Jimmy Carr is no stranger to controversy or outrage. The most recent regards a joke made on his Netflix special His Dark Materials in which the punchline was that the genocide of Romani was a ‘positive’ of the Holocaust. Most reasonable people were offended by the joke because the joke was offensive. Nothing in this argument is a defense of the joke.
I instead want to flip the debate a bit to look at an aspect of the ‘freedom of speech’ debate that doesn’t get a lot of attention: what happens when people are trying to be offensive?
We need a bit of piping to get to a reasonable discussion and why our immediate intuitions need some air to breathe. First, let’s just restate my general rule about freedom of speech: if somebody else is paying the price of your speech, you need to justify it to the most rational version of that person. The people who go full-bellied on the ‘I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend until the death your right to say it’ sloganeering tend not to be the people who pay the full cost of homophobic, racist, transphobic, antisocial speech. There are three groups of people who really go full absolutist on freedom of speech: libertarians whose brains have atrophied, liberals who haven’t really thought through the problem beyond slogans, and grifters. For everybody else, there’s usually some limit to speech, but the precise dimensions are vague and general. When I put my general rule to people, I find very few people who disagree with it: if you want to do something where somebody else has to pay the price of it, you need to justify it to that other person. Now that other person might be unreasonable, vexatious, or keen for scandal, and so we don’t mean that person specifically, but some reasonable version of that person.
‘Hi, I want to make art that is deeply offensive to devout Christians.’
It’s surprising how few times our discussions about offensive art asks the question: ‘Why?’ Why this art? Why did we need to offend people? Is the world a better place because you’ve upset a group of people?
No context justifies the joke that Jimmy Carr made, but I tend to think that writing out a joke is the easiest way to strip it of any mitigating factors. When you see the joke written out, it just looks awful.
A few outlets were decent enough to provide video of the joke being delivered. What was surprising about the delivery is that it was clearly part of a bigger joke. There’s clearly something in the context which is changing the dynamics of what is being said. Carr says ‘The thing about the Holocaust’ and the audience starts laughing and cheering. Unless we think that the audience was full of monsters who support the Holocaust, something else is at work.
And so I went to check. I had tried to watch the special a few weeks ago but gave up after a few minutes. I’m not a huge fan of filmed stand up comedy specials, with some notable exceptions (James Acaster’s Repertoire and Cold Lasagne Hate Myself are masterpieces, and the earlier Dave Chappelle specials are really fascinating). I quite like Jimmy Carr as a TV presenter, but I’m not a huge fan of adolescent ‘Edge Lord’ comedy.
After skipping through at great speed, towards the end of the set Jimmy Carr tells the audience that he wants to tell the ‘Career Killing Jokes’. He then starts telling some pretty gross jokes, clearly escalating to see how far he can push the audience.
So this is where the analysis gets awkward and I’m not entirely sure which way to go. I don’t see any utility in jokes that are offensive for the sake of being offensive. I don’t think we’re in a better world now that Jimmy Carr has made a joke about the Holocaust.
But there’s also a tradition of this style of cultural product that is all about trying to offend the censorious (i.e. people like me). Juvenile and crass comedy has helped inform where we set the lines for what meets community standards of broadcasting and art. And that’s clearly what is intended here: Carr is trying to be offensive for the sake of testing where the threshold is for the audience to find things funny.
In situations like this, we should feel some tension. I think we’re moving away from the idea that ‘just a joke’ doesn’t really cut it as an excuse. I’m not sure the extent to which the ‘offensive for the sake of it’ thread of cultural product has aged that well, even if it did have a time and place back in the 1960s and 1970s.
The context flavours this one, even if it doesn’t strictly justify it. On paper and with careful edits, it was an abhorrent thing to say. But in the context of a set where he says he wants to make ‘Career Killing Jokes’, I’m not sure that the joke really is targeting Romanis but, instead, the censorious. Definitely, he did a better job of this than Ricky Gervais–there is at least some art to the crafting of these jokes–but, again, I’m not sure that the genre of joke is worth defending.
That, ultimately, is the intuition that I’m sitting with. Lots of people think that if the joke is funny, then being offensive is a worthwhile goal in itself. Some people even get that part of the argument backwards: that being offensive is funny in itself (which is Gervais’ schtick). I don’t think that being offensive is a worthwhile goal in itself and, instead, we need to justify why people should tolerate being offended. And I think we can make that shift even while recognising that pushing taboos or whatever have changed social norms about what’s acceptable and what’s offensive.