Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Free as the wind

My last post touched a nerve, it seems.  I got a lot of comments on my critique of Guardians of the Galaxy, some inquisitive, some supportive, some critical.  One in particular was interesting because it contained the phrase:

Comedies _must_ be free to offensive, or they may become less funny, which is antithetical.

Now it is true that comedies must be free to be offensive.  I would call that a pillar of free speech, not to mention comedy!

But it is important to note that I never suggested that comedies shouldn't be free to be offensive.  They should.  I should also be free to call them out on their shit.

There is a marked difference between something being free to violate the boundaries of good taste, and something being immune to criticism.  The government is not going to start policing comedies using language I don't like, notably randomly referring to women as whores.  I wouldn't want the government to do that; in fact I would fight against any such thing.  But the government also isn't going to stop me yelling on the internet about how much I dislike randomly slinging around the word whore at women in movies for no reason.  (There are reasons to use words like that in art.  There are times and places for it, no question.  But this place in this movie was not one of them.)

This smacks of someone wanting something they like to be immune to criticism.  Both by my post and by my writing history you can see that I do not support government stepping in to censor comedies' use of language like this, so it strikes me as likely that what the commenter is really getting at is that they don't like their thing being criticized.

I get that reaction.  I have felt that way before and I conflated my desire to support a thing I liked with a violation of freedom of speech.  However, it is extremely important to differentiate these things.  It is also important to remember that just because someone's criticism of a thing makes you uncomfortable does not mean that their criticism is wrong, nor that the thing must be protected from that criticism.

There are no end of things I enjoyed in the past that have real problems upon further reflection.  That doesn't mean those things have no value, nor that I can't enjoy the good bits.  It does mean though that it is worth examining the problems that are there so we can take lessons from them, and maybe improve in future.

This situation comes up all the time, enough so that it is worth repeating.  If someone criticizes a thing, and you want to respond by saying that people have to have freedom of speech, make damn sure that the criticism actually suggested curtailing free speech.  If the criticism was just saying that the thing in question is shitty though, then you are engaging in a strawman attack and completely missing the point.  Rather than making an inappropriate free speech argument, it is probably a good idea to examine why you feel so defensive about it; usually it is because deep down you realize that the criticism has some merit.


  1. I've been known to say "yes, free speech means you can say these things. It doesn't mean you're right or that it's appropriate to do so". Another more current comedy with completely over the top language and offensive gags is Sausage Party. I personally don't find that OTT racist, sexist, queerphobic comedy funny, never have. I think much of it does damage to gains Team Good has made in terms of Hollywood producing jokes which are funny on their merits not on perpetrating hurtful stereotypes. My critique of such things is often countered with claims that I don't have a sense of humour (I do, it's more nuanced than hatred-inducing stereotypes) and/or I don't understand free speech.

    I also note that conversations with non Americans about "free speech" tend to be different than with Americans-from-the-USA. I have given up trying to discuss free speech with our neighbours to the south; their reference points are so divergent from what Canada, and much of Western society, uses that it's generally futile. I'm assuming the majority of your readership are not from the US; presumably this would be a different conversation if not.

  2. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the government is *already* policing comedies using language you don't like.

    1. There is a difference between banning the word 'whore' and specifically going after a single child and mocking their disability. There is also a difference between movies and stand up comedy. Not quite the same thing as what I was discussing, though similar.

      One one hand I hate the idea of being financially penalized for speaking without otherwise breaking laws. On the other hand I hesitate to protect the right of people to use slurs against the disabled when attacking a specific child in a public show. That is revolting, to be honest. I would have to think hard about it, and read people's opinions, before forming my own.

  3. It's a slippery slope. How long before some oversensitive broad, rather than ranting on a blog, starts filing "human rights" cases against movie makers? Even worse that these tribunals are an end run around the courts.