Should being an insensitive asshole in public cost you $42,000 plus countless thousands more in legal fees?
A decision rendered by the provincial Human Rights Tribunal here in the Province of Quebec earlier this week said ‘Yes’, when it decided that a segment from Mike Ward’s 2009 to 2012 French stand-up comedy touring show ‘Mike Ward s’Expose’ (Mike Ward exposes himself) went too far.
Gabriel was a child singer/performer who is stricken with Treacher Collins Syndrome and in his act, Ward makes light of and ridicules Gabriel’s physical deformities caused by his genetic disorder.
Within the next few minutes if you keep reading, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that onstage anyway, Mike Ward is an asshole.
But the last time I checked, being an asshole wasn’t illegal in Canada, nor in any other democratic country that values free speech.
I know this for a fact because in the business world over the years I’ve met tons of assholes; so many in fact that if it was illegal, we’d need to build bigger jails.
Ward is a 42 year-old bilingual stand-up comedian and Quebec City native who has been plying his trade for over a dozen years.
His vulgar, immature, bombastic, often obscene, in-your-face style of stand-up works well here in French Canada. Don’t ask, it’s a cultural thing that would take too long to explain. But trust me, if Andrew Dice Clay could speak French he’d still have a thriving stand-up career here in Québec.
Ward for his part does speak French and easily sells out 1,500-2,000 seat venues across the province, performing dozens if not hundreds of shows per year.
As for his English shows he pretty much can’t get arrested here in Canada or anywhere else in the English speaking world for that matter, though I suspect that this is about to change.
All this to say that for the moment at least, unless you live here or visit regularly and happened to see posters or ads for one of his shows, chances are pretty good that you’ve never heard of the guy.
Personally, I’ve seen and heard parts of Ward’s act in both of Canada’s official languages. Let’s just say that I don’t care for his humor and find very little of it to be genuinely funny.
In their July 20th, 2016 ruling the tribunal decided that Ward infringed upon Gabriel’s rights under our human rights charter and ordered Ward to compensate Gabriel and his family for damages in the amount of $42,000.00, a little more than half of the amount of the original complaint.
Here is the offending segment (Note: for those who don’t understand French I’ve written a rough and equally vulgar English translation below)
Segwaying from comments about singer Céline Dion having sung for the Pope when she was a child, “There was one other Québec kid who was invited to sing for the Pope; little Jérémy.”
“I don’t know if you remember him, he’s that little kid who had that sorta sub-woofer on his head.”
“If you were beside him at the A & W drive-thru you could hear the orders better, shit it’s incredible!”
“So…he wasn’t as good as Céline.”
“Let’s face facts, to put it mildy his voice wasn’t as silky smooth, but hey he tried his best”
“And I remember in the beginning everyone wanted to compare him to Céline.”
“He comes along in the beginning and everyone was insulting him, I was the only one defending him.”
“He sings for the Pope and people were saying mean things about him like, ‘shit he can’t sing, he can’t hold a note, he’s terrible, it’s embarrassing’, and I’m like c’mon dammit he’s living a dream.”
“The kid is dying and he’s living his dream.”
“Let him live his dream that he’s had since he was little to go and squeal for the pope, leave him be, he’s terminally ill the poor kid.”
“Then he went to sing for Céline in Vegas and the same people again, ‘he’s awful, he can’t sing, it’s embarrassing’, and I’d defend him again because he was terminally ill and he was living his dream, fuck leave him alone.”
After that he sang for the Canadiens (NHL hockey team) and butchered the national anthem, and again people were all over him, ‘Christ he’s awful, he can’t sing, it’s embarrassing’, and even then I still defended him because he was just this poor kid, terminally ill, living out a dream, fuck give him a break!”
“And dammit, I defended him all the way.”
“Well now, here we are five years later and CHRIST! The little fucker is STILL NOT DEAD!”
“The little fucker just won’t die!”
“There I am defending him like an idiot and he won’t fucking die!”
“Hey I defend you – you fucking croak goddammit!”
“But Christ, he’s unkillable!”
“I saw him at the Bromont water park and even tried holding his head under water to drown him; you can’t fucking kill this kid!”
“So then I went online to look up his illness, you know what he’s got?”
“He’s just ugly dammit!”
It is estimated that Ward has performed this act publicly about 260 times. According to the ruling, the accumulated effect of this ridicule left Jérémy and his family humiliated, eroded the boy’s confidence, and even emboldened other children at school to make fun of him too.
Not many would argue that making a living by publicly mocking a child for a genetic disorder they have no control over is pretty pathetic, and that in this instance anyway Mike Ward can rightfully be considered a heartless insensitive asshole.
But the question is: Should anyone be forced to pay any amount for hurting another persons feelings?
The decision which Ward has already confirmed he’ll be appealing, has been playing out to heated debate here in both social and mainstream media since it was handed down last week.
Free speech advocates rightly point out that in his act Ward slanders no one. Nor does he incite anyone to hate or commit acts of violence against the boy – all of which would be clearly and unquestionably illegal under the Canadian constitution.
He simply makes fun of the boy in a way that any mature reasonable person would agree was mean, cruel, and insensitive.
But by deciding that mocking someone in this way is an offence punishable by a sizable fine, many argue that the human rights commission is the one going too far, and is taking us down a very slippery slope.
The timing of the decision couldn’t have had a bigger impact. Handed down just as hundreds of comedians from all over the world converge upon Montreal for the 33rd annual Just for Laughs/Juste Pour Rire comedy festival, performers and the international media are taking notice.
Agreement has been almost unanimous that if this decision is upheld, it could have a powerful and long-lasting impact on the comedy industry, and the right to free speech of everyone, not just performers.
And so the hand-wringing begins.
But where does it all end? Do we start locking people up who flip us the bird or swear at us in traffic, or hurt our feeling by making a joke about an ugly tie at the office?
Maybe it’s okay to make fun of someone but only if they’re an adult, because presumably they’re more mature and mentally stronger, therefore better equipped to take it?
Okay, but what if they have a handicap? Is it no longer okay for Eddie Murphy to make fun of Stevie Wonder’s bad driving?
What is appropriate and what constitutes going too far? And more importantly, how do we decide?
By it’s very nature satire has always at its heart mocked individuals and their actions, and comedians have always pushed the limits of taste and appropriateness. All the same, until last week it seemed the line was perfectly clear. With this decision that line has just become a little fuzzier.
The appeals process may take several months yet, but many will be watching closely to see how this plays out.
In the meantime regardless of what’s decided in the courts, Mike Ward has just been given the biggest PR boost of his career, and perhaps that in itself is the saddest commentary of all on where our society may be heading.
What’s your take on this? What is going too far, and when is it no longer funny for you?