Konstantin Kisin, once himself a student at the University of Edinburgh, sat down for a chat with The Student as he reflected on his debut Fringe show, Orwell That Ends Well, and the implications of the messages he is spreading.
The comedian made national news in December 2018 for refusing to sign a behavioural agreement before a show at a university which said he would not be allowed to make offensive jokes. Kisin was not afraid to tell The Student exactly what he believes during our conversation in the performers-only Teviot Loft bar.
SB: Do you think people have the right not to be offended in their daily lives? Is causing offence to others a violation of a person’s rights?
KK: ‘‘No, I don’t. I don’t think you have a right not to be offended. You don’t have that right. You have a right not to be physically attacked. I suppose under civil law you have a right not to be slandered and smeared and libelled. I mean, the offence is an entirely subjective thing. You could say something completely innocuous and a person will interpret it as offensive. So no, you don’t have a right not to be offended.
‘‘That isn’t the same as saying that we should go around defending each other for the sake of it all the time, or that everyone should be a massive edge-lord that seeks to offend other people for their own amusement. But that’s a moral thing. We can’t legislate every aspect of morality; some things just have to be societally encouraged rather than legislated.’’
SB: Does the cause of offence lie with the person saying the things or the person taking offence at the things? Where does the offence sprout from?
KK: ‘‘The reality is that it is both. But fundamentally every human being’s journey should be about getting to a point of resilience where you’re not affected by what other people say about you. That’s the journey of a human being. If you were truly whole and complete in yourself, someone saying something rude would not affect you.
‘‘I mean there are certain things that you know confidently are going to be offensive to other people. But equally, there are people who won’t take offence at them because they choose not to. In my opinion, the response to people saying offensive things is to challenge them on it, or to ignore it, or to make fun of it, which is what I do.’’
SB: Does making a joke at the expense of Jews make you anti-Semitic?
KK: ‘‘Everything with jokes is about context. Jimmy Carr makes jokes about Jews. One of his jokes I remember is ‘They say there’s safety in numbers – tell that to 6 million Jews’. You laugh because it is funny. I don’t think Jimmy Carr is Jewish but the thing with that joke is it is primarily about the wordplay. He’s saying that this saying doesn’t always apply and has found a horrific and funny example. I don’t think that makes him anti-Semitic. But there could be a way of doing a joke that is anti-Semitic. No one really knows until you’ve said the joke, this is the thing. It really depends on the context.’’
SB: Do you think the fact that you are Russian and of Jewish descent allows you to get away with saying these things?
KK: ‘‘Yeah. We live in a society where what you are allowed and not allowed to say depends on your skin colour, and your gender and your sexual orientation. It is the reverse of Martin Luther King’s dream. Martin Luther King’s dream was that everybody would be treated on the basis of their character. We now live in a world where we are treated on the basis of what our skin colour is and what our gender is and what our sexuality is. People will judge you on what you look like and what your genitals are and who you like to sleep with before they know anything about you.’’
SB: In your mind do you have a moment where that began, where it began to go wrong?
KK: ‘‘It is hard to say. I think it’s been a slow creeping process. I mean a lot of the evidence suggests that this is something that started out at universities probably about forty or fifty years ago, called ‘The Long March through the Institutions’. Jonathan Haidt has done a lot of research on this – you should read his book, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’. He talks about the fact that in the sixties the ratio of conservatives to liberals on campuses in faculties was about two liberals for one conservative. Now it is about one conservative for ten liberals. The ratio has shifted massively. If you have universities, which are essentially indoctrination pods, where people are indoctrinated with a particular mentality over a forty-year period, that, combined with many other factors will result in a society in which the educated people who have gone to university are going to skew very heavily to one side.’’
SB: Is there anything I can do about this?
KK: ‘‘Every person has to decide for themselves what they choose to do. No one can tell you what you should do. People can only help you – you know you can go and see a show about free speech and make decisions based on that.
‘‘The truth is that the vast majority of people, quite logically I think, seek to exist in the world by protecting others from the truth. Thomas Sowell has this great quote: ‘when you want to help other people you generally tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear’. So you have to make that decision for yourself.
