Anyone finding this blog post is sure to be familiar with the recent spectacle of the Hitler-saluting pug and the conviction of its owner, ‘Count Dankula’ (aka Mark Meechan), for a hate crime. Meechan now faces a potential prison sentence for effectively posting a crude joke on YouTube.
And understood in context, it evidently was a joke. Meechan was fed up with his girlfriend doting on their adorable pug, so to piss her off he turned it into, in his own words, “the least cute thing I could think of”, ie, into a Jew-hating genocidal Nazi-dog, thereby despoiling its cuteness. The joke – obviously – is that the dog is not consciously aware it’s heartily endorsing a hateful ideology; it remains blissfully cute and furry, excitedly hopping around and raising its paw all Nazi-like on hearing the phrase “gas the Jews”.
It was this phrase, and its repeated use by Meechan in the video, which was the principal objection of the court. Meechan was found guilty under the Communications Act of sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive”. There are a number of reasons this piece of legislation is spectacularly stupid, the most obvious of which is: who is to say what should be deemed ‘grossly offensive’ as opposed to just, say, mildly offensive? The cry of ‘offence’ will be familiar to religious zealots and theocrats, who have deployed it exhaustively in their struggle to prevent criticism of their ideas. And while joking about the holocaust may reasonably be seen as more offensive than questioning someone’s religious beliefs, the two are still comparable in the murky world of offence-taking, as each of the offended parties may subjectively consider themselves equally ‘grossly offended’. Thus, we had the spectacle in Meechan’s court case of a Jewish ‘community leader’ solemnly giving evidence that yes, the Nazi pug video and accompanying phase were indeed grossly offensive.
But what does it really matter that some bloke in Scotland might go to jail for a joke about Nazis and the holocaust? We’re certainly not short of commentators and celebrities (even other comedians) telling us that it’s all fine and good and, at the end of the day, the freedom to make offensive jokes doesn’t really matter, does it? Oh and by the way, the only ones defending free speech are the ‘alt-right’ and ‘Nazis’, so what does that tell you about the importance of free speech?
It’s true that whenever free speech does actually need defending, it normally involves someone with offensive or objectionable views or someone saying something offensive/objectionable. If this weren’t the case, there would be no need to ever defend it: no one would ever be offended by anything, and we could all float around in blissful bubbles with smiles on our faces safe in the knowledge our feelings would never be hurt and our minds would be comfortably closed. Well, bullshit. Nobody has the right ‘not to be offended’, and a hate crime for being ‘grossly offensive’, although seemingly innocuous and unimportant, is fundamentally antithetical to the principle of free expression; a principle which is foundational to freedom and progress.
The lowest ranked countries on global listings of free expression or press freedom all reliably turn out to be repressive autocracies whose citizens suffer from a paucity of many other rights we in the UK take for granted (healthcare, welfare, education, fundamental human rights, the list goes on and on). Free expression is the freedom from which all other freedoms derive. The trickle-down effect is palpable, enabling the free exchange of ideas, debate, argument, and ultimately progress. Of course criminalizing a Nazi pug is not going to suddenly lead to the downfall of British free society. But it is a misguided and illiberal step in the wrong direction, setting a worrying authoritarian legal precedent. Ultimately, it’s an abnegation of the hard-fought and vitally important principle of free expression, which must always include the freedom to offend.
*An amusing irony in the Dankula Nazi pug case is that if he’d taught his dog to Seig Heil in Nazi Germany, he’d most likely have been imprisoned or killed for mocking the Fuhrer.
In keeping with all the above, here’s a holocaust joke from the brilliant Brass Eye. I look forward to my day in court for sending by means of electronic communication a message or other matter that is grossly offensive – maybe I’ll get to meet Chris Morris!