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The difference between a bad joke and a death threat


2:13 pm - November 12th 2010

by Dave Osler    


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Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani currently faces the threat of being stoned to death, at the hands of a vile theocracy that regularly exacts such punishment. My assumption would have been that anyone who presents themselves as a liberal, a leftist or a progressive would regard it as an elementary duty to do everything they possibly can to speak up for the victim.

In one of this week’s more unlikely stories, it seems a group of topless Ukrainian feminists got ’em out in solidarity at an Iranian cultural event in Kiev, chanting slogans in Ashtiani’s support as they disrobed. That’s certainly imaginative, especially as one suspects that it must be a bit nippy in that part of the world right now.

British pundit Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, metaphorically speaking anyway, chose to keep her kit on. I did not hear her appearance on a recent Radio Five Live chat show, but reportedly she expressed the view that the United Kingdom has no right to object to the exaction of the death penalty, in whatever form the Iranian judiciary sees fit to enact it.

Not only do I consider that stance wrong, and demonstrably an instance of moral cowardice, but I would even say I find it offensive. Then again, just about every strong sentiment in politics will be offensive to someone.

If my mother was one of the 20,000 women raped during the Kosova conflict, I would probably have found Boris Johnson’s recent invocation of that war to condemn his own party’s housing benefit cuts more than simply risible. And imagine how ginger rodents must feel when they are routinely compared to Danny Alexander.

But no-one enjoys a legal right not to have their feelings injured, and that goes a fortiori for those who make an appreciable living from dishing out strident opinions.

Nevertheless, Alibhai-Brown has seen fit to report a Tory councillor to the police, after he responded to her comments with a jocular tweet that someone should stone her to death instead.

Gareth Compton was thereafter arrested, although he has subsequently been released. The worrying thing is that he lives in Birmingham, not Tehran.

Of course the joke was not remotely funny, even by Brummie standards. I rather imagine that Cllr Compton can fairly be described as an obnoxious Tory twat. However, I think I can bank on him not dobbing me into the cops for saying that.

Unless he has some clandestine following among radical shi’ites or carries sufficient weight among Islamic jurists to be in a position to pronounce a fatwa, Alibhai-Brown’s contention that a bad wisecrack equates to a death threat is hard to sustain.

Sakineh Ashtiani is just the woman to explain the difference to her. If she lives much longer, that is.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


Of course the joke was not even remotely funny, even by Brummie standards.

Oi! Speaking as a resident of Birmingham, I might have found it hilarious. Although to be fair, I didn’t, but then again I’ve never got Brummie humour (and I’m married to one…).

Seriously though, good post. If you publically state that some other country has the right to use the death penalty (never mind one particular form), why should you be immune from people suggesting it be applied to you? It seems to be political cowardice to support the right of others to kill on whatever basis their state contrives, but then to take offence at personal jokes.

Two points though:

1) Yasmin Alibhain Brown had already received a series of death threats, which is why this twitter “joke” may have felt particularly upsetting on her part.

2) Cllr Compton is an elected representative, a politician, someone who holds public responsibilities. Quite simply he should be held accountable for the idiotic “joke” he publicly posted.

As I explained here on my blog, this chap is no Chris Moyles or Russell Brand. Or a blogger, or any ordinary person. Councillor Compton is an elected politician. The situation here is totally different.

He should know better. For him to come up with the usual defence that every bully clings on to “I was only havin a laff” is pathetic.

I am with Alibhai Brown on this, and against the ongoing “bully-fication” (the word doesnt exist, but I hope you know what I’m trying to say) of public life.

But Ms Alibhai-Brown has a column in a national newspaper, Claude. That’s not an elected position, but IMHO a rather more weighty one. Should she have the grace to take the inevitable incoming flak?

Dave

Agree with your take, roughly.

A crass claim by Alibhai Brown (surprise!), a crass tweet – though no worse than any number of other jokes, a crass decision to arrest, and even crasser if they prosecute.

Matt

“Cllr Compton is an elected representative, a politician, someone who holds public responsibilities. Quite simply he should be held accountable for the idiotic “joke” he publicly posted.”

Agreed, but that should not be up to the police but to a body such as Standards for England. And he will be held accountable at the next local elections.

I agree entirely. If people want to get him sacked for saying offensive things, then that’s a matter for Conservative central office, his local party and his constituents. It is not a matter for the police.

come on claude, that’s a bit excessive. how many examples do you think could be found of some left-wing politician wishing some sort of poetic justice on warmonger Blair for example. am I to believe you’d take the same line with them?

