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Friday 6 April 2018

Filosophy on Friday: Have you heard the one about the Nazi Pug?

The Case of Count Dankula or Comedy v. Propaganda or Just because you’re a **** doesn’t mean that you should go to prison or Doin’ time for the lulz

I wasn’t aware of Markus Meechan, AKA Count Dankula, before the court case that ended with his conviction of performing a hate crime at Airdrie Sheriff's Court, but I was certainly aware of the style of ‘comedy’ that he perpetuates. He self-applies the labels of; ‘professional shitposter’, and ‘edgi boi’. All these sorts of juvenile comedy tropes AKA ‘surreal troll humour’, and that’s exactly what they are, they aren’t anything new it’s just that the internet has allowed them to develop a life of their own outside of the schoolyard. It reminds me of the language and the style of bullies, quite comically sharp, and very personal. So it’s fair to say that there’s not a great deal about ‘his work’ and his personality that I like, but that’s not what this post is about. I’m not interested (mainly) in him, I’m interested in the outcome of the court case and what this means (for 'freedom') and indeed how this is being used as propaganda (by the alt-right, but also pro-government centrists, misinformed libertarian pseuds, and reactionary lefties, most of whom are missing the argument and making their own political statements).

However, it is useful to try and discover what the basis of the humour is and to do that we need to look a little at Meechan himself, otherwise we’re just taking a statement (or joke) out of context. He also calls himself an advocate of free speech, “Pro Free Speech” (@countdankulatv on Twitter), but most of his interactions (that I’ve observed on Twitter) are either retweeting Right-wing ‘dog whistle’ memes:

Making Right-wing talking points:

Or attacking “far Left screechers” and closing down the argument by blocking them or ‘insulting’ them by saying, “you’re a virgin” or “you’re gay,” which is something that is so obviously what a fourteen year-old bully would say, that it’s practically a joke on itself, but it’s still doing the same thing, so it doesn’t actually escape the orbit of being juvenile inflammatory derogatory s***e-talk, but all that being said being a juvenile c*** doesn’t mean you should suffer censure (although this isn’t a general rule, there are exceptions, again context will be our guide) or indeed go to prison (I think this is pretty generally true, otherwise we’ll be jailing the actual 14 year-old bullies for calling someone a “bender”).

To be ‘shocking’ is be part of a reaction against what is considered normalcy, and yet Meechan has also been described as a ‘Centrist’ or ‘Centre-Left’ politically, but I see no evidence of that (which doesn’t mean that it isn’t the case), and he defines himself as being for ‘equality’ and ‘gay rights’ from the Left, but likes ‘Freedom’ from the Right. However, I don’t think that ‘Freedom’ is of the Left or the Right, it could be equated to Libertarianism possibly, but avenues of anti-authority and anti-government are found in both political theories of the Left and the Right. However, I don’t really think that this a discussion Meechan needs to make or can particularly ‘win’ at, especially if he is calling himself a ‘comedian’. Your personal political perspectives are just that, personal, and so long as it doesn’t include depriving others of their rights or lives then keep quiet about it unless you’re engaging in a political message (public or private).

Although we could (and will) debate as to what counts as comedy, this being a personal perspectival aesthetic decision, there is a wider reaching issue of comedy being appropriated for another point. Whether or not you find something funny isn’t the end of the debate, the bully (and the bully’s mates) always finds their insults amusing, those being ‘picked on’ very rarely laugh along (truthfully). That someone finds something amusing, doesn’t always give the joke teller a free pass. Again, this depends on context.

Can any behaviour, an actual Nazi rally for example, be waved away with, “it’s only a joke!”? Obviously, the answer to this really is, “no, of course not,” but perhaps we could jokingly answer in the affirmative, simply to aggravate those that are easily aggravated by such and perhaps that’s the joke here. To mock those that are overly serious or too earnest in their beliefs (something that I’d consider to be a particularly British approach). If the joke is just to annoy the easily offended (and take pleasure in that), can the jokers really be surprised when their targets are indeed offended and complain ‘to teacher’? Don’t poke the moany Tiger if you don’t want him to bite.

So, what’s the joke of “m8 yer dug’s a Nazi” exactly? If it’s not a joke; it’s trying to provoke a reaction, which (especially with a subject like Nazis) is pretty easy to do and this goes back to the whole 14 year-old attention seeking style, and there is an element of this in the humour. If the joke teller has to explain the point of their joke then typically their joke has failed to find an audience. That I don’t find it funny doesn’t mean that I deny that others can find humour in it.

The context of the joke is important. I do want to defend the comedian’s right to make a joke about the sort of thing that might be otherwise upsetting, that is, to be able to make jokes about the holocaust, about 9/11, about those sorts of things. This is part of the role of the comedian as subversive, to push boundaries, to make people think about things in perhaps ways that they had not previously. In being offensive or shocking the comedian can pull someone out of their comfortable ‘bubble’ of opinions (their limited sphere of engagement) and force those people to consider a point of view or perspective that they had refused to entertain before. That context works for the comedian, in that they are a comedian and are indentified as such, but is Dankula to be afforded that protection, is he a comedian?

