So Stephen Fry—actor, author, raconteur, Apple fan boy, gay activist, atheist—had literally millions of adoring Twitter followers, right up to the time he deactivated his account. His crime? As host of the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, he noted the irony that the winner of the Best Costume award dressed like a “bag lady.”
It didn’t matter that the “lady” in question, Jenny Beavan, happened to be a friend of Fry’s and was not upset by the comment. Excoriated online for his so-called misogyny, Fry had had enough: “Let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended—worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.”
Fellow Brit wit John Cleese has also had it with the virtual Torquemadas and has decided to forgo college campus appearances: “Political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, which is ‘Let’s not be mean in particular to people who are not able to look after themselves very well,’ to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group could be labeled cruel. . . . Humor is critical.”
On this side of the pond, we have similar expressions of despair at the perpetually outraged, from Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Tina Fey (“There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that”), and Mel Brooks. Talking about his classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles, Brooks exclaimed: “They can’t make that movie today because everybody’s so politically correct. You know, the NAACP would stop a great movie that would do such a great service to black people because of the N-word. . . . Politically correct is absolutely wrong. Because it inhibits the freedom of thought.”
Fear of offending the wrong groups has become so intense that at least one comedy club, Seattle’s Comedy Nest, has crafted a “safe space” for audiences. As Heat Street reports, the club has imposed “a stringent set of rules curbing gender bias and banning anything that could be construed as misogyny, racism, homophobia or transphobia. And at least half of the comics at the weekly safe space event must be female-identifying.” (No mention whether Republicans and traditional Christians are among the protected classes.) But don’t worry: according to Seattle Weekly, comics at the Comedy Nest are still “free to address controversial issues or tell off-color stories about sponge-bathing an elder or sex so good you know you’re going to contract a UTI.” So there’s that.
The recent documentary Can We Take a Joke? features a number of comics “opting out” of having every punchline dissected for Orwellian “unwords” no longer in the Newspeak social-justice dictionary. Lisa Lampanelli, Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Heather McDonald: these are just some of the comedians who speak out in the film.
What’s interesting is that almost all these folk are on the left. (Jillette and Carolla are small-government libertarians but socially liberal, and outspoken atheists.) And yet even they are not immune from the progressive assaults on their right to laugh at our most treasured shibboleths and icons—including, and even especially, gender, ethnic, and religious identity.
What’s going on?
The New Gatekeepers
Censorship and the vetting of language we have always had with us. They’re as old as Plato’s attack on poets, stoning for blasphemy, the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, Goskomizdat, and the Hays Code.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it seems like there were more things you couldn’t say on radio and TV than you could. Edgy stand-up comics were eager to push the boundaries of acceptable language and “civil” discourse. Comedians like Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and later George Carlin, whose famous “Seven Dirty Words” routine pointed directly to censorship, knew they were flirting with the law and a swift end to their careers if they crossed certain verbal lines. No one knew this better than Lenny Bruce, who was repeatedly arrested for controversial material he performed onstage. His use of profane language, blasphemous ideas, and racial epithets made him cultural dynamite.
But back then, the younger generation embraced these controversial comics, who knew that merely to utter a profane word was a way of drawing a culture-war line, a way of challenging Mom and Dad’s buttoned-up generation.
What’s different today is that young people set themselves up as the gatekeepers of speech and normalizers of acceptable ideas. One student wrote an “Open Letter to Jerry Seinfeld,” arguing: “Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues. There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor.”
“Context”? The idea that there’s a “central truth” that this writer and his colleagues agree on is a mirage. What objective moral order do students recognize? Self-spun virtual realities are amenable to no known power of persuasion, only force. If a mythical ninety-year-old Lenny Bruce used the N-word onstage today, it would “trigger” any number of unintended responses from any number of unintended targets. It wouldn’t matter what Bruce’s intention was. All that would matter is how the mere utterance of a word made someone feel—and heaven help you if it’s a feeling of being unsafe, assaulted, or disempowered. (My goodness, according to Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, even sarcasm is banned at Australian institutions like the University of Queensland and Western Sydney University.)
Where is our Aristophanes (that paleo-paleo-conservative) who will fight for a place on the stage until both sophistry and tyranny are objects of ridicule, undone by guffaws?
He’s certainly not in college.
Anthony Sacramone is the Intercollegiate Review's managing editor.
Image by Christian Payne via Flickr.