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Is political correctness ruining student comedy?

Who doesn’t love a good laugh? According to a number of top comedians, it’s young people. Chris Rock said in an interview that he no longer hosts comedy gigs at universities because the students are far too eager “not to offend anybody” and “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Jerry Seinfeld contributed to the debate, stating that fellow comics have warned him not to go near universities because “they’re so PC.” Have modern students really forgotten how to laugh?

Political correctness (PC) is a term used to describe language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offence and cause disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. Its prominence rose in the late 1980s when it became the purview of disadvantaged groups. Nowadays, it’s a loaded term that’s normally used as a pejorative – the idea propagated by more conservative commentators is that many PC efforts are excessive or unwarranted and encourage minority groups to see themselves as victims with no responsibility for their actions. A more left-wing view is that the right uses the concept to downplay and divert attention from discriminatory behaviour and claim that another term for PC is human decency. Although it is impossible to conclude which view is superior, understanding the divide will be useful in this context.

The situation is not quite at that level in the UK, where comedians choose to shun campuses. But in the past few years we have seen a number of instances that echo those in America. Questions on free speech, PC culture and comedy hit the headlines last December after an incident at SOAS University of London. The UNICEF on Campus society organised a benefit gig to raise money for UNICEF and sent the five invited comedians a behaviour agreement to sign before their performance. According to an email by the event’s organiser, the contract had been written “to ensure an environment where joy, love, and acceptance are reciprocated by all.” By signing it, the performers were “agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.” All topics, it specified, “must be presented in a way that is respectful and kind.”

Have modern students really forgotten how to laugh?

One of the performers, Konstantin Kisin, who is also a free speech campaigner, pulled out of the event after being sent the contract. He said he “nearly puked” after reading it, labelling its terms and conditions as “ideological oppression.” Kisin emphasised that it was vital that comedians were not prevented from exploring difficult issues on stage. He took the contract to his next gig, and read it out to a number of laughs, before claiming he would perform his normal set in the spirit of those rules: “Hello, my name is Konstantin Kisin,” he said, “thank you very much – good night!” He walked off the stage to  a rapturous applause. For their part, the UNICEF on Campus society said it was a misunderstanding in the aim of making sure the event was appropriate for the cause (UNICEF is a children’s charity).

In response to this SOAS incident, the National Union of Students (NUS) said that contracts of that nature were very unusual, and a spokesperson commented that “there is little to no evidence that students’ unions are routinely dictating what [comedians] can and can’t say.” They noted that there was likely to be a basic ‘sense check’, which would ensure there was no obvious mismatch between the booking and the audience, but there was little in the way of prohibitive policies.

Cases of students protesting against comedians in the UK, or student unions dictating what they can and cannot discuss, are rare. Goldsmiths, University of London, cancelled a gig by Kate Smurthwaite in 2015 after reports that campaigners were intending to picket the event, and had used fake email addresses to book tickets in order to prevent others attending – although it appeared all 75 tickets had been allocated, only eight people turned up. After the event, a protestor took to social media to accuse the comedian’s jokes of “actively harming vulnerable people” and “making a career from [her] bigotry.” She was also prevented from appearing in 2014 at the same institution, after a protest by the Feminist Society when she suggested a chain of strip clubs ought to cut their opening hours.

Humour has great power in shaping the way people think or poking fun at ideas – thus, the argument here is that a joke using a stereotype of a minority will subconsciously reinforce that stereotype in the audience’s mind

The only other high-profile example was also in 2014, when the comic Dapper Laughs was banned from performing at the University of Cardiff. In response to his online videos, which offered lad advice on romancing the ladies and being a ‘geeza’, and his controversial ITV2 show (which was dubbed “sexist and inappropriate” and, according to student protests, “trivialised rape, unprotected sex, and dehumanising of women”), a petition was circulated which received more than 700 signatures and led to the SU cancelling his show. Vicky Chandler, the petition organiser, said that “there’s no place for him at our university”, and her view was echoed by the SU president Elliot Howells, who said “the views of Dapper Laughs go against our policies and everything we stand for.”

This last example is connected to a key criticism of comedy that deals with stereotypes, minorities, etc. – if you hire a comedian who makes a joke about gay people (for example) or you laugh at it, you are implicitly endorsing homophobia. Sidney Randolph, a writer for Odyssey, states that “it’s pretty simple to understand: if you’re a comedian or your joke plays on stereotypes that have marginalised groups of individuals since the dawn of time, you’re not funny.” She goes on to explain how, for her, PC culture is improving comedy, and writes that it “should be a safe space and relatable to anyone.” Humour has great power in shaping the way people think or poking fun at ideas – thus, the argument here is that a joke using a stereotype of a minority will subconsciously reinforce that stereotype in the audience’s mind.

Following on from this chain of reasoning is the modern conjecture that certain topics simply should not be joked about because of the risk of offence. There is a new divide between those who think that comedy shouldn’t offend, and those who insist offending is the heart of good comedy, and the battle is increasingly being won by the first group because they can get their voices heard louder on social media. The criticism is framed as a question of decency vs. bigotry, and who would choose anything other than the former?

If we’ve reached the stage where our generation trying to control something as instinctive as laughter, we need to take a serious look at ourselves

This shift in culture is evident in the way that our generation understands older comedy. In March 2018, Friends made its way onto Netflix, and was greeted by an article on BuzzFeed explaining that it was ‘problematic’ and a number of millennial viewers criticising it for being ‘transphobic, homophobic, and sexist’ (Chandler’s relationship with his father, a transgender drag queen, came under particularly heavy fire), and for only featuring two notable non-white characters. At the end of the year, an article for Bustle highlighted how “some of Seinfeld’s non-PC humour” should be considered “super offensive now.”

Furthermore, in a recent interview, comic supremo Mel Brooks said that his iconic western comedy Blazing Saddles would never be made today, in part because it uses the N-word to criticise racism, “because we have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy.”

One stereotype prevalent in society is that today’s young people are perpetually outraged snowflakes, unable to deal with any opinions contrary to their own, and must therefore ban or refuse to discuss them. In the media, examples like a purported ‘ban’ on capital letters or the seemingly weekly story on a university no-platforming a controversial speaker is held up as evidence of this. But is it the case that our generation is truly like this – simply unable to deal with difficult ideas, even in joke form? Two key shifts have been identified that explain this situation. The first is that young people (on the whole) are unable to pick up on the nuances of jokes and, the second, is that it is younger people.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this dilemma because comedy is subjective. But what one can decide is whether or not he or she finds a joke to be funny. No one should deprive someone else of that right. A few days ago, Ricky Gervais tweeted: “Please stop saying ‘You can’t joke about anything anymore.’ You can. You can joke about whatever the fuck you like. And some people won’t like it and they will tell you they don’t like it. And then it’s up to you whether you give a fuck or not. And so on. It’s a good system.” If we’ve reached the stage where our generation trying to control something as instinctive as laughter, we need to take a serious look at ourselves.

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