When a sexist joke is made, the problem is not in the joke per se, but in the sexism.
Thus any reasonable response to the problem must address the sexism. To keep emphasizing on the right to make a joke, is to deflect from the fact that it comes from a sexist source.
It becomes all the more problematic when the source is someone of privilege and responsibility. In this case, the privilege is expressed from a male standpoint. In concrete terms this means the privilege reinforces and legitimizes a longstanding form of marginalization, where women are rendered passive, with no agency of their own beyond pleasing a man.
Matters become more curious when the source claims to be a representative of human rights. The question then becomes how the sexist joke is in line with its goals. This cannot be answered simply by claiming that it should be allowed to make the joke, for that does not answer why sexism would be consistent with its human rights identity.
For sexism is not reducible to mere moments of speech or offense. Sexism, for one, has real life effects. It does actual harm on individuals, harm that does not happen in a vacuum and is tied to a long chain of other issues.
More importantly, sexism is an intricately deep phenomenon. Because it is something as basic as gender relations and how we’ve been socialized at an early age to internalize certain prejudices, it tugs in our innermost states of perceptions and desires, never mind speech.
That fact that it has social and economic manifestations, in addition to its also visceral presence, often subtle and unrealized, makes sexism all the more important to be discussed, especially among activists. For overcoming it is a constant work in progress and dialogue.
This is personally my disappointment in how the discussion has taken off, in that it has become legalistic. There is little reflection about sexism as a reality (in fact he’s highly amused by the accusation) and instead emphasis falls on what the law – or the higher principles of the law – permits one to say, do and feel.
As a parallel point, imagine a conversation where one side is trying to understand, in order to better critique, racism or sectarianism, while the other just emphasizes that an individual has the right to make hate speech for as long as he or she does not physically harm anyone. What the law allows does not explain how a form of marginalization can be addressed or mitigated.
It is true that free expression is the most fundamental human rights. Other rights, the right to unionize, to strike or the right to religious association, cannot develop without free speech. It must therefore be protected.
But the issue does not end there. Fundamental to the notion of rights themselves is the pursuit of happiness, a life of dignity and conscience. It is a tool towards progress and the achievements of greater freedoms and capacities. In an age where cynicism is always tempting, or cost benefit reasoning is default, human rights if it is to mean anything must be viewed as a set of enabling principles that are effective in combating marginalization, and not merely another set of institutional laws or in this case cover for offensive rhetoric.
Withdrawing the article would at least mean one less sexist piece of rhetoric out there. The law may not compel him to, but the grievance in the first place was never really just about what the law says, and that’s what Lord Bobo and his fans seem to have missed.
Discussing the legal boundaries of an offensive joke will not get to the heart of the problem, which is the serious degree to which sexism continues to be tolerated, if not casually brushed aside, in our culture.