Jim Norton has a strange presence on stage. He’s not much to look at, but he can hold the audience’s attention better than a celebrated pop star. His brutal honesty about his perversions is stunning. The name of his comedy special indicates he’s going to say offensive things and he does.
He says things so blood curdlingly awful, you sometimes feel guilty for laughing. But, laugh you do. You laugh hard and so does the audience. As I watched a video of Jim Norton’s comedy special and laughed until tears came out of my eyes, a thought came to me. I’m so lucky to live in a society where this can take place. I’m lucky to be part of a society where I can be offended. This strange bald man isn’t pulled off stage and beaten for the things he says. He’s allowed a stage to go on, because he’s considered entertaining by a certain segment of the population.
If you live in a Western style representative republic, you may not think much of this privilege of being offended. So what, he’s a comedian, what’s the big deal? It is a big deal because in the history of the world, freedoms such as these weren’t always tolerated. Actually, today they’re still not tolerated in many regions. Freedom of speech seems to be an obstacle in certain places. Some of these places are closer than you can imagine.
The Government Protecting Your Feelings
“Unacceptable remarks made in private do not automatically become lawful just because they’re made by a comedian in the public domain. Plus, having such a platform imposes certain responsibilities.”
— Judge Scott Hughes, Canadian Human Rights Commission
Canada seems to be one of these places that seems to think freedom of speech is an obstacle. In a number of rulings, the Canadian government has decided that one’s feelings were more important than freedom of speech. Comedians seem to be a regular target of the government. In 2011, comedian Guy Earle was ordered by the British Columbia Human Rights Commission to pay an audience member $15,000 for damages caused during a performance. Now what did Mr. Earle do? Did a prop he used fly into seats and hurt someone? Nope. Some words he said hurt someone’s feelings.
This government board decided that part of the comedic performance gave an audience member post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s not part of a joke, that’s what they ruled. The truly bizarre thing about the ruling was about the content of the abuse. Earle and the patron were in a verbal dispute. Earle thought the audience member was being disruptive, so he made fun of the individual. This audience member retaliated by hurling insults and eventually glasses of water.
In addition to Earle being fined, the comedy club owner was fined as well. The audience member got in no trouble for hurling glasses at the comedian. It was ruled that her post traumatic stress disorder forced her to hurl glass at the Earle. In another assault by the Canadian government on comedians, the Human Rights Tribunal fined comedian Mike Ward $42,000 for a joke he told in 2016. Ward told a joke about a disabled singer on a Canadian singing competition. $35,000 of the fine went to the singer and $7,000 went to the singer’s mother who filed the complaint.
Now, are you the most sterling example of humanity for making fun of a disabled singer? Most likely not. However, should you be fined the yearly income of a chef for a joke? DEFINITELY NOT! Although there is a right to free speech enshrined in the United States Bill Of Rights, there is inherit understanding of this right in other Western cultures. It is slowly being peeled back by the use of fines from commissions of various sorts. This isn’t happening in some faraway land behind a shroud of communism or other some other weird governing scheme. This is happening right across the northern border in Canada.
Suppression Of Free Speech In The United States
“If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression.” — Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson, in my opinion, is a horrific character for a number of reasons I won’t get into. Our examination of Wilson will just revolve around his assault on free speech. Woodrow Wilson was completely opposed to the United States Constitution. He believed it was too restrictive. Mr. Wilson was a brilliant man, he’d tell you so himself often. Old Woodrow knew was good for society and thought he should be able to make the rules without restriction.
In particular, that freedom of speech thing got in the way. This was especially true when WWI broke out. Wilson campaigned on keeping the United States out of the conflict. However, he ended up bringing the country into the war. As you can imagine, there was a certain segment of the population upset with this. Wilson eagerly signed the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to “convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies.”
Speaking out against the war could result in fines of up to $10,000 or 20 years in jail. This law was enforced and a number of activists and other citizens wound up being tried and jailed for their opposition to the war. Wilson also created the Committee On Public Information (CPI), which was a propaganda ministry to sell the war. They distributed pamphlets, made films, and made a curriculum that painted Germany and Germans as enemies. This committee also encouraged American citizens to spy on each other and report disloyal activity to the government.