The question could therefore be, “what makes someone a comedian?” Is Meechan a comedian, because he says he is, or because he made a joke? This leads us into the old debate, ‘when is an artist an artist?’ Is it, when they sell something, that is, they make a living as an artist, it is their occupation. Or perhaps, it is when another confers the title of ‘artist’ or ‘comedian’ upon you and not just anyone, but a recognised authority in the area. Or is it more a matter of self-determination, I call myself an artist because in my mind I have done the work, the thinking, and have made the commitment in my life to be so. Certainly if you went to his channel, if you looked if up because you knew the sort of stuff he makes, but if you just happened upon him on YouTube and this was how he came into prominence when his video was viewed millions of times and shared by people, who then took it out of context.

We might say that the difference is between being a willing participant and finding yourself involved without being asked. Think of the famous ethical thought experiment of someone shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. If you were going to a performance were you had prior knowledge that someone was going to cause some sort of an actual disruption, or that they were likely to, then this is a totally different experience to that of the unexpected cry of “fire!” especially as it wouldn’t be considered to necessarily be a false cry. Compare this with, going to see a comedian that is known for making ‘close to the bone’ commentary, you are willingly entering that space, you might expect to be harangued (if in the front row) or hear certain ‘shocking’ language being used, and so on. Similarly, with our interactions online, if you follow a person online, go into a certain online forum expecting a certain level of debate and language, in all these cases you are willingly entering a particular space, but coming across it online accidentally or being sent it unsolicited isn’t a willing engagement. Without asking, without context, the video of Meechan's could be seen as offensive. You don’t have the right, as a comedian, to enforce your comedy on people.

There is no right to not be offended, but there is also no right for you (as a comedian) to expect everybody to engage with you as an audience member without asking them whether they want to be part of the audience first. However, to Meechan's credit, he does give a précis that he’s getting the dog (his girlfriend’s) to do the most horrific thing possible, which is apparently the Nazi salute, that’s the joke. The command phrase for the dog to do this is “gas the Jews.”

Historical context is also important here as well then. Teaching a dog a Nazi salute is one thing, the use of the phrase “gas the Jews” is another. There is an understandable and enormous sensitivity amongst many in the Jewish community to ‘jokes’ such as this. In these cases it is not just what is being said, but who is saying it and in what context.

Then we come back to, what if it’s a cover for something else, all that these edgy jokes seem to manage is to push the Overton window further to the Right. Compare this to the recent controversy of PewDiePie’s ‘joke’ when he got two men to hold up a sign for $5 saying “Death to all Jews,” which was apparently intended as some sort of commentary about how easy it is to get people to do things for money. Well, thanks YouTube millionaire for telling us about capitalism and how broken society is! However, it’s also a method of making those who are the subject of the ‘joke’ look like the bad guys for complaining and ‘spoiling their fun’. Indeed, that’s how Stormfront (a well-known neo-Nazi website, only recently shut down in 2017) saw the usefulness of PewDiePie (in 2015). Although they probably learned that active support from them would then ‘scare off’ a great number of other potential recruits. Could Meechan therefore be a willing or unwitting participant in this?

There is also the ‘problem’ of Meechan’s company. Various ‘rationalists’ and others, who lightly or firmly, place themselves within the Alt-Right, not least, Tommy Robinson the former EDL leader who helped ‘support’ Meechan during the trial. The defence that, “you can associate with people of different political persuasions, and you can learn from that relationship.” This strikes me as incredibly glib and a distraction technique that puts the impetus on the accuser to define their parameters rather than the accused to make any reasonable defence of their own actions.

Markus Meechan and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA Count Dankula and Tommy Robinson (above)
Paul Joseph Watson, Carl Benjamin, and Meechan (top)

Frankie Boyle once made a joke/analogy/comment inspired by the story of a Gail Porter nude being projected unto the Houses of Parliament that people then gave her grief about that. Boyle’s suggestion was what if someone was to project hardcore pornography onto the side of a school, would they then arrest Ron Jeremy? (i.e. the Porn Actor in the film rather than the people who actually projected the image.) Although I can’t now find a clip of him saying this, hopefully it does exist.

So, similarly, the (assumed) ‘viewer’ who did not choose to view Dankula’s comedy video, in which it was sent to them by a friend, that wasn’t Dankula that did that, not personally and not by direct action on his part. It was someone else who decided to do that, so he could not be held as culpable for that. Dankula did make the video and he didn’t control how it was distributed, is that more to do with the companies involved (i.e. YouTube) and with how we share information on the internet now? And perhaps his culpability was simply that he chose to allow to make it shareable, the possibility that others might share it was already known to him, and although he gave a précis it didn’t stop it being shared, he is therefore the creator of the content and despite not being the sharer it did end up being viewed by someone who found the video offensive. However, he couldn’t stop it being shared either, not if he wanted it to be seen by many people, was his error then narcissism? He could have made it private and only available to his friends and he did not. YouTube could have blocked the video, but they did not. Should the offended parties have therefore taken their complaints up with YouTube (the ‘projectionists’) rather than Dankula the content creator (the ‘porn star’)? What YouTube did do, was to ‘demonitize’ [sic] Meechan’s videos:

They’ve refused to make a moral decision, but have made instead a financial one masquerading as a moral one and as such they have failed to take any real action or stance here. Indeed, why would they without any external intervention? Internet service providers as well as internet media companies have a history of not controlling their spaces, not for fear of the loss of freedom of speech, but for the loss of revenue.

