What should happen to Jimmy Carr?

Over the weekend, Jimmy Carr stoked up a controversy after he made an ill-advised joke about the holocaust. It was simultaneously offensive and racist, particularly towards Roma, Travellers and Gypsies. I’m not going to to write the joke here, or post the video, you can find it easily enough. The comedian, David Baddiel, summed it up this way:

You can obviously tell a Holocaust joke that is cruel and inhumane and mean-spirited and racist. Or you can tell one that targets the oppressors, or draws attention to the fundamental evil of it, or shines and light on the humanity of the victims. It’s not the subject matter of the joke that counts, it’s the specifics of the individual joke. Clearly, Jimmy Carr’s was the former.

I said this at the time:

Along with Baddiel, I have no interest in defending the joke because I don’t think it is really defensible.

Nevertheless, I do think something ought to be said about the fallout. As you can imagine, there are those who seem to think that Carr’s entire career ought to be over because of it. Others simply refuse to acknowledge that he might have said something problematic at all. Is there any way to hold these things in tension?

Here is the bottom line: I think Jimmy Carr’s joke was disgusting and shouldn’t have been said. I equally think he should be allowed to say it without losing his career. I think he should apologise, I don’t think his entire career needs to be ended over it. But balanced responses seem in short supply.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech. I think Carr should be allowed to say whatever he wants, including this sort of racist bilge. I don’t think there should be legal consequences for such comments. At the same time, I do think people have the right to stop listening and, equally, the right to say whatever they want back to him. I don’t think free speech means you can say what you want but nobody can say anything back to you. It may well be that Carr doesn’t need to be cancelled because enough people don’t want to listen to him anymore. It may well be, if he apologises for the content of that particular joke, this need not happen.

But free speech means the right to say whatever you want without the threat of legal consequences. It does not mean that you can say what you want and expect nobody to say anything back to you. Nor can it be free from all consequences; we can’t expect to say things like this and then force everyone who was happy to listen to us before we said it to stick around and keep listening to us. There is, after all, no right to an audience; just the right to say whatever you want to whoever will listen.

I am wary of the knee-jerk reaction to “cancel” people. The answer to most problems is not to ban them, but just not to buy them. We don’t need to ban Jimmy Carr from performing because he said something we really don’t like, we just don’t need to buy tickets or watch him anymore (if that is how you feel). I am equally wary of the graceless, one-slip-and-you’re-over culture. There must always be a means of repentance for wayward sinners, even cultural ones.

So, I think Jimmy Carr should be able to say what he wants. He should not face legal consequences for having said it. The rest of us can say what we like in return and can decide (collectively or otherwise) that we won’t be watching him or buying his tickets again. At least, that is, until he owns it and apologises. That way, everyone gets to say and do whatever the want with impunity.