5 Things No One Mentions When Debating Political Correctness
It's not my job to tell people what they should think is funny or what they should be offended by. Over the last few years, however, I've seen a lot of people take up the mantle of GRAND GATEKEEPER OF JOKES and cast blanket statements over comedy as a whole. They often drive home black-or-white points about what kind of comedy is acceptable and what should or shouldn't offend people. With these debates, I find people struggling to fit comedy into a box, something that inherently involves choosing sides. What few people realize, however, is that the issues are way too complicated for that. Here are a few reasons why.
People Usually Have An Innate Moral Compass
Whenever I see a person write a joke that basically has the punchline of "Haha! Lesser people!" and then I see that same person try to defend those jokes as if they were meant to be anything other than lazy declarations of meanness, it makes me feel like I'm being talked down to. Like I can't see through the joke costumes that awful people put on their insults. "It's just a joke!" "It's just satire!" No. It's not. It's just you being hateful toward people who get treated poorly on a minute-to-minute basis. There's a marked difference between joke-making and trying to get 15-year-old boys to say "OOOOH" when you present your hackneyed bits. If you read only one full paragraph in this thing before skimming through the headings of the other entries on the list, I hope that it was this one.
I believe that people have an innate moral compass, and that the best comedians in the world are the people who can use that compass to deliver thoughtful material on the touchiest of subjects. Comedy shouldn't be limited. That much is true. But I've read too many pieces that make comedians appear as if they're constantly being held back from performing what they REALLY want to say.
Oh, shut up.
"If these PC folk didn't exist, it would be rape and rape, with a finale that sounds surprisingly like a pun about transsexuals." I don't think that they mean to come off in a light that gives all comedians the visages of bitter goblins, but the argument is usually delivered in such a stark, simple way that you can't help but see the comic as a guy who would be much happier if the world just let him be racist.
With all that said, in this rush to make the headline "Why Mike Birbiglia Should Be Taught A Lesson (Comment Below To Further Skewer Him)," we often forget that comedians use the same fucking process that we do when it comes to presenting ourselves to the world. They aren't people looking for any opportunity to bypass our social standards just so they can scream, "Eat shit, your opinions! It's time to get LAID."
They have the same sense of morality that we do, but they harness it to craft jokes. Sometimes they're going to make mistakes. They shouldn't be immediately written off as assholes because they look at the dark side of human nature sometimes in order to flip it on its head. An asshole is trying to get a rise out of people, because seeing you say, "Wait a minute, you jerk!" thrills them. An asshole is also a person who refuses to see others as multifaceted beings and instead looks at them as avatars to perfectly parrot their own beliefs, only to dismiss them when they don't act "accordingly."
But that doesn't mean that all mistakes should be ignored ...
Apologizing Isn't As Bad As People Make It Out To Be
As human people, we fuck up a lot. We're an idiotic combination of organs, supported by dumb-dumb skeletons, coated in the natural equivalent of plastic wrap. Every day that I wake up, I'm surprised when I don't read a newspaper headline that says "A Quarter Of The World's Population Dies After Collectively Forgetting The Last Stair Step." Most of what comes out of our faces is garbage.
Think of how many conversations you've had that went well. Like, actually well. I'm not talking about conversations that ended with both parties feeling satisfied. I'm talking about conversations that contained no screw-ups, no doubling back, no unnecessary pauses, and no accidental stutters.
How many have you managed to get through without doing this?
I can't remember one, and it's not because I'm trying to accentuate the quirks that make me a flawed yet lovable sitcom character.
It's because we're not perfect, and we're going to fumble while trying to handle most of the things that come our way. The same goes for jokes. If you write a lot of them, every once in a while one is going to come out in a way that you didn't necessarily mean for it to. And rather than think about you being a real entity, people are going to demand answers as to why you suddenly became an unlikable monster.
A decent chunk of our culture considers apologizing to be castrating yourself before the offended. As if saying you're sorry negates your whole cause and betrays everything that you stand for as this radical, #motivation warrior.
I will die for my right to be racist.
Comedy is full of trial-and-error, and it's the moral compass that I mentioned that keeps people from consistently messing up and tweeting slurs every hour. But if you do mess up, there is no shame in swallowing your pride and saying, "Hey. Sorry." When you admit that something you did was wrong, you don't have to reconcile with your own balls. Being friendly trumps aloof disregard every day of the week.
Does everyone need to apologize any time someone has a problem with their material, especially if the person who did the "offending" doesn't actually believe that they did anything wrong? I don't think so. A fake apology from someone always stinks of being fake, as if their parents met them backstage and told them, "You should tell those poor bloggers that you didn't mean it." You have every right to stand up for the jokes you made, even if they weren't received completely positively. And that's because ...
No One Person Is In Charge Of What Is Funny
A big question that often gets brought up in this debate is: Where do you draw the line? As if there is some universal bar and everything below it is 100 percent Grade F Not Funny, and everything above it is ripe for the picking. There is no such line. No amount of education and hope can completely change comedy to a setting where nobody is ever offended. That setting will never exist, no matter how much fine-tuning we do.
There is no constant poll or statistic that can measure the fluctuating emotions and varied experiences and histories of every single person on the planet. That last sentence might seem to say, "Hey, remember all of those jokes you had about feminists? Well, someone might find them funny, so they're totally OK to put in your next Facebook comment," but it isn't meant to, because I believe that even the lowliest shart-your-pants joke deserves a little bit of effort.
