That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Accountant Paul Chambers was back in the news this week, after he lost his appeal against a conviction for sending a “menacing message”, specifically an ill-advised tweet in which he humorously threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham. The case has prompted a flurry of indignation around the Twittersphere, with supporters complaining about censorship, and rallying to show solidarity by retweeting Chambers’ offending message.

I’m not sure how to feel about this issue. I’m all for freedom of speech, but I’m finding it hard to get too outraged about this limitation of my liberty to issue prank terroristic threats on the internet.

It reminds me of how, back in the old days, when one was standing in line at the airport, one would occasionally hear some wise-guy “joke” with the security staff with some variant of “Don’t look in there mate, that’s where the bomb is, ha ha”, which would be met with an icy smile, but no further action. Then, after 9/11, these irritating but otherwise harmless jackasses started getting hauled off to jail, and pretty soon that brand of humour disappeared. It’s difficult to say that the world is a poorer place for its passing.

That said, I guess on balance my sympathy is with Chambers, since I think that momentary stupidity, while clearly regrettable, shouldn’t actually be against the law. His faux pas is another illustration of how social media are blurring the distinction between public and private in ways that can have unexpected results. What’s passably funny when recounted to one’s immediate circle may be less amusing when it is relayed to the whole world.

I expect that, as immersion in electronic social networks becomes the norm, people will develop a keener sense of what to share and what to keep to themselves. The law will probably take longer to catch up though, so I’m going to make sure that all my tweets remain thoroughly anodyne, and not susceptible to any misinterpretation whatsoever – certainly nothing that’s too near the bone.

5 Responses to That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

  1. LarryE says:

    I would be able to take your argument seriously if it tracked closer to the facts. Chambers did not “issue [a] prank terroristic threat on the internet.” He tweeted a crack to a group of friends about which airport security would not even have known but for pure chance.

    Airport security decided it was “non-credible” as a “threat.” Police determined is was a “joke” intended to be seen by only a few friends. There was no “threat” and there assuredly was no “prank.”

    Put more bluntly, he was not convicted because of what authorities determined, he was convicted in spite of it. Why it does not disturb you to see someone arrested, convicted, and fined for what literally everyone involved knew was a joke and no threat is hard to fathom.

    Equally hard to fathom and of a piece with that is your apparent approval of people being “hauled off to jail” for saying some version of “Don’t look in there mate, that’s where the bomb is, ha ha.” Having their bags thoroughly checked, certainly. But arrested? Jailed? For a lame joke?

    I have to tell you I find that attitude, combined with your intention to keep your tweets “thoroughly anodyne,” that is, your overall stance of “you’d better watch what you say,” your surrender to, indeed your endorsement of, official overreaction, a hell of a lot more frightening than anything Chambers or your “Don’t look in there” jokester said or did.

    • johnny says:

      Two points:

      1. If you’d taken the trouble to read my post properly before engaging your moral outrage, you might have discerned that I have sympathy for Chambers, and do not believe that he, or others like him, should be prosecuted.

      2. It’s rather ironic that someone like yourself, who stands so staunchly in support of our inalienable right to make jokey comments on the internet, should object quite so strongly to a jokey comment on the internet.

      It seems that it’s not only High Court judges who struggle with concepts like “humour” and “irony”…

  2. LarryE says:

    Oh, I saw it. I saw how “on balance” you “guess” your “sympathy” is with Chambers despite the “stupidity” of “issu[ing] a prank terroristic threat” – even though you don’t have a problem with people getting “hauled off the jail” for a “bomb in the bag” joke.

    Well, that makes it all better, then, doesn’t it?

    “Humour” “Irony?” If you think this post succeeded in either, I’d say I’m not the one who struggles with the concepts.

    • johnny says:

      Paul Chambers said he was going to blow up an airport. He didn’t mean it. He was using comic exaggeration to underline his point about being frustrated by weather delays. Unfortunately for him the medium he chose to disseminate his message led it to receive wider exposure than he intended, and, since the literal-minded legal system has no room for such nuanced interpretation, he ended up in court.

      I implied that I believed that disproportionate punishment was appropriate for people who make ill-considered jokes. I didn’t mean that. I was using comic exaggeration to underline my point about how the boundary between private and public discourse is being blurred by new forms of communication, with the result that what once may have been innocuous acts can now have serious consequences, with a subsidiary point about the post-9/11 penetration of the law and the state into what would formerly have been regarded as our private lives. It’s obvious to me that my post is saying that these developments are regrettable, but on reflection I can see that that subtlety would perhaps not be apparent to everyone. Imagine me reading it in a tone of wistful nostalgia, mourning a lost age of innocence when idiots were only able to annoy the people immediately around them, rather than broadcasting their foolishness to the whole world. (Readers of this blog may experience a similar feeling.)

      I do still have some reluctance to issue a free pass to everyone who invokes the “Hey, it was a joke, you people have no sense of humour” defence though, since that’s usually what you hear from the school/workplace/internet bully when you pull them up about their racist/sexist/otherwise objectionable banter. (Like this guy, for instance.)

      Sorry about the ill-tempered tone of my previous response; it was early in the morning.

  3. LarryE says:

    I can accept that the tone was intended to be wistful if you can accept the possibility that it – well, it just didn’t come off that way.

    I completely agree with you that “It was a joke!” is not a verbal Get Out Of Jail Free card. At the same time, I remain very concerned that having someone fined for a “threat” not even addressed to the supposed target and which both airport security and the police say was not an actual threat is a very dangerous precedent. These things have a way of being built on.

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