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No Ricky Gervais, defending offensive shitposters isn’t a matter of free speech

The freedom to joke is not in jeopardy.

Ricky Gervais has gone on the offensive.

 Not in his usual manner – calling people ‘mongs’, doubling down on his transphobia by comparing trans people to chimps in his latest standup special or by foisting The Invention Of Lying on an unsuspecting public.

This time he’s thrown his considerable heft behind a gent who goes by the name of Count Dankula. In the likely event you don’t know who Mr Dankula is, he’s a “self-confessed shitposter” whose hobby is posting videos filmed in his bedroom on Youtube with titles such as “Give minorities all your money”, “Eating ice cream is gay” and “Snapchatting your balls to a Livestreamer”.

Count’s stock in trade is point-missing whataboutery, finding the extremes of an otherwise reasonable view to try and discredit it, and generally being the guy you get stuck next to at a student party who has some views on veganism that will blow your tiny provincial mind, dude. 

Dankula came to the attention of more than just his 130,000 Youtube subscribers recently by being found guilty of breaching Section 127 of the 2003 U.K. Communications Act, which prohibits "grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, or menacing" electronic communications.” He did this by repeatedly saying “Want to gas the Jews?” to his girlfriend’s dog, making it watch Hitler rallies and trying to teach it to perform a Nazi salute. All the relevant information on the case was viewed by the court, the evidential standard was deemed to have been met, and the verdict was given. He is due to be sentenced in April, with a maximum sentence of six months theoretically possible (although extremely unlikely for a first offence).

People have leapt to Dankula’s defence and for the defence of “free speech”. These have included Katie Hopkins (who described migrants as cockroaches”), snake-oil salesman and Alex Jones glove puppet Paul J Watson and convicted criminal Tommy Robinson, whose hobbies include punching migrants

Milo Yiannopolous would no doubt be supporting him on Twitter too, had he not been thrown off for expressing grossly offensive views.

These people and their supporters, have very specific targets for their open and frank discussions – Jews, immigrants, Muslims, trans people, etc. Odd that they never seem to want to discuss the morality of corporate tax fraud, republicanism, institutional misogyny, etc. And joining them is, of course, Ricky Gervais.

Other comics have criticised the ruling, saying comedians should be allowed to tell whatever jokes they want without fear of prosecution. Saying “Want to gas the Jews?” 23 times may be one of those jokes that loses something in the telling. Either way, the case has thrown together stranger bedfellows than a swinger’s party on The Island Of Dr Moreau.

Fans of offensive comedy worry that the verdict will set a precedent that will rob them of their source of entertainment. They also seem willing to set aside the content of what the comedy is being offensive about, or how, or why. This is the equivalent of drinking to get drunk and not caring how foul or revolting the booze is, so long as it gets you there. If you watch comedy to be shocked, a taser gun is far more efficient and has never made light of a Holocaust.

The problem with this kind of fellowship is that it presumes everyone is playing the same sport. Otherwise-reasonable writers and comedians condemning this law (the true target of their condemnation, surely, rather than the verdict – the court simply enforced that law) are neither useful nor idiots but in a dim light could be mistaken for both.

To follow the sport analogy, they want Dankula to be able to use the same boxing ring as they do. The difference is, they feel he is doing the same kind of sparring as they are, when in fact he is figuratively kicking a cat to death and setting fire to it to make idiots smirk.

Also, the freedom to joke has not been placed under jeopardy here. The lack of freedom to broadcast grossly offensive material, a law that has existed for fifteen years without comedy ceasing to exist, has been enforced. If the 2003 Act is such a threat to free speech, it has been remarkably slow in getting there.

If Ricky Gervais really is a fan of free speech, maybe he should stop blocking Twitter users who criticise him, or retweet posts that do anything other than shower him with praise. And if Count Dankula wants to continue in his career as a shitposter, he needs to accept that posting shit sometimes gets your hands dirty.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge