The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:
political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”
Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall. Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome. Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way. Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.”
I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences. This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?
Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others. Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear. There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at. So Republicans laugh at Democrats. Hippies laugh at yuppies. Academics laugh at hippies. Progressives laugh at bigots. It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs. However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original. Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies?
Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny. As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of. However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:
Hermaphrodite? Really? An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy? C’mon, Conchords. You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture. (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori… Please be the Maori! If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”) Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away. Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:
Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities. But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others. Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them. The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated. Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects. As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.
Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are taking that power away from them.” Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset. But this redistribution of power can be productive. Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries. Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech.
Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor. For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television. I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others? But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians. Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity. Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism.
Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians. Because really. Who’s asking to be made fun of here?
* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc. Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.