We should probably thank Nigel Farage, truth be told. His suggestion that a joke told by comedian Jo Brand on a BBC radio show amounted to incitement to violence, and should be investigated by the police, has proven something we have long suspected, but never quite been able to put our finger on.
When it comes to being a "snowflake", that most progressive of negative things, the political right are some of the biggest flakes in the blizzard.
BBC comedy is going through a rough patch at the moment, criticised repeatedly for being “too woke,” “too progressive,” “too politically correct” and, by extension, not funny enough. This once great institution’s tradition of producing side-splitting humour is now, more often than not, met with a roll of the eyes, or a shrug of the shoulders.
It isn’t edgy enough, so people say, which is why things like the shouty Jonathan Pie have stolen a march, or why people now flock to Comedy Unleashed, a show that promises irreverence and offence.
Very often, the criticism comes from the political right. And many have a point – it isn’t especially cutting these days, it plays safe and seeks to avoid offence. Brand did neither in joking that she found “milkshaking” pathetic when you could use battery acid instead, and that makes Farage’s shrill response all the more hypocritical.
Whether the joke was funny or not, it was at least an attempt at something she and other BBC regulars are so often accused of avoiding. She didn’t stick to the same old script. She tried to push a boundary, tried to say something that risked causing offence, which so many people on the right, champions of free expression, have been calling for.
For Farage to retreat into the realm of the offended, and for websites like Guido Fawkes to refer to the gag as “hate speech” is more ludicrous than the premise of the joke itself.
A lot of the discontent on the right comes from the fact that many on it feel they get a raw deal – they feel they are the butt of more jokes than the left, and they argue that the jokes themselves have disappeared, to be replaced by diatribes against conservatism, Brexit and austerity.
There is, actually, a lot of truth in this. But the response cannot be to complain that life isn’t fair. You cannot claim to be for free speech, and then call in the police when it is used against you. That is the deal the right has signed up to – if you champion free speech, then you roll with the vitriol sent your way. It’s a moral path you cannot deviate from.
The BBC’s decision to stand by Brand, meanwhile, should be applauded.
It is another bugbear of so many that when someone says something deemed “offensive”, that person is quick to be thrown under the bus. The corporation sharply divided opinion when it sacked Danny Baker over a tweet about Meghan Markle’s baby featuring a chimp in a suit. Baker appeared genuinely upset and contrite, but failed to brush aside the accusations of racism, and the axe fell. Many were disappointed that it did.
That looked like a precedent, but one many on the right believed was wrong. So why the disappointment that Brand has not been sacked? This is surely the direction that those most angry with Brand would like us to move in – where people can say offensive things in jest, but not lose their livelihoods.
The argument will be that it’s a double standard, but the two incidents are so different as to defy reasonable comparison. The BBC's defence noted that the Radio 4 show Heresy encourages panellists to be "deliberately provocative" but that their contributions are "not intended to be taken seriously".
Brand’s joke about throwing battery acid at people wasn’t very funny. But neither is the joke of Nigel Farage calling for the police to crack down on people telling jokes. A sorry episode all round for free speech, for comedy, and the right.
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