June 10, 2011
On April 20th of this year, a group called the BCHRT (British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, a sort of maple-syrup-flavored version of a Stalinist show-trial committee) fined stand-up comedian Guy Earle $15,000 for offending a lesbian woman, Lorna Pardy, from the stage at an open-mike comedy night back in 2007. The owners of the club which hosted the offending performance were also fined $7,500.
Earle is alleged to have responded to some drunken heckling from Pardy and her Pard-ner with a series of aggressive and apparently homophobic insults. Depending on your taste, the counter-heckling was either: A) abusive and not very funny; or B) abusive and rather amusing, albeit in a none-too-sophisticated, frat-boy sort of way. In any event, it’s apparently now a legal matter in Canada to determine if jokes are amusing or not. And if that sounds to students of Eastern European history like something out of Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, or Kundera, it pretty much is .
If you have a month or two to spare, you can read the 107-page verdict online. In summary :
Being a Canadian citizen myself, I feel obliged to quickly explain to non-Canuck readers that the BCHRT is not actually a real court, lest you get the idea that Canada is some kind of Third World, police-state, Belarus-style shithole where people get arrested and sent to work the salt mines for making fun of the Great Leader’s mustache. Earle and his lawyer initially refused to even acknowledge the Tribunal’s legitimacy, and the British Columbia Supreme Court itself argued that the case should not proceed until it was determined that the BCHRT had jurisdiction over the matter. But proceed they did, and now, after four years of hearing evidence that Earle’s vulgar taunts about strap-on cocks amounted to “sexist and homophobic” insults which caused Pardy “emotional distress,” the Tribunal awarded her this generous handout.
Earle is hardly anybody’s idea of a redneck, homophobic bigot. If anything, he’s a self-described liberal who seems genuinely bewildered at the way those on his “side” have been so eager to throw him under the bus as punishment for what appears to be nothing more than drunken insult-slinging between a comic and an unruly audience. Granted, Earle’s putdowns were not at Don Rickles’s level of heckler-flattening sharpness. Many observers and even fellow comics were eager to dismiss Earle as not being worth the effort to defend because they didn’t find him funny. They argued that better comics would know how to handle obnoxious audience members without resorting to crude dick jokes. Perhaps they were thinking of subtler, gentler putdowns along the lines of George “ Would somebody just put a dick in that guy’s mouth, please? ” Carlin or Richard “ I’ll slap you in the mouth with my dick ” Pryor.
Human-rights commissions’ original purpose was to prevent real injustices (i.e., people being denied employment or housing because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), and this seems an entirely civilized and reasonable justification for their existence to most people. But somehow they’ve managed to metastasize into a Kafkaesque body, accountable to no one while policing the nation’s comedy clubs to ensure sensitive heckler-management techniques.
How did they become so grotesquely distorted from their original (and basically sane) purpose? One possibility is that, in our highly bureaucratized and wildly litigious society, there are increasingly melodramatic possibilities for self-pity opened up by an ever-expanding definition of “victimhood.” Pardy apparently claimed with a straight (no pun intended) face that she had suffered “post-traumatic stress” as a result of the incident, a phrase which I’d previously thought was normally reserved for shell-shocked war vets.
And then there’s the fact that Canadians don’t enjoy the same speech protections as our American counterparts.
That last one came as a surprise to me. Because of our historical ties to the soggy, soccer-hooligan-infested ex-empire known as Britain, it seems we have a somewhat less officially enshrined tradition of free speech than the Yanks. Having slept through most of my high-school history classes, I’d always assumed that Western democracies were on the same page about this sort of thing. Speaking on the differences in American and Canadian culture regarding free speech, Canadian writer Susan Cole once argued:
Students of social history will someday look back with bewilderment and wonder how a civilized First World nation such as Canada could actually hold show trials that would be the envy of China or Iran and recalled nothing so much as Eastern European and Russian jokes from the mid-1900s. As an old Soviet favorite from the 1950s goes: