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.
“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.