Free speech and the problem of binary responses

Leaving character judgments aside, videos such the one made by Mark Meechan, of his dog responding to the phrase ‘gas the Jews’ with a Nazi salute, should be legally permissible.

Legal questions don’t answer ethical questions. I think that this joke’s concept is grossly insensitive, and I do think that people need to spend more time worrying about what they find funny, and why.

It’s glib, and uninformative, to simply cite “transgression” as your reason for being offensive, because we don’t apply that principle at all consistently. What’s more “transgressive” than telling a parent that their toddler looks really hot in that nappy? (Or babysuit, or onesie – it has a name, but I can’t recall it, because it’s about babies.)

But we don’t do that, because we still believe that there should be some point to the transgression – some lesson to be learned, or some sensitivity to be rattled.

And because I know I have blind-spots and sensitivities of my own, I know that I should “check” my default reaction of feeling offended when it happens (which is pretty much never, but that’s not the point), and recognise that satire, comedy, parody etc. play a valuable role, and that we should be wary of silencing voices that make us uncomfortable.

As I’ve said many times in the past, even hateful speech should usually be permitted, and South Africa is heading in entirely the wrong direction with the recent Parliamentary endorsement of the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.

But recognising or agreeing that something should be legally permissible is an entirely separate issue from celebrating, encouraging, or endorsing it. I can see the surface humour in a dog doing a Nazi salute, but the payoff doesn’t seem worth the cost of committing “gas the Jews” to YouTube (and yes, I know that Meechan never intended to have this reach a wider audience, but that outcome was pretty predictable).

Some defenders of free speech take a binary approach to this, and for the most part, so do I – but only in terms of the law. We should not use the law, and legal protections for free speech, as a way of obscuring the fact that the right to do something is a separate matter from the obligation to do so, and that we can sometimes condemn speech that we think should nevertheless be legal.

Here (in the ‘Nazi dog’ case), the context is important. The Rwanda comparisons I’ve seen some make on Twitter aren’t salient, because even though the video was shared on Reddit, it’s unlikely to reach an audience who is inclined to kill Jews, and who don’t already have a reason (however poorly formulated) for thinking this a good idea.

Second, we have to remember that policy, and social norms, are not just for now. We’re priming and programming society as we go, and the last thing we want to do is to normalise the idea that people are so easily influenced that offensive jokes make them kill Jews.

Instead, we should be encouraging people to develop the arguments that make it clear why jokes like this aren’t funny, or/and embed certain stereotypes that we’re trying to eliminate. That doesn’t happen through suppressing your source material, but through discussing it and its implications.

Lastly, none of this denies the obvious (to me, and many of you) point that the concept of “free speech” can act in service of the dominant ideas of the day, and serve the interests of privileged groups, simply because it’s far more difficult to offend a middle-class white heterosexual such as myself than it is to offend many other people.

That’s a historical and cultural reality, and denying it is on the same spectrum as teaching my cat to do a Nazi salute. But it’s also a problem that needs to be fixed via economic and educational equality, without sacrificing valuable norms (like free speech) along the way.

But until there is reason to believe that we can be “equal opportunity offenders”, it’s worth remembering that not everyone can take anything as a joke, and that there’s still no good reason to be an ass.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.