Aalst parade of humour falls foul of political correctness
Europe Letter: Occasional acceptance of the obnoxious is price of satire and free speech
Carnival parade in the streets of Aalst: the raucous three-day Belgian carnival is formally recognised by Unesco. Photograph: Jonas Roossens/AFP/Getty
Aalst’s parade of floats on the Sunday before Lent is above all about causing offence and shamelessly pillorying the powerful. Copious quantities of drink are involved. It could never be said to be tasteful or politically correct.
This year the parade arguably went too far – irreverent speech turned into unacceptable speech, parody into racist caricature. But as its organisers ponder where to draw the line, their dilemma also points to difficult questions about the advisability and possibility of controlling unacceptable speech more broadly in the digital era. And specifically of defining unacceptable irony and satire.
Once a year, the raucous three-day carnival in this small Belgian town, formally recognised by Unesco on its “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”, lets rip.
“In addition to the carefully prepared floats of official entrants, informal groups join the festivities to offer mocking interpretations of local and world events of the past year,” Unesco’s website records “The 600-year-old ritual, drawing up to 100,000 spectators, is a collective effort of all social classes and a symbol of the town’s identity in the region.”
But this time . . .
One group paraded in the white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
Another float carried two giant figures of Orthodox Jews, with side curls and grotesquely large noses, sitting on bags of money.
Offence vs satire
Outraged calls have been made for Unesco to pull its recognition and its deputy director, Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, has said it will be considered.
But, to be fair to the iconoclastic citizens of Aalst, what was involved was not a display of insensitivity by a couple of royals embracing Ku Klux Klan-chic for a party – the Klansmen were satirising a far-right local councillor, Guy D’haeseleer, from nearby Ninove over a deeply offensive social media post referring to black people as “chocolate mousse”.
Ninove is home to the Witkap-Pater brewery, whose brand has a logo depicting a monk with a white hood, and other marchers in the parade walked in blackface wearing bakers’ outfits with the logo of D’haeseleer’s party on their chests. A group also in blackface wore Muslim head coverings and dressed up as chocolate bars.
The context is everything, and, as an old editor of mine used regularly to complain, there is “no typeface for irony”.
But is it really politically unacceptable to lampoon the racist right by comparing them to racists? If so, I confess, I too am guilty – some years ago I wrote and performed in a brown shirt a satirical sketch lampooning a far-right Austrian politician with a version of The Producers’ classic Springtime for Hitler in Austria.
The use of vile old tropes of rich Jews to attack the organising committee of the carnival for its alleged money-grabbing meanness is much more problematic and has attracted justified criticism for anti-Semitism. The plea that Jews are not the target of the lampooning, and that offence was inadvertent, does not excuse what is at the very least monumental insensitivity.
But how ironic it would be if it were only the carnival organisers’ irony which attracted sanction in some form, and not Guy D’haeseleer.
Attempts by governments and the EU to force social media companies to take down unacceptable speech, whether legal or illegal, have been tentative. The EU Commission is proposing to fine companies which do not take down illegal terrorist material fast. And the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, passed a law in 2017 that allows authorities to fine social media companies that fail to remove hate speech posts that violate German law, usually Holocaust denial, within 24 hours.
But most objectionable content, whether hate speech or, say, trolling, is not illegal and the commission is relying on a voluntary code of conduct signed up to by the social media companies to vet and take down material that is seen to breach their community standards.
Much of that vetting, because of the enormity of the task, is now increasingly being done by algorithms rather than humans – and no one has yet come up with a way of getting a computer to distinguish humour, particularly satire, from propaganda. It can work out that a man in a white sheet is probably a member of the Klan, and can know that the Klan is objectionable – but spotting irony is well beyond it.
Another problem, defenders of free speech warn, is the likelihood that social media companies, anxious not to attract fines or public criticism, may begin systematically to err on the side of caution and to take down material that is merely offensive.
Finding a proper balance is a challenge not only for the Aalst parade. The truth is that we probably should recognise that the price of free speech is a grudging acceptance of much more of the obnoxious. And a much thicker skin than this politically correct world will allow.