Mark Twain once said that “A sense of humor is the one thing no one will admit to not having.” Twain observation came to mind this week when Robin DiAngelo warned that “Comedy is . . . an excuse to get to be racist.” It appears that DiAngelo is moving from “White Fragility” to white comedy. The remarks of the author of the book “White Fragility” were carried on the Wisconsin-based non-profit Mythinformed. DiAngelo singled out “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” as racist entertainment. For free speech advocates, the comments are concerning given the crackdown in other countries on comedians.
DiAngelo explained how comedy is a dangerous gateway for racism:
“Comedy is, I think, an excuse to get to be racist, right? I think TV shows like ‘Family Guy’ and ‘South Park’ and maybe a little bit ‘The Simpsons’ allowed White people to be racist self-consciously. Like, ‘I know I’m being racist and therefore it doesn’t count and it’s OK.’ I don’t think it’s benign to do it in a joking way. And there is a concept in comedy called punching up, not down. So if you want to punch up, there are very different power dynamics and it doesn’t hurt in the same way. It doesn’t invoke a deep, deep centuries-long history of oppression when you poke fun at say, White people. But it’s very, very different when you poke fun at people of color.”
Thus, comedians would be allowed to “puke fun at say White People,” but not people of color.
Notably, years ago, it was the Bush family condemning shows like The Simpson and Family Guy. The media widely panned them for the criticism and reminded them that this was just a comedy show.
Such suggestions have become effective commands in other countries. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in Europe (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. ( here and here and here). Scotland and other countries are adopting even broader rules that could eviscerate comedic entertainment.
We previously discussed one case where comedian Guy Earle has been called before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal for violating the human rights of a lesbian couple by trading insulting comments at a nightclub.
Canada is now facing a major ruling in the case of another comedian. A Quebec comedian, Mike Ward, is known for his irreverent and often insulting comedic stylings. In 2010, he mocked a younger singer named Jeremy Gabriel (known as “Petit Jeremy”) who was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder that can affect facial bone structure and severe deafness. Ward joked about trying to drown him as well as mocking his appearance. It was distasteful but the audience laughed and Ward followed up by saying “I didn’t know how far I could go with that joke. At one point I said to myself, you’re going too far, they’re going to stop laughing. But no, you didn’t.”
Gabriel later sued and the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal ruled against Ward for having “exceeded the limits of freedom of expression” and discriminating on the basis of disability. The comedian appealed and lost before the Court of Appeal. The court gave cursory recognition of the obvious free speech dangers but insisted that its “intention is not to restrict creativity or censor artists’ opinions” but “comedians, like any citizen, are responsible for the consequences of their words when they cross certain lines.”
The question is whether those lines should apply to any citizens or whether such distasteful or cruel comments are still protected. Ward was mocking a fellow celebrity and in the United States his jokes are protected.
He is now appealing to the Canadian Supreme Court and comedians from around the world have rallied to his defense.
I would not wish to have to choose between the comedic stylings of DiAngelo and Ward. Instead, we can recognize that they both have free speech protections in voicing their views even if others find the unintentionally laughable or decidedly not funny.