The Educated Struggle

There has been a bizarre kind of non-debate about a non-issue working its way through the periphery of my news awareness recently, about that much-vexed term “political correctness”, now often coupled with some kind of “social justice” concern. The debate seems to have no really testable or contestable axioms or structures that I can fully articulate, but roughly seem to be about some kind of amorphous freedom of speech and a concern that it is being curtailed by what you might go so far as to think of as politeness. Two recent examples of the dialogue have had me genuinely a bit baffled.

The first example was all over my facebook a couple of weeks back, I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me, followed as night does day (or vice versa) by the counter-punch I’m a liberal professor, and I’m not afraid of students who question me, which seemed to be little more than a title and focused most of its energy on a re-direct to another post entirely. This exchange needs to be read in the context of the other slew of discussion about the destruction of the concept of academic tenure and the commercialisation generally of education, and perhaps even more importantly, at on-going discussions about “censorship” of literature at all education levels. Both the original post and the response dance around the fundamental question of what education is, what it’s purpose is, who provides it, what it’s used for. I guess, both of these articles seem like they’re trying to make some kind of point via microscopic issues within the context of academia but where is the big picture? What is the function of the system, and the consequences of changing any of the elements discussed?

I’d like to think that, essentially, the point of a university education is to teach thought, but then again, that’s always a difficult one to pin down. The core question that needs to be addressed is how this commercial environment interacts with job fears. As a minor example, the year after I finished my honours one of the most popular English department papers was “Awkward Books” that included topics like Lolita and American Psycho; the market environment in the posts above would seem to be completely different. If the market is demanding mindless drones who have a cultural veneer, then perhaps the system is working perfectly – it rather refocuses the question though, as to why society at large is afraid of difficult questions or controversial ideas. An extreme example would be the rage associated with Edward Snowden amongst “patriotic” US citizens. Orthodoxy is always the easiest systemic option. If there is a movement toward students so sensitive that any kind of controversy needs to be explicitly signposted at the outset, what does that tell us about society, and isn’t that were we need to begin any remedial work?

Closely related is the non-controversial comments of Jerry Seinfeld. Salon had a comprehensive review of the literature so far. The money-quote I’d draw your attention to seems emblematic of the whole conversation:

The show was funny and it was a huge hit. But the humor resided in the irony.  The comedy depended on the fact that the characters were absurd exaggerations of the worst in human behavior.

This is tantalizingly close to making some kind of point beyond the obvious: that Jerry Seinfeld made a joke at which nobody laughed and then started to wonder what had changed in the world around him to make that so. It’s sort of empirically obvious that he was funnier c. 20 years ago, and the reason is exactly what he thinks it is: the world has gone mad about political correctness. Well, except that you still get comedians like Louis C. K. whose stock-in-trade is being absolutely awful, and getting laughs for it. Perhaps the best counter-argument is Archer, whose every episode seems deliberately set-up to hit as many -isms and triggers as possible. There’s racism, sexism, rape jokes, political satire, homophobia and anything else you can think of and if I watch two or three episodes in a row my face will hurt from laughing. What’s changed is where the boundaries of comfort are. As the Salon article points out, Seinfeld’s humour was a kind of hyper-narcissism that was still a viable comedic mechanism up to the end of 30 Rock… but whose time may for now be done.

Crucially, none of the commentary that I’ve read has been prepared to engage philosophically with the real underlying problem here: what is the source of humour? What is its function? Without Aristotle, we’ve just got to make our own minds up. I think that the fundamental purpose of comedy is to make us uncomfortable and be challenging. I think that’s why the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight are so successful – they provide an editorial comment on the news which explicitly says that the world is broken. We are becoming jaded to this perspective, but it is sustained by its straight-faced counterpart on Fox et al which also tell us that the world is broken but disassociate the problem from ourselves and so are basically comforting.

The bigger point is that without engaging with the function and purpose of comedy, how can we meaningfully interpret why Seinfeld’s jokes didn’t work? Engaging in a debate about whether or not he’s politically correct or incorrect or whatever is orthogonal to the question of what an audience finds uncomfortable or challenging, it is orthogonal to the bigger philosophical question on hand.

There is in all these discourses a kind of myopia, where details and particulars assume a disproportionate importance in the dialogue. Almost everything that’s going on in these recent debates is a sideshow to the real questions that should be the topic for discussion. Take a step back, look at the big picture, ask the big questions.  The juxtaposition between these two debates makes for an intriguing one, doesn’t it? We have two clear arguments outlining the need and desire for safety and normalcy and inclusivity as a primary driver at a time when LGBT rights are peaking, at a time when we have a black US President, when essentially the socially liberal “agenda” appears to be in ascendance but is not yet consolidated.

If the point of education is thought, and the purpose of comedy is essentially the same, my basic pick is that it was probably hard to make a funny joke about LGBT folk 30 years ago because they were comfortably beyond the pale and a joke was always going to be essentially and simply hate speech, and it’s going to be hard to make a joke about LGBT in 30 years time because the cultural distinction between “us” and “them” isn’t going to exist, but right now there is a huge swathe of great material challenging our boundaries from both sides and prompting us to see things from different perspectives. Seinfeld’s problem is not political correctness, it’s that he’s fallen behind the boundary – his joke doesn’t work because it’s a joke about the LGBT boundaries as they were 20 years ago.

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