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Tommy Tiernan and the Art of Self-Censorship…

Ah, an Irish comedian has said something stupid and distasteful that has garnered massive media attention. Whodda thunk? This time quintessential Navan man Tommy Tiernan chose to make an ill-considered joke about efficiency and the Holocaust at Electric Picnic. Yep. As you can imagine – this being the country that now has an anti-blasphemy law – everyone has jumped all over it, and they’re right to. In fairness, most commentaries have been fairly reasoned, but I still roll my eyes when people talk about how we should have laws to stop these sorts of things. Yes, he shouldn’t have said what he said. But he should be able to.

Up to his neck in it...

Up to his neck in it...

That’s the thing about freedom of speech – it defends even the speech we don’t like. I am not for one second defending Tiernan here – though I have never really found him that funny, but I will concede he is an excellent storyteller. Regardless of all he may say about ‘context’, the Holocaust tends to be the one thing that is off limits (unless you are Ricky-Gervais-with-Kate-Winslet good, and only then Holocaust movies). It’s hard not to agree with Ruairi Quinn that we should be concerned that the audience was laughing and cheering him on.

However, the solution isn’t to even think about drawing up a list of subjects that comedians can’t talk about – though I think we can all form opinions on things they shouldn’t. It should be up to the person in question to decide if they should say it. If they are right and it is socially acceptable, it works. If they misjudged, they inevitably pay social penalties, like Tiernan is here. That’s the way the market place of ideas works and that’s how America has managed to define freedom of speech law.

Once we start filtering content out of performances or speeches, there’s no going back. Being free is like being pregnant (only time I’ll use the analogy, I promise), you can’t be a little bit free. Once society says that the following is off limits for the ‘arts’ or even for discussion, then who decides what is and isn’t out of bounds? Ideally we’d be able to tell the good ideas from the bad and reward those comedians with things to say (thorugh attending their gigs and giving them our money) and punish those who don’t contribute to discussion or discourse in any way, shape or form (by not attending their gigs or giving them our money). It’s an ideal, I concede, and not one we live by – Tiernan has been rewarded for his vulgarity and coarseness with a media spotlight and lavish attention. We’re spoiling him.

You might make the case that the Holocaust is a special case and it is. Nothing like it exists and is debated. The myth of Holocaust denial is harmful to the social fabric on the continent and (probably soon enough) will be here as well. How to combat that is up for discussion and whether the American model of a free market or the continental European approach of a regulated discussion on such matters offers the best solution for the problem in an Irish context is up for discussion. But this – however distasteful – is not Holocaust denial. Nor is it incitement to hatred. There is a discussion to be had in those cases, but not here – as there is an actual harm threatened.

If there is a harm from Tiernan’s remarks, Ruairi Quinn is right to identify it as the threat of ignorance. You can’t outlaw ignorance, only combat it with better education and discussion. That’s how you deal with issues like this.

Good comedians use risky material in a way that challenges their audience and makes a smart and sophisticated point which – applied correctly – can even change the occasional world view. There are dozens of examples – George Hook pointed to Bill Hicks last night. Unfortunately Tommy Tiernan is evidently not a good comedian.

2 Responses

  1. Darren,

    I agree with every word you say in what to me is a very perceptive and well reasoned post.

    To be honest Tiernan’s “jokes” amazed me, shocked me. If you listen to it he first blabbered in a very serious tone (no jokes and no laughter was heard during this first phase about Jewish people who came up to him after a gig… ” have you ever seen people whose eyes their are afflame with rightiousness” etc etc, and then “that the Israelis have only one thought….that they are a “one-streamed people”, who only have one thought abour being hounded, etc etc.. You may ask why he drew the Israelis into all this, when he had been appraoched about his Christ Killin Jews/Mexican joke.

    And then when he talks about “fuckin Jewish cunts” . I suspect tha idiotic audience laughed at Jews sui genralis in being described as such, and thus the anti-semitism nerve was stimulaled and fed. And fed further by the the Holocaust gas chamber humour.

    Thank goodness that such things are not banned, as they are a warning to us all. IIf I had it in my control I would transport Tiernan and his idiotic audience to a tour of the extermination camps, and then try out his act there in a chamber there. See if he could do it or whether the audeince could laugh.

  2. Went to Tiernan’s show last night, 2016. Great delivery, but here’s a summary.
    “Fuck me, fucking fuck and fucking FUCK what the fuck, is this fucking place fucking big fucking enough… FUCK!!!… you get the drift… repeat 10 minutes…then… I killed a fucking kangaroo… repeat a few times, then back to first bit… etc etc… then… I fucking hate your fucking politicians who are fucking biggoted fucking arseholes fucking controlled by the fucking mafia… FUCK!!!… then back to serious swearing… the general content was 5 or 6 segments of feigned biggotry delivered in the above style… then the grand finale “joke” (with a demonstration) I hung my fucking balls over my wife’s nose”.
    A bit disappointed. Unfortunately I wasn’t drunk enough to appreciate the content.
    Maybe self analysis is something worth considering. Somebody please kindly pass on my comments to Tommy to read when or if he sobers up.

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