Quite simply he should be held accountable for the idiotic “joke” he publicly posted.

Sure. Does it merit being arrested, though?

While I recognise that this tweet was meant as a tasteless joke rather than a serious threat, I don’t think publicly wishing for the killing of anybody ought to be acceptable. Perhaps it would be a waste of time and money to prosecute in this case, but if it stops people making these kinds of comments in future, some good might come of it. (And no, before someone asks, I don’t approve of left-wingers encouraging people to kill Blair/Thatcher/Cameron either.)

I agree that Alibhai-Brown’s initial comments were pretty offensive and repugnant themselves, though, and don’t see how she can claim any kind of moral high ground here.

While I recognise that this tweet was meant as a tasteless joke rather than a serious threat, I don’t think publicly wishing for the killing of anybody ought to be acceptable.

Should they be criminal though? I remember during the Old Trafford test of 2005 texting someone ‘someone please shoot Ricky Ponting’. Is that really an incitement to murder? It’s a more or less exact comparison with this chap’s tweet about YAB.

It isn’t even a ‘bad joke’ in the sense of being gratuitously offensive: she’d actually attacked those criticising stoning. Clearly the joke was aimed at those who defend stoning, not a literal call for stoning, and what’s more she damn well knows it.

This is no different than saying you’d like to see how those who support water boarding would like it or that those who supported to Iraq or Afghanistan invasions get blown to shit. It’s hyperbole mixed with ‘poetic justice’.

‘Threat’ does not reside in the referential meaning of a word or phrase, it resides in connotation communicated dialogically between speaker and recipient. Speaker and recipient have to adopt their position in that exchange.

Likewise it is possible to make a threat – do you smell burning? It would be a shame to see a nice face like yours messed up – without making it explicit.

Yasmin Alibhain Brown had already received a series of death threats, which is why this twitter “joke” may have felt particularly upsetting on her part.

Upsetting and threatening are not that same thing, not by a long chalk and both the ‘she’s received death threats in the past’ and the ‘I would have been arrested for saying this because I’m a Muslim’ amount to nothing more special pleading.

Cllr Compton is an elected representative, a politician, someone who holds public responsibilities. Quite simply he should be held accountable for the idiotic “joke” he publicly posted.

If it can be shown that he was tweeting in a official capacity then arguably you have a point. If not then, in terms of a referral to the Standards Board, the ruling in Livingston applies.

Erdington ward are, of course, perfectly entitled to raise the matter in election leaflets next time he’s up for re-election, provided they comply fully with RoPA 1983 but that’s as much as can be justified here.

Should they be criminal though? I remember during the Old Trafford test of 2005 texting someone ‘someone please shoot Ricky Ponting’. Is that really an incitement to murder?

No – and that’s taking into account the fact that it expresses a rather more plausible type of ‘threat’ than Compton’s tweet.

‘2) Cllr Compton is an elected representative, a politician, someone who holds public responsibilities. Quite simply he should be held accountable for the idiotic “joke” he publicly posted.’

He’s accountable to those who voted for him, not to the police, unless he commits an actual crime. And it’s YAB and the police who are guilty of bullying.

13 – Well quite. It’s like when Tony Blair was ‘investigated’ for talking about the ‘fucking Welsh’. The police need to remember their duty not to be dicks.

16. Torquil MacNeil

Yes I think Unity nails it, and Brown should really be a bit ashamed of herself. She spends a lot of time complaining about female stereotypes and then acts all humourless and hysterical. Maybe it is an elaborate performance piece.

@16,

Is humourlessness a female stereotype? New one on me…

Can somebody please behead Claude, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.

17 – perhaps a militant feminist stereotype?

The situation here is totally different.

Does anyone know the Latin tag for equality under the law?

Should Morrissey be arrested for his ’80s indiepop classic “Panic”, in which he implores the listener to not only “burn down the disco” but to “hang the DJ” as well? The latter, I might add, repeated over 30 times in what can only be described as a subtle art of brainwashing?

Of course Compton is an unfunny twat. But I’m much more offended by Alibhai-Brown’s disgusting apologism for stoning as a penalty for “crimes” like adultery, etc. She, after all, was being serious.

Of course the joke was not even remotely funny, even by Brummie standards.

In terms of construction there’s a perfectly viable joke in there.

