Canadian Comic Mike Ward Cheapens Free Speech Fight
Mike Ward appears on his poster in a muzzle. Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free runs his show title. Ward is the Canadian comic who’s just been ordered to pay $42,000 by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for making jokes about Jérémy Gabriel, a disabled Canadian who made a name for himself after being given the opportunity to sing for the Pope. In his Edinburgh festival show, Ward tells us the offending joke, and protests against being taken to court for having cracked it.
It’s not a well-argued defence – although, I guess, it doesn’t need to be. As David Mitchell wrote recently in the Observer, it’s very difficult to justify banning jokes about disabled people (or anyone else), unless they’re explicitly inciting hatred or violence. The court case appears to have been over a series of jokes targeting Gabriel, although here he suggests there was only one offending quip, which asked why Gabriel – who Ward wrongly described as having a terminal illness – wasn’t dead yet.
The whole case has, unsurprisingly, become a free-speech cause celebre, a rallying point for comedians justifiably anxious at our ever more censorious culture. I was interested to see that Ward was making it the explicit subject of his show. Comedians giving us their version of one-day-wonder “offence” controversies is becoming a staple of standup acts: one thinks of Katherine Ryan’s 2015 show, in which she told of the storm that broke when she made a joke concerning Filipino children on Mock the Week. Of course, she has every right to make what was, in fact, a fairly innocuous remark. But I’m sometimes uneasy seeing the standup stage become, if not quite a bully pulpit, at least an uneven playing field where comedians cite their partisan version of some recent row to claim free-speech martyr status.
Would that be the case with Ward? Not quite. He never pretends he’s anything other than a bad-taste merchant, nor that his joke was any better than “mean”. The show – which runs at only 45 minutes – is full of gags that’d curdle milk, from the Gabriel-related ones mocking deaf people who can’t sing to the paedophile jokes in which Ward tries to make his eight-year-old girlfriend orgasm. He makes a pretty spurious moral distinction between “inside” and “outside” jokes, blaming the media for making public and hurtful what was harmless between consenting adults.
But he doesn’t have to mount a stout defence: the joke’s legality shouldn’t be at issue, and I sympathise with his being singled out and heavily fined. But morality is a different question. The best bad-taste jokers allow us to laugh at their twisted ideas by making themselves the butt of the joke. Jerry Sadowitz portrays himself as a self-hating sociopath; he’s not claiming any legitimacy whatsoever for his despicable worldview. Ward might call that hypocritical, or morally evasive – after all, we’re still laughing at the jokes. In his act, there’s no buffer between us and the abuse: we’re complicit. He delivers unpleasant gags as if it’s cool or rebellious to do so, as if we should all be perfectly happy with ourselves for laughing at “retards” and people with Aids. The legal judgment against him will presumably shore up his sense that that’s a freedom-fighting thing to do.