Freedom of speech doesn’t give one the right to make statements that seek to destroy (actively or indirectly) the right to free speech of others (by making them afraid to speak out for themselves or their group, if such is being targeted). Take, for example, this definition from the British legal case Norwood v. United Kingdom in 2003.
The Court said the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights is to ensure that no-one can rely on human rights to destroy the rights or freedoms of others.
Let’s end this, by giving Meechan a chance to set out his beliefs about freedom of speech and what that means.

The problem here is that, yes Nazis are indeed people too, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean allowing those that want to “destroy the rights or freedoms of others” a voice. Murderers are still human beings, which affords them some rights (if I hadn’t gone on so long already, I’d start a discussion about the Death Penalty, but let’s save that for another day) but not their continuing freedom. For example, denying the holocaust isn’t just an ‘opinion’ like whether Dankula is funny or not, it’s an attempt to deny facts (see Irving v. Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt, 2000). However, and this is really important, not everyone you disagree with is a Nazi, some just have different ideas or a different perspective. Being able to disagree without someone, almost fundamentally, and still have a reasoned debate about something is what cases like this make more difficult. It is a skill that, I worry; we are losing in our emotive internet age. Although I do not blame the internet directly, it is merely a tool, but it is our lack of collective and individual responsibility that is leading to this. We look to an authority to make our decisions for us and then fret that these companies who are in charge are not moral agents but only financial ones, if our masters are merely concerned with making money, who is making our moral choices for us if not ourselves? It seems we are losing the ability to even articulate what we think freedom actually is and what it really means to us. Is it simply being able to say whatever ever we want when we want without consequence? If that’s all freedom of speech means to you, then you are missing the point.

Freedom of speech should mean being able to disagree with authority and persons in power and not fear retribution, to discuss alternative ideas and be held up to fair scrutiny not merely mob justice, to be able to be wrong and then to be educated of your fault, to highlight errors and potential problems as you find it in society and be dealt with in an even-handed manner. Indeed, in all of these things we might say that what we want in advocating for freedom of speech is a fair, rational, humane and open society where consequence and context are regularly and thoroughly analysed.

Meechan is not completely innocent, nor can blame be removed from him entirely. He is after all, as the judge said an intelligent and articulate person. At the age of 29, we cannot expect that he had not foreseen the potential offense of his ‘Nazi Pug’. I think that Meechan made a mistake, the mistake was not simply making a joke ‘in bad taste’, because being shocking, vile, and insulting absolutely on purpose is the point of being an internet troll and it is this that I think constitutes the basis of the original joke, not the ‘prank’ on the girlfriend, but by gleefully abusing ‘triggering’ phraseology and behaviour. No, the mistake Meechan made came after the attention spike that greeted the video online.

There were two options available to him, there are always many more of course, but boiled down to two distinct paths of actions they are:
  • Apologise; learn the historical and social context of what you have done that is wrong, accept personal responsibility and culpability, take down the video and/or suffer abject humiliation, be crushed by ‘the Man’ and by a society that wishes you would just shut up and do what they tell you, or
  • Stand up for yourself; fight for the fundamental right of free speech itself, gather around you fans, admirers, supporters, like-minded folks and ‘activist’ leaders, all of whom offer you praise and congratulate you for the stand you are making, they tell you that you’ve done nothing wrong and that it’s in fact the totalitarian liberal elite and their army of whiny deranged autistic far left screechers who are the ones that are really in the wrong, you’re totally right...

Apologies, but you might have noticed that I wasn’t been utterly truthful with my portrayal of Meechan’s choices there. Indeed, I was making a possibly accurate parody of how, I think, he ended up seeing the situation. It might have started as ‘only a joke’ but it’s ended up being a political action, albeit one that is based in a failure to take personal responsibility.

In conclusion, Meechan was no angel to begin with, but I still believe that the original video that while crass was by itself no crime. However, ‘post event’ he seemed to become, for want of a better expression ‘radicalised’ and became a mouthpiece (willing or unwitting) for far-Right efforts to normalise hate and to further push the Overton window. Comedy was never really on trial here, because we were aren’t dealing with comedy as we currently know it, perhaps ‘trolling’ will become the comedic style de jour in years to come and then all this will look very silly (and oppressive) in hindsight, but I sincerely hope not. The comedy of bullies, while still technically comedy, should not represent a society that holds a rational compassionate outlook, but maybe I’ve just missed the joke.