Josh Lieb is an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech. As a comedy writer and producer on late night programs like The Daily Show and The Tonight Show, he knows that the freedom to essentially roast leading political figures is vital to true democracy. Jokes made in bad taste may worry you, but you should be absolutely petrified if you’re not hearing jokes and satire at all. It’s the same for hate speech, says Lieb: limiting expression has never changed the nature of hate, it only leads to an Orwellian path—and it’s during these exact moments in history, when the political divisions are so high, that thought criminalization and oppressive control find their way in. Josh Lieb is the author of I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President and Ratscalibur.
Josh Lieb: We're America—we can say anything the fuck we want and no one can stop us, and that's great.
In any political time the ability to poke fun at the leader or supposed leader is invaluable. It’s not just a stress relief. I’m not one of those people who sees a whole bunch of nobility in comedy, like it’s a great art and important thing we do, but it’s nice. It’s funny. It’s a good thing, and it really is important in democracy to be able to do that. I’m an absolutist on free speech. I think once we can’t make fun of our leaders… As long as we can make fun of our leaders I’m okay. Once we can’t make fun of the leaders, then I’m concerned about where we’re going.
People sometimes confuse—I think legally you should be able to say anything you want. But then again, if you’re seeing that someone is booked on a tv show who you don’t agree with, you’re not violating anyone’s free speech when you say, “I don’t want to be in a program with that person.” Or if your publishing house is publishing a book by someone you don’t like, there’s no violation of free speech or you’re not impinging on anyone when you say, “I don’t care to be associated with this person.” That's fine. But I do think legally we need to be able to say anything we want to say.
I'm worried. I'm worried when I see people get in trouble for slips of the tongue; I'm worried when I see interpretation being used to hurt people.
But the list of words that you cannot say seems to grow. It's never going to get smaller, it's never going to be like, "Well actually you know what go ahead with that one, like, we're cool with that." I think it's fantastic when oppressed groups like sort of reclaim words like when the queer community made queer like “their” word, they said, “All right you can apply that label to us, fine, we'll take pride and we'll slap it on ourselves.” And I think every group does that to a certain extent, or has learned from that example. But once that little demon gets in your head and says, “Can't say that,” we're screwed.
I worry when there's talk of limiting speech. And I worry—I sound like a grandmother—I don't like hate speech laws. I'm vehemently against them. I think they're as anti-American and anti-democratic and anything you can be. I don't like the idea of criminalizing thought no matter how hateful or stupid the thought is. It sounds like something from 1984. I don't think we make the hate go away by not saying it. Basically I'm Lenny Bruce in Harry Potter, I will say Voldemort's name. It doesn't make Voldemort go away to not say that fucking word. I always curse too much on these things. I'm sorry.
The road to hell is paved with great intentions. I get it, but it's a bad path for us and the problem is things are so chaotic now, things are at such a high tenor. People are so filled with vitriol that it's very possible that just to get everyone to cool down this is when this kind of stuff could get through, but that would not be American.