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Why the World Needs 4chan

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Following #CutforBieber there has been much tutting, shaking of heads, wringing of hands, rolling of eyes and wagging of fingers, indeed some have been engaged in a spasmodic full body angst workout.

If you missed it, #CutforBieber was a social media movement started by trolls (probably, though not definitely, on bulletin board website 4chan) consisting of images of self-harm apparently inflicted by 'Beliebers' (I'm sorry, I have to isolate that word in quotation marks in case it frightens my other words). The movement began as a response to a photo released by TMZ that supposedly shows Justin Bieber smoking weed and was presented as blackmail to put an end to the singer's alleged habit. Since it hasn't been determined which, if any, of the self-harm photos are authentic there would be no value in linking you to them but they are freely available online should you wish to look.

The reaction has been split between two camps, the first being 'How awful!' and the second being 'Lol!' Representatives of the first include the Independent's Memphis Barker and the Telegraph's Tim Stanley, who called it "existential assault" and, more alarmingly, wondered why Twitter did not censor the trend. I leave the search for representatives of the second to you.

Condemnation of the trolls has been widespread, but today I jump to their defence, and the defence of distasteful jokers in general. Miley Cyrus tweeted that "Cutting is NOT something to joke about", - dead wrong. Unquestionably this is a nasty joke, and to post phony images of self-harm linked to such a trivial cause is demeaning to those who genuinely self-harm. But censorship is not and should never be the response to an offensive joke.

As a stand-up I have seen a lot of offensive comedy. Only the other night in a dingy room above a pub I saw someone with a microphone joke about the Jews murdering Jesus, an offensive and undoubtedly dark gag that was met by the stony silence its author can only have expected. But there is a place on the comedy spectrum for disgusting and offensive material; the audience has the right to be offended, but the joker has the right to joke. Online, that place is usually 4chan.

It might be incredulously asked how I can possibly defend the trolls, and whether I pity the people (if they exist) who self-harmed as a result of this hoax. Of course I pity them, in the same way I pity those who transfer their life savings to blatant Bank of Nigeria fraudsters online. How awful that they suffered, but the trolls didn't cut them, they did that themselves. Someone might hit back that this isn't a parallel analogy, that self-harm is the most horrific manifestation of self-loathing and a sacrosanct matter not to be discussed or critiqued in this way. I would respond that this mode of thinking actually belittles those who do self-harm by asserting that they should be permanent objects of condescension and patronisation. I won't go into my own experience of the matter here, but anyone tempted to take the "My friend once cut herself so you don't know what you're talking about" line with me can consider themselves duly warned.

What I do find genuinely disturbing is when people call for Internet censorship: such a deplorable and horrific nightmare very nearly came true last year with SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, the last of which was thankfully rejected by European Parliament. The restriction of free expression on the web almost became a dark reality; the fight against it was the cause that hundreds of people took to the streets for in London in February. Whenever you hear that someone has been arrested for making an offensive joke online, weep. Weep for the freedom of offensive material, or better yet get angry and defend them.

Young Minds, the children and adolescent mental health charity, called #CutforBieber "irresponsible" and "reprehensible". I agree. I don't think it was a particularly funny joke and I don't support the teasing of the vulnerable or the aping of those who really suffer (as the youngest of three brothers I have a special soft spot for victims of trolling). But I will defend the right of the bold, sadistic trolls who began #CutforBieber to joke about whatever they want. 4chan is a reminder that free expression counts all the more for expression someone, even a majority of people, might find offensive.

I want to hear your thoughts on this - would you draw the limits of free expression to exclude offensive jokes? Leave a comment, or find me on Twitter.