Sunday, August 16, 2015
The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion
Republican leader Donald Trump tells us that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” Not the deficit, not ISIS, not Iran — being politically correct. So let’s talk about political correctness, what it means, and what its limits are.
To begin with, let me just say that when anyone prefaces a statement with “I know it’s not politically correct to say this,” it’s a safe bet that the next words are going to be something racist, misogynistic, or just generally awful.
“I’m not politically correct” is basically just code words for, “I am a terrible person who’s going to try and make being a terrible person look edgy and daring.”
To that end, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman suggested that you see how it sounds when you replace the words “political correctness” with “treating people with respect.” A bright young New Zealander named Byron Clark responded by creating a web browser extension that does just that. So you get altered headlines like “N.C. Senator Compares Treating People With Respect to Nazi Book Burning”; “Trump Says Treating People With Respect Big Problem”; and “‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement Is Treating People With Respect Run Amok.”
Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Ah, but then on the other hand …
I also read an article recently in The Atlantic describing the process aspiring comedians go through to try and get on the lucrative college circuit. There’s apparently a big convention for the National Association of College Activities (NACA) where representatives of “more than 350 colleges” come to audition various acts — including comics — to play their campuses during the school year.
“But the students’ taste in entertainment,” the article notes, “was uniform. ... They wanted comedy that was 100 percent risk-free, comedy that could not trigger or upset or mildly trouble a single student.”
Well geez, what fun is that?
Not much, as it turns out. The article talks about a prospect named Kevin Yee, “A young gay man with a Broadway background,” who delighted his audience with funny songs, including his closing number about “the close relationship that can develop between a gay man and his ‘sassy black friend.’”
According to the article, “The kids roared in delight, and several African American young women in the crowd seemed to be self-identifying as sassy black friends. … But afterward, two white students from an Iowa college shook their heads: No. He was ‘perpetuating stereotypes,’ one of them said, firmly. … ‘That thing about the sassy black friend? That wouldn’t work for us.’”
(Notice how it’s two white kids setting themselves up as the guardians of black people’s feelings and sensibilities here? That should raise a bit of a red flag in and of itself, no? But I digress.)
So there’s the dilemma. Certainly we want to show respect for people and their feelings. On the other hand, we don’t want to kill comedy. Comedy’s important.
And here’s the thing: Comedy is supposed to be disrespectful, and very good comedy may very well make you a little uncomfortable. The best examples I can think of are the late Richard Pryor (who could do a 15-minute story about his own heart attack and leave you rolling on the floor right along with him) and, more recently, female comics like Amy Schumer and Tig Notaro, who take solid aim at uncomfortable topics like sexism and even cancer (in Notaro’s case) and hilariously make then less scary or insurmountable by making them ridiculous.
But where does the line lie? At what point does even comedy turn into just being a jerk? After all, isn’t “Gee, can’t you take a joke?” one of the other verbal warning signs that you’re dealing with a bully or otherwise awful person?
There’s no hard and fast answer. But one thing to consider is: In which direction are you punching? Up, down, or sideways?
Punching up is making fun of the powerful and pompous, like, say, Donald Trump. Punching down, in contrast, is mocking those less powerful than you, like minorities, women, LGBT people, or the disabled.
(And no, white straight male Christians, those people are not more powerful than you are in America, despite whatever claptrap Fox News and other right-wing fear merchants have sold you. Believe me, you’re still on top of the American food chain.)
Punching sideways is making fun of yourself or people like you — as when Jeff Foxworthy talks about things that show “you might be a redneck” while members of his audience laughingly point at each other and go, “That’s you, Cousin Bubba! That’s you!”
Punching up or sideways is fine. Punching down doesn’t make you “politically incorrect”; it just makes you a bully and a jerk. That’s true whether you’re trying to be funny or not.