Danny Dyer and free expression

This is a guest post by Nigel Warburton

Zoo Magazine’s illustrious Agony Uncle Danny Dyer‘s advice this week to a broken hearted correspondent was to go out and break another woman’s heart. Either that or “the other option is to cut your ex’s face, and then no one will want her”. This is neither funny nor nice.

The Sun reports that Dyer claims he was misquoted. But whether or not that’s true, should such comments be legal? If this were a genuine incitement to violence, then clearly not. But it reads like a bad attempt at a sick joke. And do we really want to censor sick jokes?

The difficulty here is that literal readings are no good when we are in the realm of humour and irony. This is one of those classic problems of drawing the line.

The patron saint of free expression, John Stuart Mill, recognised that it’s not the words but the use that makes all the difference. “Corn Dealers Are Starvers of the Poor” was fine in a newspaper editorial, but waved on a placard in front of a corn dealer’s house would be an incitement to violence and so should not be tolerated.

But deciding in the Zoo case isn’t that simple. Imagine what we would feel if the correspondent took the advice literally. Would we say he just didn’t get the joke? Or would that advice then, retrospectively, have morphed into an incitement to an evil action?

Should all speech delivered in an ironic tone be tolerated even when it literally incites violence? The trouble with written words, as Socrates noticed, was that when the author is not present, they can’t tell you exactly what he or she meant. So no easy answer here (and I mean that literally).

Update: Zoo has issued an apology, blaming an “extremely regrettable production error”.