Where it falls down short is in the delivery and that’s really down to medium which make it difficult to convey the right level of exaggeration.

@16 I refer you to the answer given at @19

I agree with this article 100%

YAB criticised western politicians for condemning the practice of stoning! How on earth the lefty media have got away with presenting her as a victim is beyond me.

She’s about as liberal as Unity!

26. Chaise Guevara

@ 25

An unfortunate case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, no doubt.

Brown is supporting the death penalty by stoning for adultery and thinks the way to deal with political opponents is to get the police to arrest them on trumped-up charges. As a liberal, I’d want nothing to do with a nasty piece of work like that.

OK. Point taken.

I will concede you convinced me.

I don’t think Compton should be prosecuted (and I will be suprise if he is) but still I feel uncomfortable if no-one had batted an eyelid at the twattiness of his message.

I’m not so sure, however that Yasmin Alibhai Brown “supports the stoning for adultery” like some people have said here. Unless, that is, you have any link to support that view, in which case please post.

This is how the guardian is rewriting history:

‘Alibhai-Brown, whose defence of people suffering human rights abuses in other countries is ironically what sparked the whole chain of events”, was quick to accuse Compton of “incitement to murder”.’

‘Defence of people suffering human rights abuses’? Seriously, where they listening to the same interview? She was attacking *critics* of stoning.

29. Chaise Guevara

@27

She’s lending it indirect support by saying those who disagree with it shouldn’t get involved. “Support” as in “help”, not “advocate”. I agree that telling the world community that it should leave countries to stone women for adultery if they want is not the same thing as being in favour of the act itself, although I would submit that it makes her something of a dick.

30. Chaise Guevara

@ 28

Think that might be a genuine mistake based on the assumption that anyone arguing with the Tories must be in the right. Still crappy journalism, though.

31. Chaise Guevara

@ 26 and 29

Actually, cancel what I said in those posts… just had another look at it and it seems she was saying politicans criticising people for human rights abuses were being hypocritical. Which is unproductive and unhelpful, but doesn’t amount to supporting stoning in any way.

So Shatterface, S. Pill and myself appear to have got it wrong.

I cant copy the link on my iphone but you can hear the interview over at Harry’s Place. Not only does she say western politicians have no right to criticise stoning but she also starts banging on about the Opium Wars (seriously, how fucking old is this woman?) rendering criticism of China’s human rights record null and void.

She also comes out with some racist stuff about the Chinese percieving time differently. Its like listening to some acid burnout.

@31

Perhaps. But it’s one of the most irritating things in the world having someone say “Oh well you can’t say X about Y because Z is just as bad as Y if not worse”. Like on another thread a while ago about Israel and some clown kept trying to change the subject by saying yesbutlookatChinaSaudiArabiaIranNorthKorea etc. And sorry, but criticising someone for criticing stoning is apologism, in my books. Not support, as such, but by coming across like that completely nulls any point she has to make.

@31. Exactly

@33 S The Pill
I do agree with you. Whataboutery is grating especially when it comes to human right abuses “But also Cuba! And what about Israel? And Iran! And the Palestines! etc etc etc”.

But to say Yasmin Alibhai Brown “supports the stoning of women” is not fair, come on now. She’s actually written a number of articles slamming her Muslims who allow women to be treated as third-class citizens. If anything she gets a load of slack from Islamic extremists.

35. Chaise Guevara

@ 33

Agree completely: I’ve just listened to the interview and what she says is ridiculous. I’d got it wrong about the supporting stoning thing, then, not you.

And yeah, it’s frustrating as hell when someone says something like “You’re criticising this attack by Christians on Muslims, but I don’t hear you condemning this attack by Muslims on Christians that happened 12 months ago and is not actually related to the topic at hand.”

You dont exactly have to do much to upset Islamist extremists. Its an infinite capacity for grievence that defines them.

here’s the link for those interested: http://hurryupharry.org/2010/11/11/stone-the-crows/

For the record, I was against the invasion of Iraq and would like to see those responsible prosecuted. The subsequent abuses of human rights in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties at home were despicable. Nontheless, the governments of Britain and America still have a responsibility to voice the concerns of the people who voted for them – even if they were the same governments which took us to war, which they are not – and people in Britain and America are not particularly sympathetic to executing women for transgressing medieval tabboos.

And YAB’s comments on China would have been denounced if she’d published them on Sp!ked.

