This is a guest post by my Dublin-based friend, the art director and graphic designer Fiona Hanley.
If it were not for the post 9/11 security climate then Paul Chambers may never have tweeted what he did.
Frustrated at not being able to travel, his was perhaps a minor light-hearted act of rebellion at the expense of a necessarily paranoid security system which assumes travellers are guilty until proven innocent.
We must decant cosmetics and hand over belts, coats and shoes. If told to stand aside, we hold out our arms, part our legs and consent to getting patted down by a stranger in front of strangers or consent to the same for our children until security is satisfied that we pose no threat.
Not much fun really, but the general consensus is that in this exceptional instance public good trumps individual civil liberty.
Paul Chambers’ tweet was a direct riff on this.
Of course it was a joke.
Who knew? Everybody.
The police knew it was a joke, the airport knew it was a joke, the courts knew and Twitter knew.
Yet he and his counsel are placed in the ludicrous position of trying to convince the courts that it was a joke which posed no threat to anyone while the courts are in the ludicrous position of forensically examining said joke to measure out the exact nature and potential for misinterpretation.
Never in the two years of this well-documented case has anybody said that they didn’t know it was a joke.
In my opinion, only someone with a condition like Autism Spectrum Disorder would be threatened by that tweet. A difficulty interpreting words any way other than literally, without regard to tone, context or sarcasm is a classic and debilitating trait of ASD.
But somebody decided Chambers broke the law and so the logic of the tweet has been forensically examined: how does threatening to blow up a closed airport make it open any quicker?
Why would a genuine terrorist send an open tweet from his non-anonymous account?
But really, there should be no need for any of that.
There should be no need to ‘prove’ it was a joke.
Everyone just instinctively, instantly, intuitively knew. How? We just did.
How do we know Beethoven’s Seventh is beautiful? We just do.
How do we know The Cure’s Lovecats is pretty catchy? We just do.
These are subjective value judgements which are so commonplace, so easily and universally understood that they require no explanation or justification.
Imagine in some bizarre alternate universe having to stand before a judge and explain exactly why the Seventh Symphony is beautiful.
Imagine if this masterpiece was legally deemed to be not beautiful if one was unable to sufficiently convince the courts of its quality.
It is the stuff of metaphysics.
Of course Beethoven or The Cure mightn’t be everyone’s thing and that’s fine, it’s all subjective, but you can see what other people are on about.
You mightn’t find Chambers’ joke particularly funny, it was no comic masterpiece, but you knew nonetheless it was a joke.
Following the progress of the Twitter Joke trial on Wednesday was frustrating because it felt like the intrinsic human capacity for subjectivity itself was being put on trial by a legal system which is apparently only equipped to deal in the objective.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence the narrator Phaedrus becomes preoccupied with the philosophical examination of the nature of quality.
Throughout a motorcycle journey with his young son he muses obsessively on an examination of how and why people make subjective value judgements. It is a fantastic read, profound and powerful, but throughout the novel I kept rooting for the tormented hero to just relax and accept that sometimes we just know stuff without needing to know how we know. I’m sure Paul, David and the rest of the legal team could sympathise with unlucky Phaedrus whose analytical reflections eventually drive him insane.
Carl Gardner wrote an excellent blog post following the hearing.
It seems the mens rea argument, ie that for a crime to take place there needs to be intention to commit the crime, didn’t gain traction with the judges.
I’m confused as to why it wouldn’t be taken as a given that there was no mens rea.
Personally I’m even confused about the actus reus aspect of the case, ie that a crime took place at all.
Did a crime take place if no one took it seriously, if no one felt menaced by the tweet, if no neurotypical person could reasonably not know it was a joke.
I tweeted something about being confused by the prosecution’s logic.
Actually hands up, I wasn’t really confused, just sarcastic because hey, let’s make hay.
We may only have a week and a bit left to be sarcastic on Twitter before Justice blows sarcasm sky high.
Oh hang on wait, that’s sarcasm again.
Better scratch that last bit.
We can’t be too careful these days.
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