Free speech – or hate speech?

Published by the ipaper (8th August, 2016)

Jérémy Gabriel was born with a rare congenital disorder called Treacher Collins Syndrome, which can cause severe facial disfigurement affecting development of the eyes, ears, cheekbones and jaw. Although symptoms vary widely, this can be an especially difficult condition for children. It left him battling ear infections, struggling to speak and deaf until he received a hearing implant aged six, followed by 20 more medical interventions as he grew into adulthood.

So after enduring such difficulties, it is fair to assume few would begrudge Gabriel a slither of fame that fell his way. Having received his implant, he became fascinated with sound. A music teacher discovered he had perfect pitch, and the boy became passionate about singing. Such was his talent he was selected to sing for the Pope, going on to perform for Celine Dion and at prestigious political and sporting events.

Yet this boy’s struggle and success became the butt of bigoted humour for one of Canada’s most prominent comedians. Mike Ward says he noticed ‘a little deaf guy who seemed like he was about to die’. His response was to turn Gabriel’s travails into a rambling routine which, as Ward describes it, ‘the essence of the joke was why isn’t he dead yet?’ He talked about trying to drown him – ‘the little bastard, he’s just not dying’ – before concluding his rant with the line: ‘I didn’t know what illness he had so I Googled it and it turns out he’s just ugly.’

This is crass and horribly cruel, regardless of any intended satire of wider issues. When Gabriel saw the video, he says it made him think his life was worth less than other people because of his disability. ‘I lost confidence and hope,’ he said, suffering bullying at school and even attempting suicide. Ward, by contrast, has established himself as one of north America’s top comics with similar bad-taste gags about paedophelia, porn and his private parts. His last tour grossed $5m.

Now this man who finds it funny to mock people with disabilities is making his debut in Britain at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He seeks to turn himself into a liberal martyr by calling his show ‘Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free’. Human rights lawyers took the callous comic to court over the Gabriel gag after a complaint by his parents and a judge ordered him to pay £24,000 damages. Ward claims the case led to depression. This did not, however, stop him saying: ‘I’ll go to the Supreme Court… I’ll stretch this thing out until the kid dies.’

No surprise to discover he is supported by his friend Jimmy Carr, who came up with the show’s title. Carr has also laughed at disabled people on his path to fame and fortune. He made jokes about kids with Downs Syndrome supposedly all looking the same, while earlier this year was ruled to have broken broadcasting rules with offensive jibes about people with dwarfism. ‘If you’re a dwarf and you’re offended by that, grow up,’ he concluded, displaying the wit of a seven-year-old.

Imagine the furore, rightly, if these people were making racist or homophobic jokes in similar cheap taste. Yet laughing at the most excluded minority seems fine. Carr carries on hosting shows on Channel 4, which proclaims a public service ethos and prides itself on campaigning over disability rights. The multi-millionaire received far more flak over his tax dodging than for poking fun at people with disabilities.

Frankie Boyle got to write regularly for The Guardian, as well as appearing on television, despite despicable jokes about Katie Price’s disabled child. He has also mocked people with Down’s syndrome for their haircuts, clothes and even their voices – along with making offensive tweets about Paralympians. No surprise to discover Ward is an admirer, even saying Boyle’s contemptible lines about Price’s son was ‘a really funny joke.’

These smug comics claim to be pushing boundaries and argue nothing should be beyond the pale. But there is always a degree of self-censorship, even in the most extreme act; the issue is where you draw the line. How can a disabled child defend themselves against famous entertainers making degrading attacks on them before hundreds of adoring fans? This is not about the precious sanctity of free speech. It is simply prejudice dressed up as comedy, hate language that would be unacceptable in other areas of life that has a corrosive impact on wider society.

Ward defends his right to ‘make fun of everything’. But there is nothing funny about famous people encouraging fans to laugh at those with disabilities. There is nothing funny about a child struggling to grow up with a disfiguring condition being driven to attempt suicide. There is nothing funny in almost two-thirds of disabled children being bullied, compared with one-quarter of other pupils. There is nothing funny in the rise of reported hate crime against disabled people. There is nothing funny in abuse and even killing of people with learning difficulties because they are different.

Sticks and stones break bones but words wound and can leave lethal residue. This is why crude racism and crass homophobia is deemed wrong in modern society, even on stage. Yet still prejudice seems permitted when it comes to people with disabilities. Is it any wonder they find it so much harder to get jobs, earn decent wages and achieve full potential? So much for the London Paralympics changing everything. Four years on, a comedian guilty of grotesque abuse wins applause at our most famous arts festival, hiding prejudice behind the flag of free speech.

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