Good grief, did YAB actually defend the execution of Sakineh? I threw away Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left because it made such claims and I thought it was outrageous.

YAB, what a fucking complete idiot. I’m glad I stopped buying the Grauniad years ago.

Perhaps someone should ask her what she thinks about the execution of Farzad Bazoft?

@39

No. She said that western politicians shouldn’t criticise what goes on in other countries because they have blood on their hands (re:torture in Iraq, etc). Which smacks of apologism to me but it depends how you hear it I suppose.

41. Arthur Seaton

Agree With Dave’s main message, but there are grey areas here. This was not “just a gag”. Brown is a Muslim woman, and I think its pretty clear that there was a subliminal racist “treat em as they should be treated, shut the bitch up” thought process behind Compton’s comment. In my private life I’ve heard plenty of right-wing yahoos “joke” about killing blacks,pakis, queers, lefties….did they mean it? Not literally. Does it show that they genuinely do in fact value the lives of those groups less than others? Yes, quite probably. All the same, should Compton have been prosecuted? No, as this was not genuine incitement. Let’s not pretend it was ‘just a joke’ though.

When Charlie Brooker made a subtler, funnier, though in essence similar gag about George Bush, he was not prosecuted. He was however showered with death threats from irate Americans, as well as reported to the FBI. If someone japed about wanting to see David Cameron shot on Have I Got News For You there would be uproar – the programme would be taken off air even if a prosecution didn’t ensue. Social and political pressure can be exerted without the need for trigger-happy use of incitement legislation. Is this right or wrong? Arguments both ways, but once again, it wouldn’t be seen as ‘just a gag.’

Further, Brown is right to imply that if a Muslim youth tweeted a joke about blowing up Compton, he’d be visited by the police a damned sight quicker than any action taken against Compton in this instance.

Oh, and if anyone thinks of saying Compton can’t be racist against Brown because “Islam isn’t a race” – why don’t you stick your head in a gas oven you fucking moron? See – I’ve got a sense of humour!!!

I seem to remember Frankie Boyle sending a ‘subliminal message’ to viewers to kill James Blunt. Presumably he wasn’t arrested.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor was not prosecuted for saying she would ‘burn this god damn house right down.’ By the logic in Chambers, someone could have taken this as a threat to burn down their house.

We’ve already seen argument on Betjeman’s incitement to terrorists to bomb Slough.

Messages on the internet, despite being no more targeted towards a victim, now seems to be singled out for special treatment than the same offline.

43. Chaise Guevara

“We’ve already seen argument on Betjeman’s incitement to terrorists to bomb Slough”

In fairness, he was only enticing friendly bombs.

44. Chaise Guevara

@ 41

“Further, Brown is right to imply that if a Muslim youth tweeted a joke about blowing up Compton, he’d be visited by the police a damned sight quicker than any action taken against Compton in this instance.”

Yes, absolutely. But are we really at the point where we demand equal irrational prejudice be shown to all sides? The fact that the police would have treated a Muslim unfairly is not a reason to attack Compton.

45. Just Visiting

Chaise

> The fact that the police would have treated a Muslim unfairly is not a reason to attack Compton

Why is this ‘unfair’ and not good policing?

When the IRA were succesfully blowing up buildings in London and Brighton – it would have been bad use of police resource to have focused on Muslims, or Poles or Jamacains.
But bomb threats by an Irishman – would rightly have got fast attention.

Today the situation is identical, it’s just that the bombers are Muslims, so the police are right not to focus on Poles or Jamaicans – but Muslims.
So a bomb threat by a Muslim – would rightly mean a policeman at their door sharpish.

Just plain, logical police work.

46. Chaise Guevara

Just Visiting

I have to admit to blowing hot and cold on profiling of that nature. On the one hand, if the deciding factor for whether someone gets searched or investigated is their skin colour or religion, it’s pretty hard to describe that as anything other than racism. On the other, I agree it’s a ridiculous and intrusive use of resources to investigate loads of obviously innocent people just to make sure you’ve ticked all the boxes. It’s tricky.

All this is a little wide of my actual point, which is that (given for sake of argument that investigating someone over this sort of thing IS unfair), it’s ridiculous to demand that everyone get the same poor treatment. It’s a bit like saying the solution to police violence against black people is to require them to beat up more whites.

On the one hand, if the deciding factor for whether someone gets searched or investigated is their …religion, it’s pretty hard to describe that as anything other than racism. Eh?

