TRAGEDY PLUS TIME
How Political Correctness Makes Us Funnier
Yes, the reactionary left can be annoying and silly. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that words have consequences.
Even though I’m a writer of uncommon bravery and penetrating social insight, whose words have shifted the entire worldviews of literally tens of people, if not fewer, I make my living mainly as a comedy writer. I try very hard to make funny things that in some way reflect the absurdity of a time and a place—specifically, this time and this place. More specifically, right up until the moment I started writing this.
It’s not like we are boring holes into the center of the earth in search of precious minerals, but making comedy is hard. And it’s not made any easier by the waves of socially conscious, p.c.-style outrage that seem to crash across social media and the internet whenever anyone makes the wrong joke or writes the wrong opinion. There are more landmines to step on then ever before, more audiences to potentially offend, and everyone has something to say about it.
Jonathan Chait recently wrote in New York Magazine about the dangers of leftist oversensitivity and, for the most part, he’s not wrong. It’s a scary landscape for a hetero-normative white male of reasonable intelligence to navigate, and I’ve been confused countless times over the past few years about what is the right side of an issue, whether something can be construed as sexist or elitist or microaggressive.
It’s all real, and what I think about that is: So what?
It’s hard to be a white guy now. Big deal. It’s hard to be everyone. As a comedian—or a writer, painter, columnist, philosopher, or any of those lesser disciplines—it’s our job to adapt to the world as it moves and morphs and changes. Things are not as they once were. Voices are being given to people who’ve not historically had them, which means our reference points are different now.
The landscape isn’t as familiar. But political correctness, or social justice war, or whatever it’s called, is not an immovable force. It doesn’t represent the End of Anything. It just makes us work harder.
And in a time and place when mediocrity is actually the most powerful and destructive force in the world, hard work is a virtue.
Laziness, it seems to me, is really at the heart of the sudden multicultural angst. Laziness and safety. For decades, comedians and so-called humorists of a lesser caliber have relied on the same tired tropes to get the same easy laughs—laughs that have come at the expense of women, homosexuals, Chinese Laundromat owners, the mentally ill, or anyone who represents that ever-present Other. But when the Other is suddenly given a platform and a microphone and a hashtag, those jokes don’t perhaps come so easily.
But they’re not just jokes. They’re symbols and labels that are designed to create a hierarchy of values, a structure of power, whether the person telling the joke is aware of it or not. Shaking those symbols up—smashing them to pieces in fact—and forcing all of us to find new ways to communicate the weird and wonderful foibles of the human condition can only make the whole art form better.
Not only does this make us better comedians and writers, it also makes us better people. Stopping to think about your place in society and how that may or may not affect those not like you can only make you a fuller individual. It breeds understanding, empathy, compassion.
Unless you don’t go for that sort of thing, in which case, sorry.
Listen. There’s much about the reactionary left that is worthy of ridicule. Some of the examples cited in Chait’s piece range from laughable to criminal. But the thing to remember about that is that any group of humans, no matter how well-intentioned, can turn into jackals. We can become intoxicated by our own righteousness, blurry-eyed and hateful. The extreme instances of left-wing righteousness should not obscure the core message: words have consequences and power is expressed through words.
While there are countless people I’d rather have dinner with than a tenured liberal arts professor who has not left his college town in twenty-five years, the bleeding edge of cultural thought he represents is especially sharp right now because it needs to be. There’s a lot of fat to cut.
We are figuring this out. The Information Age has changed everything and all of us, with our competing values and perspectives, have collapsed on one another in a tangled, writhing heap. The democratizing of ideas is a new phenomenon and a thrilling one, but it’s bound to be bumpy and scary and some people are going to get hurt. In the end, the best ideas win out and culture congeals around a new set of standards and beliefs that will pull us toward the next big status shift. And then the next one.
And so on and so on and so on, long after we’re all dead and the internet is replaced by some kind of ingestible, gelatinous orb.
But I promise you, it’s not going to make us any less funny or free or intellectually stimulated—at least not those of us willing to work hard at it. We’re just going to have find new forms for expressing ourselves that take this new knowledge into account and then, and only then, not worry about who’s offended by what. But you’ve got to put the effort in first. If you are still reading this and shaking your head, no, no, no, goddammit, no, ask yourself if you’re really concerned about the chilling effect this new wave of cultural sensitivity will have on our professional lives, or about your own ability to say whatever you want whenever you want without repercussion?
Because maybe it’s time you just shut up for a while, anyway.