Recently, the Scottish town of Airdrie — a stone’s throw away from my own town — made headlines across the globe for a court case centred around an incident involving a problematic pooch. In case you aren’t familiar with the story, let me break it down for you. Mark “Count Dankula” Meechan, a Youtube comedian and self-proclaimed shitposter, was fined for promoting hate speech after he posted a video of his girlfriend’s pooch responding to the commands “Gas the Jews” and “Sieg Heil” by raising its paw like a Nazi salute. Meechan could have faced up to a year in prison, but after a well-publicised trial that lasted almost two years, he was ordered to pay £800 instead.
At the start of the video, Meechan explains: “My girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is, so I thought I would turn him into the least cute thing that I could think of, which is a Nazi.” Personally, I can’t think of many things that are less adorable than Nazis either, but in some people’s eyes Buddha the pug is the new droopy-faced poster pup of the next Reich.
The court called the video “grossly offensive” and anti-Semitic. Meechan was charged with breaching Section 127 of the 2003 U.K. Communications Act, which prohibits “improper use of [a] electronic communications network.” While there is an argument to be made that Meechan broke the law and is being punished accordingly, the court’s refusal to acknowledge the video within its intended context is where the big issue lies. Granted, maybe the video was offensive and distasteful to some, but the reality is that a 30-year-old man has been punished by the law for telling a joke.
Most people I’ve talked to about this whole debacle agree that it’s silly and the trial has been a waste of taxpayer money. Few seem to have viewed the video as anything more than a joke. Still, some are quite happy to see Dankula go down because they found the video in question to be problematic, or because they disagree with the host’s personal politics (his channel features videos where he criticises social justice warriors, Islam, feminism, immigration, and other subjects within a similar wheelhouse). If you scour his Youtube channel looking for content that’s offensive, you’ll find it.
Additionally, the fact that controversial right-wing pundits like Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson, Alex Jones, Paul Joseph Watson, Lauren Southern, and Gavin McInnes leapt to his defense hasn’t painted the most flattering picture of Meechan in the public eye either. He’s appeared on InfoWars with Robinson to discuss the case and they even went to a football match together. With friends like those, the backlash was inevitable. That doesn’t make this whole situation any less ridiculous though.
Thankfully, there has been some support on the other side of the political spectrum. Left-leaning comedians like Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel, to name a couple, have been vocally supportive of Meechan. The latter — who’s Jewish and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism — believes that the video was made to mock Nazis, not support them. In an article for The Times Literary Supplement, he wrote, “[Meechan] shouldn’t be prosecuted, or next thing you know, Mel Brooks will be up in court on historical charges.”
Some of the best and most thought-provoking comedy is offensive. The only rule in comedy is that it has to be funny, but good comedians are able to use edgy material to fuel debate. Still, what constitutes “funny” or worthwhile differs depending on one’s subjective tastes, and sometimes one person’s laughter is another person’s outrage. Like all forms of entertainment and art, comedy isn’t always safe. Sometimes it’s even horrible, offensive, and gross for the sake of causing shock and outrage. Other times, it gets under our skin because it confronts us with truths we don’t want to face. To paraphrase Frankie Boyle, another Scottish comedian who’s upset more than his fair of detractors with his brand of humour, taking offence is often a case of denying reality.
It wasn’t long ago that people died in the name of comedy either. In January 2015, radical extremists slaughtered 12 people at the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo because the magazine dared poke fun at their religion. The #JeSuisCharlie hashtag became one of the most popular in the history of Twitter, and rightfully so. They were murdered in cold blood for using their right to freedom of expression. Dankula’s situation didn’t result in anybody being killed, but he was persecuted for telling a joke. Those of us who ever posted that hashtag should support everyone’s right to express themselves, even if we disagree with what they’re saying.
