Social-network scandals flare and fade at a speed that makes the lifespan of a mayfly look like Methuselah’s. So you may have missed the ephemeral squall that greeted Facebook’s blocking of Viz magazine from its site this week.
Fans of grubby and puerile comics brandished their none-too-hygienic fists online, especially as Viz feared not just temporary suspension but “permanent deletion”. Eager to fit in with Facebook’s “welcoming, respectful environment”, the comic then tweeted pictures of a kitten, a puppy and some flowers.
Never fear: Facebook soon backed down, announcing that the erasure of Viz had been an “error”. The corporation reassured us that it allows users to “express their opinion and challenge ideas”, even via “satire and comedy”. Hey, who needs constitutions, freedom-of-speech legislation and human-rights charters when you have Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg on your side?
So let’s hear a real Facebook joke. Last year, if you earned the average UK income, you gave more than £1,000 more than Facebook did to HMRC. Income tax and national insurance on £26,500 comes to about £5,400. Facebook paid a grand total of £4,327 in UK corporation tax in 2014, after having contrived a paper “loss” on its operations here by granting £35.4m in bonuses to staff. A fortnight ago, it revealed its full-year global revenues for 2015: $17.93bn, with a net income of $3.69bn. Laugh? In underfunded hospitals starved of vital resources by sanctimonious tax-shirking billionaires, we nearly died.
I doubt that Facebook obliterated Viz in “error”. Embarrassed by their propensity to host vindictive trolls, junior jihadis, borderline paedophiles and other antisocial online species, all the networks have sought to clean up their act. Recently, Twitter trumpeted new anti-troll measures – the latest of several vows to reform. Facebook’s own guidelines forbid “hate speech”, which covers “direct attacks” based on “national origin” as well as religion, gender and ethnicity. So I could, presumably, freely take aim in its well-fenced online garden of gentility at prating, hypocritical Californian prigs, but not at prating, hypocritical American prigs.
The terrorists, the traffickers, the sadistic trolls and other such low-lifes should have no safe place to hide. But to enter the domain of virtual community-policing, Facebook-style, is to time-slip back to Puritan New England. Strict elders enforce norms that conceive of “speech” solely as a direct statement of belief and intent. In this tight-buttoned village, play, irony, satire and parody – the stock-in-trade of Viz, as well as more sophisticated wits – can survive only on sufferance and under suspicion. Fall foul of these godly governors and penalties will ensue, although “the consequences for violating our Community Standards vary depending on the severity of the violation and the person’s history in Salem”. Sorry, “on Facebook”. The faggots and the stake await.
Free-speech campaigners find it easy to battle for some dauntless blogger languishing in the cells of a medieval tyranny, or a fugitive whistleblower with a laptop full of state secrets and spooks on his trail. But the defence of liberty begins not with the stuff that you like, but the stuff you don’t. Rude, crude, scurrilous and scatological, Viz, with its Fat Slags, its Sid the Sexist, its Cockney Wanker, its Johnny Fartpants, belongs to a venerable British – and also European – tradition of coarse humour rooted in bodily functions. For the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, in his book on the grotesque comedy of Rabelais, the “carnivalesque” body champions “the life of the belly and the reproductive organs” against the onerous demands of faith and duty. “This is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes.” It’s the way that he tells them.
Despite this august lineage, it can upset high‑minded libertarians when they have to uphold the rights of low-minded scoffers. When non-French libertarians took a look at Charlie Hebdo after the jihadi massacre of its staff in Paris last January, they were often aghast. Rather than profundity, they found profanity: not elegant Voltairean sallies against superstition but gross caricatures, lavatorial gags and adolescent smuttiness. In right-thinking transatlantic circles, the wave of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity rapidly gave way to a backlash in which (for instance) the writers Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje withdrew from a New York event in honour of the magazine.
