We have two related articles today about political correctness, if you want to call it that, although maybe we could just call it treating people with respect. In The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan says colleges are being too safe and not taking risks when they hire comedians to do shows on campus.
“They wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free,” she says, “comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student. They wanted comedy so thoroughly scrubbed of barb and aggression that if the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.”
Well, yeah, sometimes that is what people want. I don’t see why being racist or sexist is the only way to be funny, or even a way to be funny. I agree with Flanagan that comedy is sometimes about risk, but there are ways to be risky that don’t hurt people. Risk can lie in form and format, in the way a comic inhabits the physical space, in any decision she makes. Flanagan seems to equate risk with saying politically incorrect things, and that is far too simple.
When she talks about “performers whose desire is not to soothe an audience but to unsettle it,” I’m reminded that what soothes or unsettles people is highly contextual and personal. Straight white men with money and power have been soothed their whole lives, all of history, and I bet hearing jokes at the expense of other types of people is soothing to some of them sometimes. I bet comedy that makes us question those power dynamics is unsettling to those who are used to being soothed, and soothing to those who are used to being unsettled. I have heard before that the purpose of writing (though it can be applied to any number of fields) is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Surely this can be a purpose for comedy, too, and that’s what I see in, for example, Hari Kondabolu’s work.
I wonder whether the college circuit is a little different from other places people do comedy, or even fundamentally different. I don’t think of a club or arena or other venue as having values. Schools, though, usually try and have a party line of some sort, and some accountability to someone. There is usually some good in trying not to hurt people.
Flanagan admits that colleges “have every right to hire the exact type of entertainment that matches their beliefs.” Yes! She goes on to say, “Still, there’s always a price to pay for walling off discussion of certain thoughts and ideas.” Yes again! But deciding not to hire a certain comic doesn’t mean a college is walling off discussion. It may mean they value the discussion, so much that they know a performance isn’t a discussion. At the same colleges that choose not to hire people with hurtful humor, meaningful and challenging discussions are going on in classrooms, in dorm rooms, in cars, on the sidewalks. Because when we have an actual discussion, we can hear each other, not give the microphone to one person who chooses what we hear about. If some of these comics were open to having a forum after their show, this would be a very different story. They could talk about why their comedic risk included the particular choices they made, how they hoped it’d be received, what their point was. They could hear what it meant to people and decide whether to tweak or ditch that bit next time. Then people would learn about comedy and taking people seriously and each other!
Side notes: I hate Flanagan’s idea that racially-themed frat parties are the free-speech movement of today, and I wish she wouldn’t keep referring to college students as “kids” and others as “grown-ups.”
At Bitch, Leela Ginelle responds to the Atlantic article. Mostly she says what I’d like to say, so I’ll just let you read it.
Both of these pieces are part of a worthwhile and important discussion about what free speech means, what constitutes censorship, and the idea of protecting people from certain ideas and language. Seems to me like Flanagan is encouraging people to take a joke. But “Come on, I was just joking!” has been too long used as an excuse to hurt people, not think about how our words affect others, and basically live in a self-centered bubble of privilege. People should be able to decide what is funny to them, not be told to “take a joke” when the joker has all the power. That’s what Flanagan doesn’t seem to see and what Ginelle does see.