If someone told you to jump in front of a bus, would you have them arrested?
If I ever told my mum I had done something because someone told me to, her response was unfailingly: “If someone told you to jump in front of a bus, would you?”
More to the point, today, would you have that person arrested for aiding someone in committing suicide?
Comedian Jo Brand has come under fire today for comments made on the BBC Radio 4 programme Heresy, which some claim were an incitement to throw battery acid at right-wing politicians.
On the show, Brand was discussing the recent spate of throwing milkshakes at right-wing politicians such as Nigel Farage and supporters. She commented: “Why bother with a milkshake when you can get battery acid?”
She followed up the comments with the admission: "That's just me. I'm not going to do it," adding "It's purely a fantasy, but I think milkshakes are pathetic, I honestly do, sorry."
The remarks have incited the fury of many politicians and commentators. Nigel Farage branded it “incitement of violence” and called on the police to act. Piers Morgan tweeted: “Disgusting. This is an incitement for people to throw acid at politicians. Shame on you, Jo Brand.”
Meanwhile, the BBC and Heresy host Victoria Coren Mitchell have argued the show aims to ”test the boundaries of what it's OK to say and not say” and fellow comedian Jonathan Pie commented: “Jo Brand made a joke. Whether or not you found it funny is up to you. Should she be arrested? No, because that way lies a terrifying future.”
It is a salient point that people who would defend free speech when it suited them are not so keen when the shoe is on the other foot. However, Farage is not wrong when he points out that the general media throng would be much angrier if he suggested throwing acid in someone’s face.
And there is a point to be made that Brand’s comments are irresponsible. But that take us to the point of the matter – she is not responsible for other people’s actions.
Celebrities do enjoy a position of great prominence in the world today, but people who act on suggestions they hear in the media, without applying context or their own ethical judgement, are dealing with a whole host of problems of their own.
Furthermore, by that rationale, every news outlet and person – Farage and Morgan included – who has republished the comments to discuss them is equally guilty.
Is that the case? Of course not. That argument would only apply if you assume that people are preternaturally stupid and must have everything censored for their benefit and that is a step in a very scary direction.
Whether Jo Brand’s comments were funny or not is entirely up to your personal discretion. But to call them criminal is a madness we cannot afford in a society where communication is already faltering despite previously unheard-of infrastructure being available to us.
Such censorship takes away the ability of people to judge, analyse and react to what they see and hear in a personal way. Your actions are yours alone, despite what you saw or heard before committing them.
So ask yourself, if Jo Brand told you to jump in front of a bus, would you?