It is said that dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog; you may learn more about it, but you kill it in the process.
Unfortunately, this is something that has to be done.
On March 20, the BBC reported that youtuber “Count Dankula,” known otherwise as Mark Meechan, had been found guilty of a hate crime by a Scottish court.
Meechan had uploaded a video to Youtube in which he intended to prank his girlfriend. He starts by explaining that his girlfriend finds her pug dog cute and that he was going to teach it to be the “least cute thing in the world: a Nazi.” He proceeds to train the dog to react whenever it hears the phrases “sieg heil”(German for “hail victory”) or “gas the Jews” by raising its right paw, mimicking a Nazi salute.
The reason why we find things funny is because we expect one thing from the joke and get something else.
Consider the example of “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.”
This is a joke is because when you are asked the first part, you are expecting some tangible motivation for the chicken to be crossing the road, i.e. getting food, visiting a friend or so on. But then, you are hit with the unexpected line that the chicken was crossing the road to get to the other side. This is a tautology, as you would have inferred that from the line asking why the chicken was crossing the road. Thus, it is unexpected, and you find the joke funny. The reason you are likely not laughing at the joke is because everyone has heard it, and the punchline is no longer surprising.
The reason this relates back to the case above is because that is exactly the structure Meechan is using. Pug dogs are very cute. Nazis are very, shall we say, not cute. By conflating the two, you create something unexpected, and thus humor.
Offensive or not, in bad taste or not, that’s the formula. And Meechan now faces jail time because a judge found the video “grossly offensive” and “inciting racial hatred.” The judge also said that the “context was irrelevant.”
There are several reasons why this is a problem. Firstly, both offense and humor are subjective. Some people clearly found the video offensive, given that a judge convicted him in a court of law for being “grossly offensive.” This is feeling is understandable given the subject at hand.
Some people clearly found the video funny; it was shared over 3 million times. For the reasons I laid out, that is also understandable.
What this means is that some things that are offensive to some people are not offensive to others, and some things that are humorous to some people are not humorous to others. This is the problem with trying to legislate either, as Britain has tried to do. You end up in a situation where the people in power can interpret the law however they like.
Secondly, to say that the context is irrelevant is a truly scary precedent.
Assume for a second you had two people. The first of them said “I think the phrase ‘gas the Jews’ is abhorrent and should never been spoken.” The second said that “I think it would be a great idea to gas the Jews.” If context is irrelevant, because both of these speakers said “gas the Jews,” they are both equally guilty. To ignore the context of a thing that is said is to willfully misunderstand the intent behind it.
It should be noted that cracking down on dogs for mimicking a Nazi salute was something that the Nazis also did.
The BBC reported in 2011 on newly uncovered documents that showed the German foreign ministry called a Finnish man by the name of Tor Borg in for questioning. An anonymous witness had sent in a report that Borg’s wife had trained their dog to react to the command “Hitler” by raising it’s right paw. However, the Germans concluded there was not enough information to proceed and dropped the case.
Where does the law presume to go from here?
If you’ve ever played Cards Against Humanity, you’ll know that there are several combinations that are at least as offensive as Meechan’s video by any reasonable standard. Is the U.K. going to ban that?
Several British comedians, such as Ricky Gervais, have raised complaints about the case.
Unlike the United States, Britain does not have a First Amendment protecting their right to freedom of expression. Meechan is due to be sentenced in April, and faces potential jail time
We should keep this case in mind when calls are made to restrict that freedom.