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If you find Frankie Boyle's humour offensive, it's simple... just don't buy a ticket

By Fionola Meredith

Published 31/07/2015

Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at Féile an Phobail: West Belfast Festival on August 7
Comedian Frankie Boyle is to perform at Féile an Phobail: West Belfast Festival on August 7

I have no doubt that Frankie Boyle deals in crude, cruel comedy. But, equally, I have no doubt that he should be allowed to go ahead and play his gig at Feile an Phobail. Because once you start censoring comedians whose jokes you don't like, where do you stop?

Look, I can understand why the Feile For All group is angry. Boyle's cruel, sneering mockery of people with Down's syndrome back in 2010 was grotesque. And for all his reputation as a fearless controversialist, it was utterly cowardly. What could be easier than to mimic, lampoon and traduce a vulnerable group of people who aren't in a position to defend themselves?

The jokes were bad enough, but it was what happened next that gave you the real callous measure of the man. When Boyle singled out audience member Sharon Smith, who was visibly bothered by his routine, she bravely spoke up and said that she was the mother of a child with Down's syndrome and that she found what he'd said upsetting. To this Boyle responded: "Oh, but it's true, isn't it?" Later he described the encounter as "the most excruciating moment of my career". Of course, that didn't stop him from belligerently challenging people with Down's syndrome to picket his shows, or using the encounter as fodder for future performances.

But if Feile wants to invite him, and people want to come and hear him - and they clearly do: 2,000 tickets have been sold already in what organisers says is their fastest-selling comedy gig ever - then that's exactly what should happen. It is not for protesters, however justified they may feel in their anger, to stop other people from going to see Boyle.

It's a matter of the freedom to choose. If you find Boyle's humour bleak or offensive or repugnant, then don't buy a ticket. If you think he's funny, or you want to hear what he has to say and decide for yourself whether it's any good or not, then by all means go along. Either way, it should be entirely up to you. It's not right that somebody else should make that choice for you.

Opponents of Boyle's gig argue that the supremely right-on Feile would never have booked a comedian who made vicious jokes about gay people or black people or Palestinians. I expect that's true. But it's a different debate, one for the future. From the charge of presumed hypocrisy it does not automatically follow that Boyle should be disinvited on this occasion.

Protesters also say that it's wrong to book him for a community festival that receives public funding. By that logic Boyle should be banned from the BBC as well, which gets squillions, far in excess of the tiny handout that Feile gets. And again, who gets to decide? What is horrifying to one person might be side-splittingly hilarious to another. If we allowed every aggrieved interest group to dictate how public money should or should not be allocated then the entire system would soon come juddering to an abrupt and terminal halt.

Take Gerry Adams. Now there's a controversial figure if ever there was one. All right, so he's not a comedian - though his cod-whimsical musings on Twitter might lead you to think he has aspirations in that direction. But as a founder of the festival he was a prominent speaker at the Feile launch. If you were inclined to do so, you could build a far stronger case for banning Gerry Adams from the West Belfast Festival on the grounds of offensiveness than you ever could for Frankie Boyle. To many people Adams is a monstrous, divisive character, a cold and unrepentant apologist for a multiplicity of atrocious acts. Boyle has simply made some nasty, cowardly jibes.

Look, I'm not seriously suggesting that Gerry Adams be excluded from Feile. But it underlines the very serious point that what is profoundly offensive to me may be perfectly acceptable or justifiable to you, and vice versa. Once you start silencing people where do you stop? That's why everyone must be allowed to have their say.

Speaking of which, why doesn't Feile For All consider taking Frankie Boyle up on his offer and picket the show, as loud and long as it likes? Better to call Boyle out than to ban him, which harms our democratic freedom as much as it benefits his continuing career as a professional controversialist.

Belfast Telegraph

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