Meechan’s video is far from enlightening or thought-provoking material. He trained a dog to perform a Nazi salute to make his friend’s laugh, the video went viral and some people were offended. But let’s not ignore the fact that comedy with more substance and value often does the same, and if we start policing humour we might as well prepare the coffin for the right to express ourselves. Even if it doesn’t involve making videos with pugs hailing the Fuhrer.
Not every comedian agrees with Gervais and Baddiel, however. Graham Linehan, best known for writing the TV comedies Father Ted and The IT Crowd, supported the court’s decision when it was announced that Meechan would be punished to some extent. He accused Meechan of being “alt-right” and claimed that comedy like this normalises bigotry. “This is what they [the alt-right] do, sneak fascism and hatred in under the guise of irony. I don’t think he could go to jail, but I’m happy the court saw through it.”
It seems as if Linehan’s views have changed since “Are You Right There Father Ted?”, which featured the titular priest accidentally impersonating Hitler and inheriting Nazi memorabilia which the show’s housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle, used to decorate their parish. At the start of the episode, Ted puts a basket on his head and impersonates a Chinese person. In context, there’s nothing racist or anti-Semitic about the episode. However, it does feature scenes that some people could find “grossly offensive” that could be misinterpreted as pro-Nazi without context.
The Meechan issue isn’t about defending offensive jokes because we don’t want censorship in comedy. If anything, it’s highlighted that Scotland’s free speech laws are a cause for concern. If you don’t spew bigotry or tell offensive jokes then chances are you don’t think this will ever affect you. Meechan only has himself to blame for this mess and we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s facing the consequences. I get that. Then again, there may come a day when your reasonable viewpoints constitute hate speech because a particular regime disagrees with you. Then what?
Let’s look at an example from this case to prove how someone from the status quo has suffered from saying what’s on their mind. Maybe you think Dankula is a pig who’s getting what he deserves. But do you think his neighbour who was also arrested for calling him a “Nazi bastard” deserves to be punished as well? The point is: if you want to call a Nazi a bastard, it’s imperative that you live in a country where free speech is an absolute, fundamental right. Or maybe you believe that only people whose viewpoints that align with your own should have the right to free speech. That is too totalitarian for my taste, but you should still be entitled to believe whatever you like and voice your opinions the same as the rest of us. That’s how free speech works.
Some of you are probably thinking that it’s easy for me to preach the importance of free speech from my straight, white, godless, male porch. I’ve never been the target of abuse because of my sexuality, race, religion, or gender. The most hateful vitriol I’ve ever encountered was during my heavy metal teen years when I wore Slipknot hoodies and painted my nails black. It didn’t feel nice to be criticised, and I even got beat up a couple of times. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for some people who are made to feel afraid everyday because actual bigots who set out to cause pain do exist. In no way am I under the illusion that people using their right to free speech and expression hasn’t inspired harmful behaviour. That said, unless someone is directly inciting violence or bullying, we just have to accept the likelihood that we’ll be exposed to opinions and beliefs that disgust us.
Bad ideas can always be beaten by better ones. Call me crazy, but I think most of us are decent human beings who are strong-minded enough not to be lead astray by bigots. When we do encounter opinions we find abhorrent, we’re going to disagree and perhaps even further bolster our own values. If your argument is strong enough, those who once disagreed with you might even come around to a better way of thinking. If Daryl Davis, a black blues musician, was able to convince 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan to give up their robes and see the light, then anything is possible. It would be naive to suggest that sometimes people aren’t lured towards more nefarious thinking as well, but as soon as we shut down someone’s right to express their opinions, we enter dangerous territory that those with agendas will happily manipulate to suit their narrative whenever they can.
Opinions are like arseholes — we all have them and sometimes they’re full of shit. We can’t pick and choose when freedom of speech applies as it affects each and every single one of us. Just look at history to see what happens when people and institutions get to dictate what is and isn’t acceptable to say. Most of us could, however, do more to make sure that it’s applied consistently, even if it means finding some common ground with those whose ideologies we despise. Maybe then we’d live in a world where people don’t have to worry about jail sentences for telling jokes.