Freedom, however, must take the rough with the smooth. Last month, Charlie Hebdo blotted its copybook with liberals again. Its special edition to mark a year since the slaughter sketched the image of a small migrant boy lying drowned on a Greek beach, and asked: “What would have become of little Aylan had he grown up?” Answer: “Ass-groper in Germany.” Cue a thunderstorm of outrage. In its context, that cartoon strikes me as a brutal take-down of racist assumptions about refugees. Riss, the artist, grasped that many of the same Europeans who had shed transient tears for Aylan were now jumping to deeply prejudiced conclusions about male asylum-seekers. You may disagree. Yet it is on these shifting sands of mixed messages, ironic reversals and inbuilt ambiguities that Facebook seeks to build its online court of morals.
One can readily imagine the sort of conversation that would have led the site to expel Viz from its wholesome pastures. “Your first impression is of overpowering vulgarity,” the supporters of a ban might have said. “This is quite apart from the ever-present obscenity… They have an utter lowness of mental atmosphere which comes out not only in the nature of the jokes but, even more, in the grotesque, staring, blatant quality of the drawings… all the figures in them, every gesture and attitude, are deliberately ugly, the faces grinning and vacuous, the women monstrously parodied…” In fact that is George Orwell’s verdict on smutty seaside postcards in his great essay “The Art of Donald McGill”, published in 1941.
Orwell does not censure the crude dirty postcards. He celebrates them. They represent the revolt of the “unofficial self”: body against soul, belly against Bible. “It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly,” Orwell writes. “That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed lowness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever… Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue.” Orwell detects the traditional morality hidden within the sauce and smut: the way that randy milkmen and battleaxe mothers-in-law, pneumatic housewives and lamp-post-butting drunks all pay their back-handed tribute to a “stable society”.
That was then: a remote and, arguably, more innocent age. Yet McGill’s style of naff naughtiness has a close kinship with the Carry On films, with Benny Hill’s shows and a still-thriving brand of low comedy that takes its carnal cue from music-hall vulgarians such as Max Miller, with his “white” joke book for one audience and “blue” for another. According to comedy legend, the gag that got Miller banned from the BBC was the one about meeting a naked blonde on a narrow mountain pass (social-media executives, look away now): “Cor blimey, I didn’t know whether to toss myself off or block her passage.”
The world of Viz has not changed much from Miller’s and McGill’s. This week, my curiosity piqued by the brouhaha, I took a peek for the first time in years. Sometimes, it hits the spot. For instance: “A Twitter and Facebook storm was last night raging as all social network users pressed for everyone in Britain to be sacked for offending everyone else… ‘I am furious about some sort of unacceptable situation that I have read about on the internet when I was supposed to be working,’ another outraged Facebooker posted.” Bull’s-eye.
Even the items you approach with a heavier heart – the 1980 O-level paper in “sexism studies”, for instance – would merit an Orwellian defence. Sample questions: “Explain why the best women’s football team in the world wouldn’t stand a chance against you and 10 of your mates”, or: “Women drivers, eh? Discuss.” My favourite? “Argue heatedly over the respective merits of the Lamborghini Diablo and Ferrari Testarossa without ever having seen, let alone driven, either.”
Anyone with half a brain can see the direction of travel here. But would a social-media algorithm get the joke? Remember, too, that Viz once devised a motor-mouthed tabloid columnist called “Richard Littlecock”. For that alone, the comic deserves its reprieve from cyberspace oblivion.
No one disputes the duty of social networks to monitor the villains and the victimisers. Yet they act according to a double standard, rejecting the legal responsibilities of a true publisher whenever it suits them, then playing the censor to polish their respectable credentials.
Besides, the shutdown that briefly silenced Viz exposes a cloth ear for tone, for genre, for audience. Satire, even scatological satire, has its own norms that deserve respect. Rather than meddle in an art form they cannot understand, the prissy witch-finders of Menlo Park might consider paying more UK tax than a registered nurse on the median NHS salary. That would shock us all.