In defence of free speech and unfunny jokes
Recently I had to do research on Victorian morality, and I was surprised at certain resemblances between the period and our own era. As one would naturally expect, sexual morality has radically changed since the nineteenth century. Gladstone, a Liberal PM who had the makings of an old Testament prophet, whipped himself to atone for the sin of masturbation. I won’t bother elaborating on how great a contrast that holds to our own era, yet one surprising parallel between our own age and the Victorian period that I can’t help but notice is the toxic levels of moral outrage.
Of course, that is where the similarities end. The Victorians targeted their outrage on those they believed to be in defiance of Judeo-Christian values; from homosexuals to women who questioned the idea that their sole function was to be domestic utilities. In 1885 the Labouchere Amendment criminalised ‘gross indecency’ between men, enabling them to be prosecuted for their sexuality. In relation to women fighting for equality, Queen Victoria herself called the women’s rights movement a ‘mad, wicked folly.’ In contrast, our current culture targets its outrage at those accused of violating the sanctity of egalitarianism, even if this violation is in humour.
The best example of this is the case of Justine Sacco, a senior director of corporate communications in an American media and internet company called IAC. In Heathrow, just before boarding a flight to Cape Town for work in 2013, she tweeted a rather tasteless joke: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ Her journey was 11 hours. When she finally landed in Cape Town, her phone lit up with a stream of notifications. In those 11 hours, between England and Cape Town, Justine had unknowingly become notorious on Twitter. The hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet was trending worldwide, and people were even tracking the flight to wait for her plane to land. What these thousands of twitter users knew that Justine didn’t whilst she was napping during the flight, was that her company had made an announcement that she was to be fired for her tweet. One user wrote; ‘How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone.’ Some were more hateful, with one commenting; ‘All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail.’ One man even went to the airport and waited for Sacco’s arrival, taking a photo of her bewildered reaction and uploading it to social media. Her company, fearing the condemnation of the internet mob, fired her to save their own reputation.
Now, we can all agree that her joke was insensitive and offensive. Yet to define someone solely by a joke is to judge a stranger. Though we have progressively become a more liberal society, our quickness to condemn others bears the zealous intensity of the Victorian age, with the added consequence that in this new technological age we are more accountable than ever for the things we say and the things we do. This can be seen in a more recent case, when UKIP leader Henry Bolton’s girlfriend Jo Marney had her private Facebook messages leaked this month, exposing her abhorrent racist views. These messages went beyond tasteless humour, and included a criticism of Meghan Markle’s marriage to Prince Harry under the argument that ‘her seed will taint the royal family.’ Undoubtedly these eugenicist views are disgusting and Henry Bolton’s mild response to the messages shows that he clearly lacks the judgement required in a public figure. However, though these messages have been reported by broadsheets and tabloids alike, this case hasn’t led to any real debate about the ethical position of publishing someone’s private messages without their consent. Such lack of discussion shows an even greater normalisation of the decline of privacy and an ever-growing level of accountability, and though in this case the criticism of Jo Marney is justified, in many future cases stupid private jokes may cost someone both their job and their safety from the public eye. As someone who was not a public figure but simply in a relationship with one, Jo Marney`s case should not just be seen as the exposure of unjustifiable racism and the poor judgement of a discredited leader. This case also shows the increasing apathy to the protection of privacy by both the media and an unobjecting public. Now you may be wondering what connection declining privacy has to freedom of speech. I would argue that an environment in which even your private, intimate conversations can be published for public consumption is an environment in which debate and public dialogue is ever more stifled, as the limits of what is acceptable are reinforced by the cases of those who fell to public wrath. In an interview after Jo Marney`s messages were printed in the Daily Mail, Henry Bolton claimed that Jo Marney ‘was distraught.’ It is hard to muster much sympathy for a woman with such racist opinions, but if we look at the equal abuse targeted at people such as Justine Sacco, it paints a worrying picture of our era. It is perhaps a testament to our times that instead of addressing the genuine injustices and racism that inhabit our world, things that take both energy and time, thousands instead decided to target and abuse Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old woman holding no public office who made the unredeemable error of tweeting a bad joke.
Unless people use jokes to bully or degrade individuals, I don`t believe that jokes should define someone, and I don`t believe that people who make offensive jokes should be branded as racists, sexists, bigots or homophobes without an actual evaluation of their genuine beliefs. In the space of 11 hours, thousands of people who had never even met Justine had decided she was a racist who deserved both hatred and the loss of her job, all on the basis of a single joke on twitter. Of course, people have the right to criticise such jokes as tasteless and poor quality. The majority of the jokes I make, whether offensive or clean, are generally unfunny (apparently). But when people call for reprisals it highlights an underlying problem with our perception of free speech. Those who criticise someone’s very right to make certain jokes and argues for them to be punished are often seen as fighting for what’s morally right. The self-satisfaction that fuels such hostility is unhealthy, and certainly not a benefit to an inclusive democracy. Trying to censor someone’s voice should never be romanticised, yet in this century free speech often feels condensed into the enclosed boundaries of what is deemed acceptable. You’re allowed to disagree providing it is not too disagreeable, and allowed to say anything aside from the unsayable.
The primary threat to free speech therefore is not state control or regulation, as Orwell once feared at the dawn of the Cold War. It is instead our attitudes as a society, something far harder to change than any state legislation, yet something we cannot be complacent about. Those who don’t fall behind the consensus are often at risk of denouncement and public shame, with their jobs lost and their social standing in ruins. A belief in free speech is not to believe that everybody is equally right, and that there is no objective truth. It is instead a belief that through open dialogue we can progress and maintain the health of our democracy. When people are shut out from discussion they become isolated, and this disillusionment leads to a devaluation of our democratic principles of inclusiveness. Those who are confined to the margins of political conversation with no voice tend to be the ones most drawn to extremes. But how are we to have real dialogue and constructive debate if even a joke can condemn you to unemployment?