48. Chaise Guevara

“On the one hand, if the deciding factor for whether someone gets searched or investigated is their …religion, it’s pretty hard to describe that as anything other than racism. Eh?”

Eh? If you got a question, ask it. I really hope it’s not the thing where people get inaccurately pedantic about the definition of “racism” as regards religious bigotry, though.

I really hope it’s not the thing where people get inaccurately pedantic about the definition of “racism” as regards religious bigotry, though.

I’m not sure I was being “inaccurately” pedantic: Race =! religion.

50. Chaise Guevara

@ 49

The meanings of words move about. Going by the Latin, “homophobia” means “fear of the same”. Going by what the word was coined to mean, it means “hatred of homosexuals because you secretly fear that you are one”. We don’t really use it in that sense anymore, though: we use it to mean “hatred of gays”.

Basically, common usage trumps etymology, simply because you can’t order the world to use words in the same way that you prefer to use them. The use of “racism” to mean “prejudice about someone because of their religion/nationality” is well-established, probably because “religionism” and “nationalityism” have never caught on as words.

In my experience, using incorrect pedantry to say that it’s unfair to call, say, and Islamaphobe “racist” is a trick normally used by Islamaphobes and the like to slow down the debate or score cheap points.

Chaise, I agree that the meaning of words is where consensus defines correctness and that meaning cannot always be determined from the roots of the word. However, I was not aware of a consensus that racism includes “religionism”.

Looking at a dictionary is sometimes a good way to see what the consensus is about a meaning of a word. I doubt there is a quality dictionary that says homophobia means “fear of the same”. I also doubt there is a quality dictionary that says racism includes religionism, BIBCW.

In my experience, using incorrect pedantry to say that it’s unfair to call, say, and Islamaphobe “racist” is a trick normally used by Islamaphobes and the like to slow down the debate or score cheap points.

I don’t know why you want to call Islamophobes “racists” rather than, say, idiots.

52. Chaise Guevara

“Chaise, I agree that the meaning of words is where consensus defines correctness and that meaning cannot always be determined from the roots of the word. However, I was not aware of a consensus that racism includes “religionism”.

Looking at a dictionary is sometimes a good way to see what the consensus is about a meaning of a word. I doubt there is a quality dictionary that says homophobia means “fear of the same”. I also doubt there is a quality dictionary that says racism includes religionism, BIBCW.”

I don’t claim there’s consensus on this one. There obviously isn’t. But that’s not how language works – it’s more about usage reaching a certain critical mass.

I once got into a friendly argument about the use of the word ‘stew’ with a friend who didn’t like me using it to refer to something that didn’t contain dumplings. Seriously. Whether with ‘stew’ or ‘racism’, if it’s clear what someone means then challenging them to a dictionary duel just leads you into a debatorial cul-de-sac. I hear people use ‘racism’ to mean ‘Islamaphobia’, ‘Francophobia’ etc all the time, and I’m sure you do too.

It’s also worth noting that what leads to apparent Islamaphobia is often racism anyway, even in your usage of the term. People look at people from the Middle East and think “oh, he must be a Muslim”. In these cases, ‘Muslim’ just becomes a catch-all term for a certain outside group, as well as an excuse to hate them.

“I don’t know why you want to call Islamophobes “racists” rather than, say, idiots.”

Also good. I like a full arsenal.

I can’t decide which of the two is the greater twat. Brown, I suppose, because she passes as a journalist and should be capable of an adult attitude to childish jokes. And since the joker isn’t even a muslim, let alone an Iranian or Saudi, she’s hardly in danger.

‘I don’t claim there’s consensus on this one. There obviously isn’t. But that’s not how language works – it’s more about usage reaching a certain critical mass.’

Words are always a site of struggle over meaning between users, and semantic fields shift over time. One of the ways this struggle takes place is through humour, which thrives on ambiguity and polysemy, and this is the problem I have with both this case and Paul Chambers: that ‘meaning’ is being dictated by the State, through the courts and the police.

The State wants to have a monopoly on language.

55. Chaise Guevara

@ 54

Plenty of people do. Argue with any single-issue fanatic (and no, I don’t mean you ukliberty, your objections are reasonable) and watch as they refuse to accept any but their personal definition of certain words, essentially meaning they end up straw manning everything anyone else says. Look at those feminists a few weeks back attacking transgender people because they felt that the process of changing gender offended against their personal definition of “woman”.

Not good.


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