In a politically correct world, where does comedy find its place?
I had the pleasure of seeing Australia’s (arguably) most successful comedian Jim Jefferies perform in Sydney. Now, Jefferies is known for his “tell it how it is” schtick that doesn’t hold back and goes places some comedians would sweat over. Jefferies comedy went from a half hour long tale of his intolerance to dairy, to misogyny, his hate for New Zealanders and every other -ism and -obic that penetrates PC discussion in our modern world.
Now anyone who has seen a Jim Jefferies show or even just a section of a Jim Jefferies stand up routine will know that Jefferies is not afraid to drop the c-bomb every two seconds. You’ll also know that no topic, hobby, gender, race, culture or other form of identity is off limits to Jefferies. The other thing that most will know about Jefferies is that he is very in tune with politics and educating through humour.
In 2015, Jefferies went viral after his stand up special Bare hit Netflix. His bit on gun control has been seen by over nine million people on YouTube and boosted Jefferies to fame. In his bit, Jefferies presents very persuasive and humorous arguments against America’s stance on gun control. Personally, I think its pure gold and reference it on many occasions when discussion of gun control comes up in conversation.
So why am I discussing this for? In today’s society, the term PC floats its way around in order to define comedy or conversation that is PC and isn’t PC. When watching Jefferies go off on a tangent about misogyny or another “hot topic” conversation, I became increasingly uncomfortable of those around me and aware of what it was I was laughing at. I myself wasn’t offended but I could see that others in the audience were. I also became increasingly aware that there were some audience members who began laughing at inappropriate times, when the punchline hadn’t even come, or Jefferies so much as targeted the slightest joke towards a gender or culture. I was becoming aware that people were beginning to laugh at, not with.
So, my question for discussion is twofold really. Firstly, where does the stance on what is deemed “offensive” come from? Secondly, who gets to choose what is “too far” or what is and isn’t allowed to be touched in comedy?
Richard Bernstein states in his article Ideas and Trends: The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct “The term “politically correct,”… is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But across the country the term p.c., as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught [in education]. There are even initials — p.c.p. — to designate a politically correct person. And though the terms are not used in utter seriousness, even by the p.c.p.’s themselves, there is a large body of belief in academia and elsewhere that a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of “correct” attitude toward the problems of the world”.
I’d like to focus on his ideas of what defines a “correct” attitude towards the “problems” of the world. Now, let me preface this with the fact that I have not experienced any type of serious prejudice in my life. I am a white, straight, educated middle class man and as such I have had to check my privilege a few times in my life and even educated myself in areas of my life as I have trekked through the world. However, as a lover of comedy, what I have come to realise is that there is now an invisible line in the sand of what is deemed to be acceptable and what is deemed to be “too far” in terms of what can and can’t be used in comedy.
The question becomes who gets to move this line? Is it or should it be something set by society or are we allowed to freely move it depending on our own personal beliefs, values or place in society?
I believe where the idea of this invisible line comes from is a generational gap and a shift in ways of thinking in the zeitgeist.
Poole (2009) focuses further on the term of being politically correct when he says “Stalinists first made use of the term in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. They used intimidation, character assassinations and denial of freedom of thought and speech to suppress all but the “party line.” Current use of the term is different. Political groups use political correctness to denigrate people who have a progressive orthodoxy on issues involving race, gender, sexual orientation, and the rights of marginalized people.” This train of thought runs co-current with what I mean by individuals moving the invisible line to suit their own motives.
There have been famous comedians, such as Chris Rock and Larry the Cable guy who have spoken about not attending universities to perform their gigs due to the current trend of politically correct student movements. Comedian Carlos Mencia recently performed at Rutgers University’s Homecoming in September last year and was faced with a complaint from a student activist claiming the routine was littered with racial and sexual epithets. Funnily enough, students and administration of the campus opted to support Mencia.
“I personally thought I was a huge success in the fact that, for the first time, somebody pointed out that the exception was the exception and not the rule,” Mencia told TheWrap. “It wasn’t, ‘We’re going to take this one person’s complaints and turn it into, ‘This is how everybody else felt,’ it was, ‘This is one person’s complaint.’” (Donnelly and Zerbib 2015).
So does Mencia have a point? Was this one person’s complaint or was this student activist’s notion valid?
In essence, comedy is, and always will be, subjective.
I believe where the idea of this invisible line comes from is a generational gap and a shift in ways of thinking in the zeitgeist. It is true that we as a society need to become more “woke” in our ways of thinking. Otherwise what we are left with is the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Cosbys of the world who feel that power allows them to take advantage of those around them. This doesn’t exactly line up with my discussion of comedy but its a valid point nonetheless.
If we do choose to ignore the times that we live in we are basically choosing to ignore the struggles of disadvantaged groups in our society and others who have been marginalised by those in power and chosen to be pushed to the backpaddle of our involving culture.
In saying all this, I may be completely blind or uneducated in these matters but these are my opinions and thoughts at this moment in time and they are just as valid as the next persons. This therein lies the danger of the invisible line. Everyone believes their ideas are valid, their feelings are valid, their values are valid. And they’re right, all of these are truly valid. When you choose to take your privilege or take your values and attitudes and target them towards a certain race, gender or culture in order to empower yourself or for personal gain, that’s when it all becomes problematic and ,yes, offensive.
However, using the term “inappropriate” or “offensive” as a way of ignoring someone else who has chosen to express themselves through comedy, then you are using the PC phase for the purpose that it was not originally intended. You can’t expect comedians to cease their routine or change their gigs because you feel that you were personally offended. Comedy is subjective and everyone’s invisible line is different and always will be.
So in essence, what these arguments are amounting to is the belief that being PC is not something that should be used for personal gain or political empowerment. In essence, comedy should be able to reach all aspects of the world; either everything is on the table or nothing is. In essence, comedy is, and always will be, subjective. Let me just say this, when people say that something “wasn’t called for” of course it wasn’t. Nothing is ever called for. It’s not like someone has asked for things to be said. Belief you want people to accept your views and values, then you, in turn, need to become more aware of the power of comedy to empower and educate those around the world.
Comedy is perhaps the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal as a human being. It can be used to harm, to empower oneself, educate others and shed light on those in society who are being ignored or denigrated.
I’d like to hear other’s thoughts on the matter, so feel free to spark up a conversation or friendly debate!
– Bernstein, R. October 28, 1990. Ideas and Trends: The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct. http://ieas.unideb.hu/admin/file_6308.pdf
– Poole, Dennis L.Health & Social Work; Oxford Vol. 23, Iss. 3, (Aug 1998)
– Donnelly, M and Zerbib, K. August 23, 2015. Comedians Dump Campus Gigs: When did colleges lose their sense of humour?