My CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #89: Frankie Boyle

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2015

cf hero - frankie boyle

Frankie Boyle

Scottish comedian and writer
Reason: for standing up for free speech.

Three weeks ago, this series celebrated Benedict Cumberbatch. The reason? For challenging race discrimination in the film and entertainment industry. But, in doing so, he used a word, ‘coloured’, regarded as offensive and as a result was subject to a torrent of deeply unfair criticism.

Benedict apologised, profusely. One man who wouldn’t, I suspect, is Frankie Boyle. His comedy walks a tightrope between hilarious and tasteless, deliberately so: he wants his comedy to provoke, to stimulate, to challenge. Too often for my liking, he chooses easy targets — especially people’s physical characteristics — to get laughs. It’s a criticism he accepts. As he wrote this week:

Anyone offended … should note that even on a good day I only really half agree with myself. So why did I write it, if it might offend you? Because it’s worth saying, even though it’s not entirely correct, and I don’t really give a fuck about you, someone who might find a group of words in the wrong order too much to bear.

He continued:

The sheer range of opinion on this planet means you can’t be inoffensive. It’s something that can only really be aspired to within homogeneous groups or authoritarian societies. What would a completely inoffensive cartoon look like? Those little cartoons you used to see in Punch or Private Eye in a doctor’s waiting room maybe? …

I’m actually all for political correctness. If you want to work to change the usage of a word that’s discriminatory then fine, I’m behind you. But that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the culture. You can’t just decide that commonly used parts of a language are evil and that the people who didn’t get the memo must be bad people. …

If you’re any kind of writer these days the culture seems to be saying “Please challenge and provoke me, redefine how I see the world, while I scream my head off every time I hear something I don’t like.”

So now a lot of challenging stuff just doesn’t get made. Good stuff that does get made is weaker because it has to contain the seeds of its own defence. Because when the baleful burning eye of journalism turns upon you, you want to be able to say that it was all completely defensible.

Free speech is exactly that: the fundamental right to express views, no matter how at odds they are with convention or taste or personal preference.

The comedian Chris Rock made a similar point to Frankie Boyle’s a couple of months ago — that culture is turning conservative because of the fear of offending:

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

“You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.” That has always been the liberal critique of the surveillance state, and we now have a surveillance culture. Kudos to people like Frankie Boyle for being willing to make the unpopular point that free speech applies to things you don’t like, not just things you approve of.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Enjoy reading this? Please like and share:

Leave your comment


Required. Not published.

If you have one.