The issue of freedom of speech and the right to offend is always thorny. It is a subject I think of often, finding myself struggling to pinpoint exactly what degree of offence is acceptable with freedom of speech. But something I consider less often is the point where freedom of speech transitions into hate speech. Up till now, that line has seemed fairly clear-cut to me. But I am coming to the realisation that this may not be the case, especially for many other people.
In my view, hate speech has always been speech which either expresses or incites unadulterated and prejudiced hatred or violence towards a group or community. It is the sort of speech which evinces no real desire to understand people’s differences, or to genuinely challenge belief or opinion. I do not think of hate speech as something the speaker stumbles into by accident, but more as a concerted effort to spread a point of view mired in bitterness and anger.
So what happens when people doing things that might be perceived as hate speech or action by some (or even most of us), claim to have been joking?
Take the UKIP activist Jack Neill. In 2016, photos surfaced of him in black face, wearing a clown wig and nose. Jack Neill claimed that the pictures were simply ‘a joke…something that one does in their spare time’. A UKIP election candidate at the time, Jack Jardine, defended Neill, saying that the reason Neill was in black face was because he was using an acne treatment.
Consider Mark Meechan, who filmed his girlfriend’s pug responding with Nazi salutes to the words ‘Sieg Heil’. He claimed the video was a joke to annoy his girlfriend, but was nevertheless fined for his actions.
In both cases, it is apparent that the excuse of the offending action being a joke (or an acne treatment) is a kind of catch-all method of diminishing and waving away each occurrence in order to undermine full consideration of it. While both men may believe that claiming to have been joking renders their action harmless, the very depiction of such actions as a joke is worrying.
Let’s say you believe that no racist motivation whatsoever fuelled either Jack Neill or Mark Meechan’s actions. Let’s say you believe they genuinely thought they were joking. Is it satisfactory to let the matter end there? To ask for no further explanation?
As it happens, Mark Meechan did offer a further explanation. He felt that the point of the joke was ‘the juxtaposition of having an adorable animal reacting to something vulgar’. ‘Vulgar’ is not a strong enough word to describe Meechan’s words throughout the video. They were unfailingly anti-semitic. Having an innocent and unknowing animal reacting to those words cannot be dismissed as a joke. That juxtaposition actually highlights the horror of how easy it is to manipulate people, animals and things into puppets of hateful ideologies.
I am not suggesting for a moment that the pug was a puppet of Naziism – that would be absurd. But it must be noted that juxtaposition of innocence and evil has rarely been the subject of jokes, and does not suddenly become one just because Meechan says it is.
I do not know what the best course of action is to take with people such as Meechan and Neill. While I personally feel that officially punishing them will only drive hateful ideologies underground, allowing them to emerge in the future more potent than ever before, I understand that others disagree. But I do think we should be wary of seeing their actions as totally distinct from more clear cut (and criminal) hate crimes.
A Jewish friend of mine who wears a small Star of David necklace once told me a chilling story. Whilst out in a club with some female friends, his group was approached by three men. They started trying to chat up the girls, making a few sexual comments that made everyone in the group uncomfortable. My friend told them to go away in fairly blunt terms. They looked at him, started laughing amongst themselves, and then without warning all three coordinated in a Nazi salute. They were laughing all the while.
My friend was understandably shaken and horrified by what had happened. Few would disagree that what the men did was despicable. What they did was designed to frighten my friend, and their laughter indicates that they had blurred the line between joke and threat.
Shouting words like ‘Sieg Heil’ and making other anti-semitic statements in front of a pug is not the same as directing them at a Jewish person, but they do exist in the same sphere. One is evidently a hate crime; the other contains all the material of a hate crime.
I know this may seem like a classic argument about how everything is a slippery slope. Many people feel that these arguments are alarmist – they certainly can be. But we need to recognise that although humour is subjective, that does not mean that jokes should exist without scrutiny or even condemnation. We should not try to see the jokiness in what people like Meechan or Neill do, nor should we try and make excuses for them. Let them make their so-called jokes, but let them also know that the rest of us are turning our backs on them, exercising our freedom to condemn.