I’ll defend our rights to be rude and stupid
Research is everything in journalism so I am happy to be able to report that for this piece I spent a good half hour watching Rodney Rude videos on YouTube. It was probably around 1983 when I last devoted this level of attention to the work of this Australian comedian.
At our cutting-edge public school there was a tiny room you could hire called “the audio visual centre” which contained a single cassette player, and many lunch hours in Year 10 were spent with mates listening to our tape of the ground-breaking comedy LP Rodney Rude Live.
From memory the album went No.1 in the charts. It was regarded as massively offensive by many people.
Rude was banned from performing in Queensland for swearing and would probably be regarded in today’s more politically correct age as even more objectionable.
The album is filled with bizarre stream-of-consciousness anecdotes involving moments such as Rude’s sexual encounter with a lesbian at a rock festival who subsequently challenged him to a farting competition, his description of how he went to school with a boy who was “born without any arms or legs or anything, he was just a head” and who sank to the bottom of the pool in a school swimming contest on account of having a cramp.
Rude later released a single entitled I May Not Be a Wog (But I Look Like One) which did not fare as well as his debut LP.
He still pops up in the clubs from time to time with material which involves aberrant sexual banter, jokes about Japanese people, New Zealanders, Germans, albinos, the Pope, people with disabilities, and himself - a general smorgasbord of filth and weirdness.
I am not holding Rude out as the greatest comic of all time but there was a kind of charming and intense level of stupidity about him which endeared him to many Australians.
I write about him today because his largely squalid body of work forms a handy checklist for the types of sentiments which could soon be illegal. In the movie The People Versus Larry Flynt the American pornographer and founder of Hustler magazine argued that anyone who believed in free speech should support his cause because “I’m the worst”, and that as someone at the squalid outer limits of taste he needed to win in the Supreme Court to affirm the sanctity of the First Amendment.
The weird thing about Australia right now is the types of laws which are being canvassed won’t affect the most extreme and offensive and inflammatory sentiments or forms of behaviour, such as Larry Flynt’s repellent concept of satire, but could actually snare behaviour which is quite mundane.
You could go through the once chart-topping LP by a largely harmless nut such as Rodney Rude and draw up a handy checklist of aggrieved groups who could have a humourless moan in a court of law under Canberra’s beefed-up anti-discrimination laws.
The immediate past chief justice of NSW, Jim Spigelman, is such a level-headed and reasonable person that he is known in legal circles as Gentleman Jim. Spigelman is now the ABC chairman and he gave a terrific speech this week looking at how under the proposed changes it will become unlawful to offend people.
“We would be pretty much on our own in declaring conduct which does no more than offend to be unlawful. The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech,” Mr Spigelman said. “There is no right not to be offended.
“I am not aware of any international human rights instrument or national anti-discrimination statute in another liberal democracy that extends to conduct which is merely offensive.”
If you think back over the life of this toxic and dysfunctional parliament, where minority government has flushed out conduct on both sides which is way out of step with the way most people behave, the language of politics has become more heated than usual.
Julia Gillard has been labelled “JuLiar”, called a witch, a crook, a feminazi, Tony Abbott has been labelled a misogynist, a negative, policy-free fraud, the Liberals accused of dealing with “scumbags” to pursue the AWU story and so on.
I am not sure whether any of this language is desirable. But I am convinced that none of it should be actionable, as all of it has the capacity to offend someone. And the moment we start letting people try their luck in court because they have their precious feelings hurt, we are heading down a disturbing path towards state-sanctioned limits on what passes for conversation.
There are already limits to what we can and cannot say anyway through the common law, with defamation being a very popular and often lucrative way to take action if you feel you have been hard done by and can convince a judge or a jury of your peers of that fact.
One of the most inflammatory moments of this year was the absurd and violent protest by the ratty minority within Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim community, who thought that belting cops was a reasonable response to the screening of a film overseas ridiculing their chosen deity.
These blokes were clearly deeply offended. So much so that it was offensive to the rest of us.
We don’t need our government treating us like those nuts in Martin Place, who clearly devote much of their time to being offended. The long-standing advice to calm down, keep things in perspective, or lighten up should hold more value than any government-mandated attempts to make sure no one ever says anything offensive, ever.
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