I have celebrated John Bercow, eulogised Martin McGuinness and urged Spectator readers to vote Labour. So I appreciate I’m on thin ice with a defence of Jo Brand, and since the hefty lefty and I are of similar girth, that metaphor could end badly. Yet the news she is being investigated by police over a joke ought to bring even the most phlegmatic conservative to the barricades. Some things are just wrong, even if Brendan O’Neill is against them too.
Appearing as a guest on Radio 4 panel programme Heresy on Tuesday, Brand riffed on the phenomenon of ‘milkshaking’, in which progressives throw chilled beverages over people they disagree with because when they go low, we go high. Victims have included Nigel Farage and the guy who self-identifies as Tommy Robinson. Brand quipped: ‘Why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?’
A stream of headlines followed, most feigning outrage but none identifying the real top line: the appearance of an actual joke on a Radio 4 comedy show. ‘This is incitement of violence and the police need to act,’ Farage tweeted. The Daily Mirror outdid everyone by getting an acid attack victim to call for Brand’s arrest ‘so others will think twice and realise it isn't a joking matter’.
There have been 55 murders in London so far this year but still the most dangerous place in the capital is between the Metropolitan Police and a media opportunity. The rozzers say they are probing ‘an allegation of incitement to violence’, adding:
‘The allegation relates to comments made on a radio programme. The allegation is currently being assessed. There have been no arrests and enquiries are ongoing.’
No arrests? How can we sleep safe in our beds knowing Jo Brand is out there waiting to pounce with another hate-joke?
If we’re setting cops on Radio 4 comedians, I’d like to put in a request for the Specialist Firearms Command and Marcus Brigstocke.
Failing that, I’d quite like it if everyone stopped being so irredeemably silly. I grew up in a working-class Labour family in the 1990s where Jo Brand’s Tory-baiting TV routines were one of the small mercies of living in a country run by priapic sociopaths with two houses and four names. But even if you regard Brand as a tedious Marxist shrew, even if you clamp dullard quote marks around ‘comedian’ when you refer to her, you shouldn’t feel a moment’s hesitation in coming to her defence.
She is a comedian under police investigation for cracking a joke. That is, or at least once would have been, a sentence of such mind-bending absurdity that it could only be a joke itself. It is not because comedy, along with pretty much everything else in the known universe, is no longer a laughing matter. People dispute whether we have all become populists or nationalists or socialists but no contemporary political movement has enjoyed the pervasive success of humourlessness.
There are a few points that shouldn’t have to be made but do. Playing on a topical event by heightening its terms for humorous effect is not ‘incitement to violence’; it’s a near definition of comedy. Brand committed a joke, not a crime. Also, the Radio 4 audience is not exactly a recruiting ground for domestic terrorists; their only triggering event would be scheduling The Archers against Bake-Off.
Next, anyone who chucked battery acid at Nigel Farage after hearing Brand’s gag would have been inspired in method at most. Once you’re at the point of gravely injuring those with whom you disagree politically, you’re already a wrong’un and the responsibility for your actions doesn’t lie with a salty stand-up.
Comedy is at the forefront of the battle for freedom of speech because comedy at its sharpest is sanctioned transgression that pokes at the boundaries of its sanction. That’s why Jerry Sadowitz is funny and Amy Schumer is the pushing-40 vagina joke lady. Each has their place, however, and each has to be defended in their right to affront, offend and provoke. Comedy is one of life’s great bullshit-detectors and laughter the torment of every po-faced politruk. Deny people the freedom to ridicule and you deny them a liberty more intimate, more atavistic than political assembly or even religious practice.
Right-wingers prate that Brand has been hoist with a petard devised by her fellow leftists, that it’s a bit much to drag her down the nick but it ultimately serves her sort right. They’re never slow to take up a pitchfork when an offence mob is stirring against a conservative. There’s a lot of ‘imagine if a right-wing comedian had said...’ on the go right now, as though a bout of performative outrage will balance the culture war scales. Jo Brand: lefty BBC feminist. She’s got to be worth a Nazi pug or a Scrutoning. Get her and a few more like her and maybe you’ll start to feel less aggrieved, less under siege.
Freedom of speech cannot survive a partial defence; it will not support a transactional relationship. Yes, there are limits in law but when it comes to the core principle, you are either for it or you’re not.
If you’re for it, you already know that Jo Brand’s joke was not a call to violence. But if you must pretend otherwise, let’s hear no more about hypersensitive liberals and precious millennials. A right-wing snowflake melts just the same.