Thom & Andrew go to Edinburgh: Safe Space vs. Free Speech

When we’re at Fringe we’ll be flogging zines of our recommendations and articles from our lovely and talented mates. Then we though, print media is cool, but why should we keep those articles there when they’re so thought out and we can share them on this blog as well. So that’s just what we’re doing!

First up we’ve got the wonderful Jonny Collins, overall good egg and mastermind behind Blizzard Comedy, with their thoughts on the current safe space vs. free speech debate.

The issue of freedom of speech in comedy is a hugely controversial one. And as politics is getting more and more polarized as too does the attitudes of the comedy circuit.

Over the last 5 years plenty of comedy nights from both sides of the Safe Space/Free Speech argument have started up – most notably Quantum Leopard & Comedy Unleashed in London.

Quantum Leopard is a central London, fortnightly comedy night that aims to be accessible to as many people as possible both in terms of providing disabled access, policing content from acts in order to not victimize individuals or dis-empowered groups and running entirely on a pay what you want basis.

On the other side of the spectrum Comedy Unleashed runs a night that is entirely free of self-censorship and encourages their acts to take risks that might not pay off at other nights.

Quantum Leopard may have the most badass logo in comedy.

Quantum Leopard may have the most badass logo in comedy.

There are of course many other nights that follow similar ethos to both of these nights,  but for the most part the mainstream comedy clubs will run somewhere along the middle, of not having an explicit content policy, however will put their foot down of acts are being overtly racist or making their audience uncomfortable.

Anyone who runs a comedy night wants broadly speaking the same outcome: For the audience to enjoy themselves and become loyal returning patrons of the night. Both nights have achieved that; Quantum Leopard has been running for 4 years, and in 2018 won the best comedy night in the capital according to a poll taken by Chortle. And Comedy Unleashed started as a one-off event in 2017 and continued due to popular demand. There is a dedicated audience for both comedy nights, and each one has plenty of dedicated acts who love playing them.

But while both these nights are objectively successful for what they set out to do, they both have very different social implications – many would argue that running a night like Quantum Leopard is damaging to freedom of speech, which begs the ethical question of who gets to decide what is and isn’t okay to say?

This is encapsulated in the infamous “Count Dankula” case, in which youtuber Mark Meechan was arrested and consequently fined for uploading a video to YouTube with repeated use of the phrase “Gas the Jews” alongside footage of his dog performing an action which resembled a Sieg Heil salute. This was ruled as a breach of the communications act of 2003 as it falls under malicious communication on social media.

Some would argue that this instance is an example of freedom of speech being under threat as Dankula was arrested due to something that was said as a joke being taken out of context because it might offend a group of people. It could also be argued that having content policies in comedy nights is following a similar precedent by denying people the opportunity to say things because some people might not like it.

Interestingly though, the effect of Quantum Leopard style nights, is that due to its content policy of no Racism, Sexism, Homo/Transphobia, Classism, Ableism, etc. It encourages more people to speak about things that they don’t feel safe to in mainstream comedy clubs. I myself as a Non-Binary person, often find acts like myself not represented in comedy, and our voices ignored due to that. The fact that Quantum Leopard enforces a strict policy against victimization of marginalized groups, creates an environment where people like me feel more able to exercise our own freedom of speech without fear of repression or in extreme cases violence.

Nights like Comedy Unleashed conversely are burdened with the social implication of not being safe for many marginalized groups. The problem with trying to create a night that is all about freedom of speech, and politically diverse is that the mere action of running a comedy night with emphasis on freedom of speech has incredibly political implications. In the immortal words of Skin from Skunk Anansie ‘Everything’s Political’

By offering platforms to everyone, whilst at the same time refusing to censor acts in any way means that you run the risk of creating a line-up of people being racist & homophobic – which will be a huge deterrent for BAME & LGBTQIA+ acts from doing your gig. In Theory Comedy Unleashed supports Freedom of Speech & Political diversity, but in practice it ends up having a right/alt-right leaning purely due to the kind of people who want to perform at or go to watch a night advertised in this fashion.

One could argue that whether someone performs at your comedy night or not is entirely on the act, and not the people running the night, and that’s correct – however it is a misnomer to claim to be a free speech comedy night if not everyone feels safe to speak freely. It is impossible to create a genuine freedom of speech comedy night, because there is no audience who would enjoy a genuinely politically diverse comedy night. Anyone who watches politics or debate shows will likely end up being angry at or disagreeing with someone or something on the show, which means the produces have done their job of providing a balanced panel. However, the goals of a debate are very different from the goals of a comedy night. A comedy night needs audience enjoyment for it to thrive, whereas a debate requires a politically diverse line-up in order to be free from bias.

That isn’t to say there can’t be political diversity in comedy, the BBC for the most part achieves its goal of being free from bias both in its reporting and its artistic/satirical content. But even the BBC has a strict content policy – they must be impartial, yes, but they also do not allow hate speech or anything that may actively incite violence. Impartial comedy is often tamer than others because you cannot have impartial content without censorship and by engineering balanced line ups (which for the record is no easy feat.)

The difference of course between BBC comedy and independently run nights is that the BBC has a duty to cater to the public at large – whereas independent nights only need to cater to their specific audience. Ultimately at the end of the day, these comedy nights work because there is a demand for them – and there will always be a demand for inclusive safe space comedy nights, and there will probably always be a demand for comedy which unashamedly punches down and doesn’t mind victimizing marginalized groups. But as far as Freedom of Speech is concerned, Quantum Leopard and similar nights not only grant platforms to underrepresented groups of people, but also provides them with a safe space to be themselves. Whereas Comedy Unleashed… allows people to be bigoted and offensive without facing the consequences of their bigotry.

Freedom of Speech, by definition, allows freedom to criticize – and we’re very fortunate in that we live in a society where we can freely criticize our government and the press without being subject to legal repercussions. We are also very fortunate that we have hate crime and hate speech laws that help protect oppressed groups from violence and incitement to violence – and as far as cases like Count Dankula are concerned, in a climate where antisemitism is ripe in both the major political parties, and the Holocaust is an event that is still within living memory and plenty of Jewish people have lost their family or have been forcibly relocated in order to survive, whatever the context, the phrase “Gas The Jews” even as a joke, is contributing to a society that normalizes antisemitism and dehumanizes Jewish people. And if you’re quick to defend freedom of speech in that instance, but not crying out about hate crime rates skyrocketing, the rise of the far right & fascism, and literal concentration camps resurfacing in America – then forgive me for using my freedom of speech to tell you that you are wasting your freedom of speech being a dick.

Jonny will not be in Edinburgh this year, but does run one of the best new comedy nights in Manchester, Blizzard Comedy. Get to the next one July 29th, Gullivers.