I know that's asking a lot of people these days.
Jokes about feminists haven't been clever since Earth made up the only one: "Looks like those girls could use the dick!" Invent a few more, pitch them to me, and we'll see where we're at.
If I had been given a 500-word limit for this piece and someone had asked me to write it when I was 17, I would've totally broken out a Big Lebowski "That's just, like, your opinion, man" meme for this entry, and been done with it.
Instead, this picture of an older, more mature Jeff Bridges.
No rule in comedy covers the overall tastes of the world's population. Does this lead to a lot of shitty jokes? Holy fuck, does it! And does it lead to a lot of bullying that people would have you believe is jokes because they can't take more than four seconds of careful thought when delivering their thesis on the obese? Yes, it does. But we can't call for a ban on all exports from a particular subject. We just have to dream that, if someone is going to make a joke about something, they're gonna think on it for a bit first, despite how little most actually do that.
There Has Been No Massive Shift In Comedy
It's hard to take seriously the allegations that comedy has changed, when the rich people who make them are still rich. That's not saying that we should all grab our pitchforks and torches and storm Castle Seinfeld. I am saying, though, that if I go to Food Lion, and I hear someone say, "What's the deal with so many Totino's Party Pizzas? What kind of party* needs so many little pizzas?" I'll wonder what happened in the state of comedy that forced Jerry to quit his job and start bagging groceries to pay his rent.
*Every kind of party. I see that we disagree, hypothetical Seinfeld.
Pretending that comedy woke up one day to find a lock on the entrance to the "EDGY" room is a really easy way to insert yourself in the role of the victim. In reality, and to keep this personification going, comedy woke up to find a note on the front door that said, "Hey. If you're gonna joke about something, be smart about it. Thanks! -Everyone." This is not some shift that is forcing all good comedians into poverty. It does ask them to possibly face questions about their material, but if they support their work or are willing to entertain the idea that they might need to write some new stuff, they'll engage in those discussions.
Too much dissection ruins comedy, because it reduces it to unfunny, inorganic pieces. However, there is no harm in opening a dialogue about it when someone has a negative reaction to it, even when others seem to be enjoying it. Until the livelihoods of countless people are threatened because they are simply incapable of making jokes that don't piss viewers off, comedy won't entirely shift over into the hands of the "whiners."
This is a very literal way to look at it, a way that is based on money changing hands, but there is no other real method by which to tell that comedy is suddenly in a newly evolved form. Humor will stay the same, and it will continue to be rooted in sarcasm, irony, etc., and until the advent of Comedy Central Presents: Liquid Joke Injections Into The Brain, it'll still be delivered to us through the same mediums. The "social justice" people haven't established a new brand of humor that is running everyone else out of business. We just live in an age where more people are talking about more things and have more access to the people who make the things that they are talking about. Of course there are going to be those who will want to wield their platform in a way that tries to injure a person's career, simply because they disagree with a single sentence. The same tactic is used by the assholes that I mentioned. But no matter how many times the Internet shares their ravings, that type will always remain in the minority. The people who attempt to hurt are often unstable and weeded out, as it's not beneficial to have them on your side for any long span.
It's All Based On Luck
A mistake can ruin a career. The availability of sharing on social media means that one pun can create a veritable tidal wave of backlash and rage, a wave that can feel completely baseless. Again, it's not up to me to discern whether this rage is warranted, because the question, "Are people getting too offended by this?" is just as valid as the statement, "I believe that I am creating quality comedy." There is no solid place that exists where, suddenly, no one has any right to feel bad anymore. You can't tell everyone who is actually offended to get on the left and everyone who is just doing it because their friends are doing it to get on the right.
I don't mean to sound like the last line in the trailer for a Hunger Games movie, but you just sort of have to hope. When you enter any kind of subjective art form and use it as a way to feed and clothe yourself, you're taking a risk. This risk isn't that you might get physically hurt but that some people might not like you. And enough people might not like you to the extent that you have to find a new job.
It's almost guaranteed, actually.
No one is promised a career in anything, especially not when you're dealing with the flippancy of tastes.
That's why, next to the town doctor and town grocery store, you don't find a town comedian. They're not someone that everyone needs, because other people might want a different brand of humor than the one you're exceptional at delivering. Jobs in entertainment are necessary, and they have the same amount of value that any other profession has, but it's a more transient kind of value. It's a value that ebbs and flows, and you have to be willing to suffer through the times when no one seems to give a shit if you want to survive as a writer/painter/performer of anything.
We'd like to believe that hard work, marketing, networking, and being talented controls our situation, and those four things certainly help prepare you for when you do get lucky. But no one can decide, "Hey, I don't think that I'll ever need food again."
And why would you?
On the other hand, a guy can totally decide, "Hey, I don't think that I'll ever click on this person's website again. Also, I start sentences with 'hey' way too much." You can go out of your way to deliver comedy that doesn't offend anyone and pleases everyone, but that doesn't ensure any kind of success. You can't force the world to make sense. It will move without you.
All you can do is hope that you wake up with a career tomorrow. It's sort of bleak, but believing that, as a comedian, you're facing a legion of those who would take your jokes from you, or believing that, as an audience member, you're under attack from heartless comedy writers who intend to upset you, is far bleaker.
For more things that aren't new, check out 5 Ways Gaming Changes When You Start Playing As An Adult and 7 World's Fairs That Became Utter Nightmares.