The Tribunal. Humor dies in darkness.

Mike Ward

The Washington Post says on their masthead, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Maybe, but humor certainly does. My favorite comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Seinfeld could never appear on tv these days. While it might appear superficially that hypersensitivity has killed satire, perhaps it’s really satire that comes too close to the truth. One day, Stalin lost his favorite pipe, and directed the MKVD ( the forerunner of the KGB) under Lavrenti Beria to hunt for it. That night, he found it under his pajamas, and directed Beria to call off the hunt. “Impossible”, said Beria, “ three people have already confessed to the crime.” Tell that joke in Stalin’s USSR, and it’s off to the gulag with you. Tell it in Canada, and it’s off to the Tribunal.

From It‘s called the Human Rights Tribunal, but this Canadian government agency could easily be mistaken for the censorship-enforcement arm of an authoritarian country. The tribunal recently fined comedian Mike Ward $42,000 for telling a joke that some people found offensive. The joke concerned Jeremy Gabriel, a 19-year-old Canadian singer who suffers from Treacher Collins Syndrome, a debilitating disease. Ward’s joke was that the constant media coverage of Gabriel overlooks the fact that “he was supposed to die… why isn’t he dead yet?” Ward suggests that Gabriel “stole a wish” and is now, in fact, unkillable.

When Gabriel’s family heard about the joke, they called the Human Rights Tribunal. Ward then fought them in court, and lost. He has to pay a $42,000 fine: $35,000 to Gabriel, and $7,000 to Gabriel’s mother. Ward told Spiked magazine that he’s appealing the decision. He says that if he ultimately loses the case, he will “just move to Syria or Saudi Arabia or some other country the respects free speech as much as Canada does.”

“Unacceptable remarks made in private do not automatically become lawful just because they’re made by a comedian in the public domain,” wrote Judge Scott Hughes in his decision forcing Ward to pay Gabriel. “Plus, having a such a platform imposes certain responsibilities.” Ward’s mistreatment is a reminder of the importance of the First Amendment—something that doesn’t apply in Canada. But it’s also reminiscent of the current state of free expression on American college campuses, where administrators often behave as if they are not obligated to obey the Constitution.

I didn’t hear the entire joke, but the portion mentioned in the first paragraph was not the least bit funny to me. However, that is no criteria of acceptability. Judging what is “acceptable” or “unacceptable”, we need to ask various questions: Unacceptable to whom, and by what standard? Who is fit to judge what is humorous? What is worse, an unfunny or even offensive joke (offensive to whom?), or the censorship of words that offend someone? That word, acceptable, purports to represent some kind of worthwhile standard, but in Canada it can be dangerous, not to mention expensive.

It should come as no surprise-at least to those of us who are capable of extrapolating the downstream consequences of a trend-that the encouragement to complain generates more…..complaining!

  • 25,000 people contacted the Commission to complain in 2018, surpassing any other year. 19,500 of them did so through the Commission’s new online platform.
  • The number of complaints the Commission accepted in 2018 is the highest in over a decade, at 1,129.
  • The number of accepted complaints citing discrimination on the ground of disability, national or ethnic origin, race, color, religion, and sex were highest in a decade:
    • Race: up by 118%;
    • National or ethnic origin: up by 98%;
    • Religion: up by 73%;
    • Color: up by 68%;
    • Sex: up by 41%;
    • Disability: up by 33%.
  • Disability was the most commonly cited ground of discrimination, at 52% of accepted complaints. Over half of all disability complaints were related to mental health. This represents 27% of all complaints accepted by the Commission in 2018.