

Twitter’s recent permanent ban of professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos and his followers’ indignant cries of censorship are the most recent (and highest-profile) example of a phenomenon that has existed for years across countless blogs and internet communities. The pervasive–but entirely entirely incorrect–notion that anyone can say whatever vile garbage they want on any platform they choose without suffering any consequences is so common on the internet that it has even gained its own ironic nickname: “freeze peach.”

Sadly, at the same time thousands of Gamergaters have been wearing out their thumbs trying to #FreeMilo, a real threat to free speech has passed without comment from these “defenders of liberty,” who seem more interested in making sure the keynote speaker of the RNC’s absurd “Gays for Trump” party is free to foment racist vitriol on social media than in genuine government encroachment on civil liberties.

As you may remember from our Global Quickies, just a few weeks ago the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ordered Canadian comedian Mike Ward to pay $42,000 in damages for telling a joke on stage.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that the joke that landed Ward in legal trouble was anything but “politically correct.” Ward is one of a number of “shock” comics who make their living by pushing at the edges of acceptable discourse. In fact, the joke in question is the very definition of punching down: its target, Jérémy Gabriel, is a boy with Treacher Collins Syndrome who became a minor celebrity in Quebec after singing for the Pope and performing the national anthem at a Montreal Canadiens game. He has since released an album and co-authored a book on his life.

Since there seem to be no subtitled versions of Ward’s bit online (francophone readers can see it here), here is a brief summary from Martin Patriquin in MacLean’s magazine:

“Everyone said he sucked, but I defended him,” Ward says. “They said he was terrible, but I was like, ‘He’s dying but he’s living a dream, leave him alone.'” The niceties end when Ward figures out Gabriel isn’t actually dying. “He’s unkillable! I saw him at the water park, and I tried to drown him, but I couldn’t. Then I went on the Internet to figure out what was wrong with him, and you know what it was? He’s ugly, goddammit!”

Gabriel was twelve years old at the time Ward started performing this bit, which was also included in the comic’s 2009 TV special “Mike Ward s’eXpose.” In his court claim Gabriel described being “mocked and intimidated” at school to the point where he considered dropping out. Elsewhere he has said the comic hurt both his confidence and his career.

So here comes the bit where I might ruffle some feathers.

First, let me say categorically that making fun of Gabriel–especially in a mass-media context where the joke was likely to get back to him and affect his life–was a dick move on Ward’s part. He deserves criticism for doing it. But I disagree with this ruling. I think it is not only wrong, but that it sets a truly dangerous legal precedent in Quebec and Canada more generally.

First off, this is a real, textbook example of government censorship in action. This is not an example of Ward losing a platform because his sponsors pulled out, or because a private corporation decided his message was not in line with theirs. This is a modern, liberal democracy using the force of law to punish a private individual for a speech act.

Second, Jérémy Gabriel is a public figure, if a minor one. He and his parents made the decision for him to be in the public spotlight, and while the simple fact of being in the public spotlight is not enough to justify abuse–here we need look no farther for an example than the unjustifiable hatred and vitriol heaped on Leslie Jones–this does not mean that Gabriel, for all his vulnerability and marginalisation, can be immune to criticism.

And Ward’s bit did offer important criticism, even as that criticism was offered in a decidedly offensive way.

The crux of the joke, after all, relies on our implicit understanding of the phenomenon of “inspiration porn,” a term coined by the late activist Stella Young. Gabriel’s career and public persona both rely heavily on the narrative of “overcoming” his disability, in the sense that he has embraced a love of singing and found success “despite” his congenital deafness. What’s more, unlike other “unlikely” talents in pop culture such as Susan Boyle who rose to celebrity due to their considerable technical proficiency as musicians, Gabriel’s appeal comes not from having any particular musical skill–he is not a very good singer by any reasonable standard–but rather from his ability to engage the audience’s sense of pathos.

The overlap of these two contrary narratives, wherein Gabriel is both held up as an inspiration for “overcoming” his disability by singing and presented as an object of pity for not singing very well, leads not only to cognitive dissonance, but also a distinct sense that his career and position in the public spotlight are rooted in a crass and emotionally manipulative commercialization of his disability.

Ward underlines this contradiction in the joke by deliberately confusing the kind of pathos Gabriel’s parents and managers are marketing with the familiar trope of the “Make-a-Wish” kid. The laughter of the audience–and they do laugh–comes from their recognition of the underlying narrative similarity. The punchline is not Gabriel’s disability itself, but the manner in which it has been packaged for public consumption.

I will close here by reiterating that I don’t endorse the joke and that I think Ward rightly deserves the harsh criticism he has received for choosing to publicly target someone much more vulnerable than himself as a part of his act. At the same time, I am distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of the legal system being empowered to decide what public figures are okay to for comedians to joke about. It’s a dangerous precedent and an anti-democratic one.

Ward has said he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary. If you really care about free speech, it will be a case to watch.

Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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3 Comments

  1. August 18, 2016 at 3:58 pm —

    I have no truck with Thin End of the Wedge arguments and it’s obvious that government should protect some of its citizens in ways that other citizens do not need.

    Most of us get to eat what we please, shag whoever we want and sign legal contracts on our own authority, and if someone bullies us we have to lump it or deal with it ourselves. Most of us are creatures known as ‘adults’.

    There is a subset of the population that the state protects from being fed dangerous diets or from having sex with anyone or from making unsuitable legal commitments. We call these people ‘children’ and they need – and have – more protection than the rest of us. Protecting a child from an adult bully is not an attack on free speech any more than protecting a child from a sweatshop owner is an attack on our freedom to hire who we like.

    • August 18, 2016 at 5:35 pm —

      Gabriel’s age was not the factor the court considered legally relevant in this case, but rather his status as a PWD. But if we are to follow your reasoning, does that mean Justin Bieber should also have been totally off-limits for comics and critics before he turned 18? Is the distinction between public figure and private citizen only valid for adults? If the nature of celebrity is to invite criticism, should the law intervene to prevent minors from becoming famous just as it keeps them out of coal mines?

      • August 19, 2016 at 7:58 am —

        Why on earth would we discuss whether it’d be okay for an adult to publicly bully underage Justin Bieber? Adults shouldn’t bully (or pimp, or overwork for low pay, or exploit) children. I’m not sure why you picked Bieber, but you did specify “before he turned 18”. Well, before he was an adult, he was a child.

        The nature of celebrity is to be photoshopped into nude pictures for the benefit of perverts. We don’t protect adult singers from that, but if it’s done with the face of a child singer we’d kick up fuss and the law would do something. It shouldn’t give anyone difficulty to understand that we give child singers protections that many celebrities might like, but that are reserved for children. Because they’re children.

        I suppose you could get all victim-blamey and say that any child who gets famous is asking for whatever they get, but that’s just not necessary.

        If some warped creep wants to call a child ugly for laughs on the television, they can damn well do as the perverts do and wait until the kid is 18 before shooting the load. (Or they could stop being a warped creep – here’s hoping…)

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