Literary Indignation, Post #7

“Just kidding,” I liked it.

“The whole point was to show people we’re not that different, we all have issues that can be made fun of,” Lee said at the time. He later added, “I want to write something that makes people go, ‘Yeah, that was hilarious,’ or they’re so mad that they go, ‘I’ll tell you why my religion is important,’ or why women’s rights [are] important.”

Well, that doesn’t seem very productive. Personally, I think we’ve lost the interest in having productive conversations about anything. And a single person’s self-appointed crusade and telling everyone else how wrong that he thinks they are cannot possibly be a solution.

If you’ve been following any of the recent controversies about college students, identity politics, and so-called “political correctness,” the clash over The Passion will seem like just another Tuesday on campus. At universities, we’re told, students now call for trigger warnings to be affixed to classic literature and provocative words to be banned from classrooms. Speakers and musicians who have questionable pasts (or even questionable lyrics) are routinely barred from speaking or performing on campus thanks to student-organized petitions. This dynamic extends far beyond the campus wars, though: On the internet, representatives of dominant social groups, races, and genders are often told to “check their privilege,” and in a lot of online communities, “white dude” has become a derogatory insult, if not an outright punch line….
“Lenny Bruce would not last a minute on the modern college campus,” Greg Lukianoff, the CEO of a free-speech advocacy group, says in the documentary. A chorus of talking heads vehemently agrees. But that’s probably because there’s not a whole lot of variety of perspective and opinion in the comics who were interviewed for the film: Jim Norton, Adam Carolla, Gilbert Gottfried, and Lisa Lampanelli all to some extent represent the type of established, abrasive, midlevel comedian who has always argued vehemently for doing and saying anything, regardless of who ends up the butt of the joke. But for all the boldness of their arguments in favor of offensive comedy, their commentary — and the film itself — crackles with the anxiety that this perspective is quickly going out of fashion.

This, to me, represents a fundamental miscalculation (not on the part of the writer, but on the framing of the issue — the writer, Lindsay Zolasz, gets to this point in a slightly different way). Every side of this “debate” has a problem with funneling their feelings of outrage. Let’s examine each party’s viewpoints:

  1. College students: We shouldn’t be subjected to speech that we don’t agree with.
  2. Free-speech advocacy: The Constitution gives people the agency to subject others to speech that they don’t agree with.
  3. Comedians: The audience has volunteered to subject themselves to any speech I deem funny, even if they don’t agree with it.

As with all things that end up as confrontation of people’s rights (no matter how justified the existence of those rights are), it comes down to a matter of persuasion. Let’s take this hardest to easiest:

  • The argument that comedians should be able to say whatever they want and everyone should just agree with it… is stupid. Yes, the “true art” of comedy involves pushing boundaries, but at the same time, the point of comedy is to make someone laugh — to find that mysterious compromise between spoken word and shared history that stimulates laughter — which at its core, is agreement. Or, lacking agreement, at least the comedian has to bring the audience to a point of surrender. This was the miscalculation of Mr. Rodriguez, who brings up a point that the crowd doesn’t agree with (I don’t agree with it either) — and he doesn’t even coerce them. There might be a joke in the premise he brings up, but there’s also an unwillingness to refine the idea to anything (which is reflected in the immediate stupid outburst… from the comedian — more about the audience response later). You can’t swing a sledgehammer and then pretend that you had nothing to do with all the broken glass.
“Women who go to college have a tendency to major in fields like women’s studies and English,” he says at one point. “And those women in women’s studies, sociology, and other useless fields, they will spend their useless academic careers bitching about the lack of women in math and science.”
A female heckler shouts, “Fuck you!” Rodriguez, claiming to be upholding the age-old comedy club rule that anyone who heckles a show is asking to be heckled back, calls her a “fucking loudmouth cunt.”
  • There’s also a problem with college students (or maybe “college students”) and the unwillingness to listen to speech that they don’t agree with. But I’ll put this on people I haven’t heard too much about — these college students are kids… intellectually, most of them are babies. There are advanced thinkers, yes, but collectively it’s essentially a mob of infants. So is it their fault that, confronted with exchanges of ideas, they express petulant revulsion at ideas they don’t agree with? Possibly… but the solution is to encourage the freer exchange of ideas. The academy used to exist to expose people to ethics and philosophy so that they would develop (literally) classical approaches to scholarship. Now, though, we have no ideas about how to teach ideas… we don’t teach philosophy, we don’t teach logic, and we certainly don’t have educational or societal structures that equip students to weigh different arguments and use frameworks (of any kind!) to hear and then accept/reject new ideas. So instead of thoughtful contemplation, the natural tendency is knee-jerk rejection (or blind acceptance).
  • Finally, the free-speech advocate. I think, 100%, that people have free speech rights — no matter how offensive it is, the government (and pretty much only the government, btw) has an extremely high burden for silencing speech. But unpopular speech is not freed so that its merits can be celebrated. On the contrary, stupid ideas should be aired freely so that their stupidity is clear for all to see, and so that people (exercising their own freedom) can shout them down. It’s a free market of ideas… the government cannot prevent people from bringing stupid ideas to the table, but the public certainly has the right not to buy that stuff. Not only that, the public can (and should) make sure the marketplace is crowded enough with good ideas that that the stupid ones seem even stupider by comparison. Free speech advocates are not just the opposite side of the “college student” coin — they are the same side. “How dare you subject me to those fringe ideas,” the college student cries. “How dare you subject me to your commonly-held ones,” the ‘free-speech’ advocate responds. Both have trouble dealing with rejection.

There’s another point here — what to do about the outrage about stupid comments that people have made in the past (or offensive actions that they’ve done). Why can’t we have both? People are capable of changing their minds about things, or maturing… but they also should be called out for having stupid ideas.

Each generation rebels in its own way; we must learn how to cross the line even as it’s being drawn in chalk in a rainstorm.

I really liked this piece, and the writer and I come to the same ultimate conclusion, I think. But this sentence is not true — I think each generation rebels in the same way, it’s just that the tools of the rebellion and their targets are different. The real concern is that if generations lose the ability to articulate for or against ideas, fights between generations will devolve.