Speech Without Language

Speaking through the Body

This story about a fart attack on a park bench in Austria lit up my Burning Bush last week. I've already discussed it with one legal expert, and I urge my subscribers to consider the blind spots this story reveals in the legal system’s treatment of farts and torts.

In addition to the article in Vice, the story received coverage on BBC, the Associated Press, The Guardian and in local newspapers in Austria including Der Standard and Kurier. All this interest stemmed from the ruling of the Vienna Regional Administrative Court that imposed a fine of €500 euros for a fart “addressed” to police officers by a grinning 22-year-old man.

Because I only read the ruling with the help of Google Translate, I can’t critique it fully, but I can point to one contradiction. On the one hand, the police believe that the fine was justified because the flatulist “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent”. On the other hand, the court has ruled that farts and burps do not constitute a protected form of expression because they don’t contain “communicative content”. If the police felt insulted by the fart, it obviously contains communicative content.

The court apparently anticipated this criticism and, according to Kurier, argued: “

And even if one were to see in a fart a "communicative content" - that is, an expression of opinion - then this would be limited to the violation of decency, the court argues. For: it would be "a form of expression that transcends the limits of decency, which cannot be compared with the general criticism of police activity and the need for demarcation from the state's power of order".

I don’t think of myself as a free-speech absolutist, but when did “decency” become a reasonable basis for limiting free expression? As William Hughes argues:

Austria is a member state of the European Union, and, as such, is bound by the strictures of the Union’s Charter Of Fundamental Rights, first signed in 2009—and yes, we looked up the Charter Of Fundamental Rights Of The European Union for this stupid fart-law article. Article 11 of that same document clearly spells out (with no mention of “decency” requirements) that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” The wording is unambiguous: Let the farts be free!

In Beyond Language, I wrote about ways of speaking about the unspeakable. I mentioned poetry, music and psychedelics. I hereby add flatulence to the list of ways of testing the limits of language.

In cultures with warped standards of decency, quoting Diogenes doesn’t serve as an argument from authority. The father of cynicism elevated indecency to an irreverent art form, sometimes reputedly by urinating on people or defecating and masturbating in public, or by plucking out a chicken’s feathers to rebut Plato’s definition of man as a featherless biped.

Whether people agreed or disagreed with the substance of Diogenes’ arguments, no one questioned their “communicative content”.