‘‘When I was your age I wasn’t that interested in it, maybe I had different opinions as well so I feel like maybe I’m now in a position where it is certainly not safe but I can survive saying the things I want to say. Would I be saying these things if I had a really comfortable career on TV? Probably not. It’s a decision every human being has to make for themselves.
‘‘I can tell you, there’s nothing worse than not speaking your mind when you know what the truth is. The material benefits of not doing that – are they worth it? Well, that’s for you to weigh up. And it depends on what the material benefits are. There’s a great quote from Fight Club: ‘It’s only once you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything’. If you have nothing it is very easy to say what you think. If you have a lot to lose that’s where the problems start.’’
Our conversation then moved onto identity politics – something Kisin does not have a lot of time for.
KK: ‘’I hate identity politics as a concept because what it does is it says there is no such thing as society, there is only individual communities.
‘‘It takes people to the point whereas a straight white Brexit supporter, people have to go ‘I need my own community’. That’s not what we need. What we need is a society in which everyone is treated equally, including straight white Brexit supporters.
‘‘What we have now is a society where certain groups have engineered themselves into a position where they are receiving what they call positive discrimination, which is discrimination. It’s just discrimination against people you’re allowed to discriminate against. And it is dangerous precisely because it drives people into their own space. ‘We’re straight white men, we’re being discriminated against, let’s start a straight white men group’. The problem with that is that the one group of people you don’t necessarily want to be angry and organised is straight white men, for historically obvious reasons.
‘‘We need to get back to Martin Luther King’s dream, where people are treated on the content of their character, not their skin colour and not on their political viewpoints.’’
SB: Is there such a thing as absolute free speech?
KK: ‘‘The question of culture versus the law is the important point here. There have always been cultural limits and legal limits to what is acceptable. There’s never been this time where you could say whatever you want. I am not advocating people saying whatever they want. What I’m saying is, we can have cultural boundaries, and we have to be careful that we don’t make them into laws, because cultural boundaries are things that if you transgress, if you go over the boundary, people will go ‘Oh come on Sam, let’s not talk to people that way, let’s not say that. Emily finds that offensive’. And you can go, ‘Yeah, I was probably wrong to say that.’
‘‘We’ve all said stupid stuff. But if you go to prison every time you say the wrong thing, that’s a problem. We do need to have soft boundaries on what is and isn’t acceptable. There are always people who will say things that are in their time perceived as unacceptable. Sometimes these people end up being Galileo and sometimes they end up just being pricks. It is the price you pay for living in a free society.’’
SB: What are your thoughts on Piers Morgan as a person?
KK: I’ve never met him. When you do the show [Good Morning Britain] you’re on and off and he continues. I have no idea. One of the things that I found when I became better known and found myself in all the newspapers is I stopped having opinions on who people are based on their public perception, because I have the experience on the other side of what it is like for people to have an opinion about you that isn’t based on reality at all. It has made me aware that I maybe don’t know who people are based on what their Twitter says.
On Rebecca Reid, who formed the other side of his discussion on Good Morning Britain, which you can watch here, he said:
KK: ‘‘She looked like an idiot and she knew it and she was trying to win the debate and it wasn’t going to work. I’ve made quite a lot of progress in my career by speaking logic in the face of these idiots, so I don’t have a problem with it.’’
SB: We both know that you can’t live off your refusal to sign that contract forever in your comedy career, so where do you see yourself going from here?
KK: I don’t really see myself as living off that now, to be honest with you! These are issues that I’ve always cared about, it has just given me a slightly bigger platform to talk about it. Comedy is downstream of culture, so the job of comedy, in my opinion, is to always be responding to the things that are wrong with society in that moment. Most people say that the job of the comedian is to make people laugh, yes it is but is that all? I don’t think so. I think comedians should be saying: this is what the mainstream narrative is, and here are the holes in it. Comedians should be trying to take society forward, and they should be always pushing back against the mainstream because the mainstream is the authority. Whereas what’s happening now is that you have a culture where comedians are essentially buying into mainstream culture. They are the woke ones; they are the super-woke. Comedians are super-woke. I am massively hated by many people in the comedy world because I’m not. So I’ll have plenty to talk about – no problem there!’’
Konstantin Kisin – Orwell That Ends Well is on at Gilded Balloon Teviot – Wee Room (Venue 14)
At 19:00 until 26th August
Tickets available here
Image: Steve Ullathorn