As a scholar, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m like, “history, yo” in response to some of the things being said in the current political climate.
In my post on fascism & free speech (specifically about the Milo event at Berkeley), I likened hate speech of a particularly virulent strain – the kind that encourages people to organize and commit acts of violence – to shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater. That provoked some debate, which is always fine with me as long as it stays civil.
However, the media response to the Berkeley event has been…less than ideal, mis-characterizing the largely peaceful student protest as sheer chaos. After many of the students had left, having achieved their goal of getting the Milo event canceled, yes, the protest turned a little violent, but we think that was due to outside influences. I’m angry at Berkeley students being mischaracterized and attacked…but that’s not what this post is about.
Part of the outcry I’ve seen is essentially saying, There’s no such thing as free speech anymore, the anti-fascists have become fascist in their suppression of views other than their own.
And that pisses me off, because it’s untrue and utterly lacking in historical perspective.
Saying, “We don’t want to listen to your bullshit, take it elsewhere” is NOT the same as oppressing someone or taking away their basic rights. It is categorically false to equate these things.
Because I was just teaching about jokes and humor theories last week, I have a quote handy from a book by Elliott Oring, one of my folklore colleagues who’s an expert on this topic.
In a chapter on political jokes under repressive regimes, Oring writes of the “severe penalties” that can result from joke telling in both ancient and modern times:
- When Theocritus of Chios was told that he would be pardoned by King Antigonus I (382-301 BCE) if only he would “stand before the eyes of the king,” Theocritus, knowing the king had only one eye, responded, “Well, then reprieve is impossible.” Theocritus was executed for this remark.
- Sotades of Maroneia told King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (308-246 BCE) that by marrying his sister Arsinoë he had thrust “his prick into a hole unholy.” The king had his general seal Sotades into a leaden jar and drop him in the sea.
- The humorous invectives of Marcus Tullius Cicero against Marcus Antonius resulted in the nailing of the orator’s head and hands to the speaker’s rostrum in the Roman forum.
- After the Sung emperor Xingzong was defeated in battle by Li Yuanhao in 1044 CE, the emperor fled and barely escaped capture. Li Yuanho cut off the noses of several of the emperor’s men whom he captured. Later the emperor’s jester remarked to the emperor, “Let’s see if your nose is there or not,” alluding to the emperor’s pusillanimous flight. The emperor became so enraged that he had the jester strangled behind a tent.
- A Nazi court condemned Josef Müller, a Catholic priest, to death for telling a joke about a dying German soldier requesting that a portrait of Hitler and Goering be placed on either side of him so that he could “die like Jesus”; that is, between two thieves.
- In 1984, Omar al-Hazza, a top Iraqi officer, made a joke about the identity of Saddam Hussein’s mother (Saddam Hussein and his four brothers each had different mothers). Al-Hazza’s tongue and the tongues of his sons were cut out as their wives looked on. Then, al-Hazza’s male family members were killed before his eyes and his daughters were turned out of their homes. Finally al-Hazza himself was executed. (109-110)
In other words, free speech such as making jokes critical of a ruler will get you tortured and/or killed under totalitarian regimes.
Do not conflate people rejecting your ideas and withdrawing venues and offers to speak with the type of lethal censorship that has happened in the past. Just… don’t. It’s not the same thing at all. It makes you look ignorant, and like you’re trying to win sympathy by playing the victim.
Oring, Elliott. Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of Humor. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016.