According to Michael O’Malley, Associate Professor of History at George Mason University, German street names were changed. Those with German names were ‘encouraged’ to change them. Teaching the German language was banned. Schools were encouraged to tear any references to the German song “Oh Tannenbaum” from children’s books. Also people thought to be too German could lose their jobs. In some cases they were even beaten or lynched.
Eventually, in 1920, the Sedition Act, which enforced many of these draconian laws in the Espionage Act, was repealed. However, the fervor for tamping down free speech has not gone away. It’s still very present today in America for different reasons.
There’s a growing number of younger Americans who believe speech should be suppressed to protect people’s feelings. In a 2017 Cato Institute poll, a number of questions were asked about free speech in modern society. 51% of college students interviewed believed free speech should be restricted for those who don’t respect other people. In a recent survey done by the Foundation For Individual Rights In Education (FIRE), 57% of college students believed colleges should be able to sensor political views on campus that are thought to be offensive. In that same survey, 70% of students thought those with views thought to be offensive should be banned from extracurricular activities. 49% of the students believed that groups should not be able to form on campus whose missions were thought to be offensive.
However, the Cato poll also found that many Americans, excluding college age citizens, recognized issues with restrictions on free speech. 70% of the respondents said political correctness is a big problem for the United States. A slightly larger number said political correctness silences discussions that the population really needs to have. A practical finding also came out of the Cato poll as well when they surveyed a broad spectrum of Americans across political barriers. 82% said it would be hard to ban hate speech because people can’t agree on what it is.
What Is Offensive?
This question is a lot more difficult to answer than you can imagine. For some a picture of a religious image can be offensive. For others, a joke or language can be offensive. Some may say a political belief is offensive. The 82% response on the Cato survey indicates how murky this question can be. If so many things are offensive to so many people, how do you police that? Should a government board be enacted that fines certain people for saying things that offend others? You may laugh at the idea of that, but a number of Western style representative republics have enacted boards like this — specifically Canada.
The United States Constitution provides you individual protection from the government. In particular, it goes out of its way to protect the speech of the citizens who live under it. However, there have been times when this was ignored. There are a number who would like this protection to be ignored constantly.
In the past it was ignored to protect the country from ‘disloyalty’. In current times freedom of speech is curtailed to protect people’s feelings. In either form, it leads you down a dark path where a bureaucrat can tell you what you can and can’t say. This brings us back the stand-up comics I started with.
We’re Lucky We Can Be Offended
As crazy as this sounds, Jim Norton serves an important function in society. His honesty about race, sex, and religion opens doors between members of his audience. Even though he shocks you, he doesn’t do it in a mean way; he does it with dark humor. Some might find this dark humor offensive, but it serves a purpose.
Political correctness or banning speech, takes away our ability to talk to each other as a society. “Don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about sex, don’t talk about religion…” This is what we’re told over and over. If you hadn’t noticed, either or all of those 3 things can make up a good portion of somebody’s life. When we’re afraid to speak to each other, we become more tribal. We associate more with those in ‘our group’. If we can’t speak to each other and see the human and humorous side of our neighbor, they become a member of another tribe.
Whether it’s because we we’re afraid to talk to them or we see them as too different now, we avoid them. It’s easier that way in this climate. If you’re being offended, it means your society’s speech is free enough to get a different message into your ears. When a politician attempts to protect your feelings from “mean words”, they’re abridging a possible message.
By protecting you, they’re actually furthering tribalism by preventing communication. In this climate, comedy is needed more now than ever. Although Jim Norton may shock the hell out of you and creepily leer at members of the audience, he’s promoting free speech through his dark humor. He may appear to be a strange example of a heroic figure. He is no Washington or Lincoln by far, but his act furthers conversation. He also lightens tense moods that political correctness has helped foster.
If you’re offended, be glad you are. It could be much worse. A politician in an expensive suit could be deciding what is good or right for you to say or hear. For the time being, we’re fortunate enough to be in a society where that is not that case. Do the best you can to make sure that continues. I want to listen to Jim Norton tell jokes and say awful things till I’m old and gray.