For a large portion of my childhood, I believed that the Spanish were incapable fools, the Germans were evil dogmatists, and the French were bumbling, puffed-up nincompoops. Given these attitudes, it can come as little surprise that I’m English and grew up with comedy that relentlessly mocked foreigners, the upper classes, the lower classes, the disabled, the neuroatypical, the “hippies,” the “sluts,” the “prudes,” and, well, basically everyone.
Of course, we English also cruelly mocked our own kith and kin, which somehow made it okay because it invoked the English notion of “fair play.” Little did I realise that the pure fluke of my own privilege contributed largely to my shameless schadenfreude, nor that my self-deprecation was in many ways an expression of my inner self-loathing.
Over the years as my self-esteem grew and awareness took shape, my tastes in comedy changed. I have become like Queen Victoria: not amused. I have become incensed by tired tropes, stock stereotypes, and tokenism in supposedly innocuous series like Friends, Absolutely Fabulous, and How I Met Your Mother.
I’m sick to the back teeth of ignorant writers using marginalized experiences as convenient plot points. Why is Chandler’s father made into a ridiculed trans stereotype? Is the abuse that Edina inflicts on her daughter really funny? How exactly does Barney’s constant sexual exploitation of women make us laugh?
In this most glorious technological era I can stream almost anything I choose. But with every news report, my inner mettle steels itself to fight injustice, and the more inappropriate I find the comedic alternatives on Netflix.
Yet it is also the time I need to laugh most in order to dispel my despair and sustain my mood for effective activism. So has “political correctness” gone too far?
One of my former comedy idols has a word or two to say about it. In his speech about political correctness, John Cleese declared that “when someone can’t control their own emotions, they have to start controlling other people’s behaviour.” Cleese implies that it’s up to the individual to control their own emotions instead of censoring others’ hurtful behaviors.
There is a grain of truth in this. It is possible to govern our emotions as we gain emotional maturity, to know that insults often speak as much if not more to the prejudices of those who spew them than those to whom they are directed. Certainly, my adoration of Fawlty Towers said far more about my own learned racism than it did about accurate portrayals of multi-dimensional Spaniards.
But the journey towards emotional maturity also entails a responsibility — at the very least — for the foreseeable consequences of our actions.
This is not a radical idea. According to tort law, similar reasoning is used when considering the consequences of physical actions under the principle “duty of care.” The businessman who works only to improve the bottom line without thought or consequence to the suffering he causes by shipping a faulty product or by employing child labour would, in less Orwellian times than these, be jailed. “Duty of care” is inculcated by law because we know that we are responsible, within reason, for the foreseeable consequences of our actions. To use the excuse that “it was just a joke” is to willfully disregard the impact of our words.
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Comedy engages people. It tethers both the pleasurable rush of endorphins and the reduction of stress hormones to the object of our mockery. And when comedy is used by the empowered to belittle the disempowered, it is a form of oppression. It undermines the legitimacy of suffering, removes accountability from those in power, and reinforces stigma. It makes it easier for us privileged folks to stay in our comfort zone, where we are not to blame for perpetuating structural discrimination.
When mainstream comedy floods our screens, it brainwashes us and serves little purpose other than to distract us and numb our wits from the shock of others’ difficult reality.
No one wants to feel guilty for laughing. We need to laugh. But when we mock those who by birth or circumstance are less fortunate, we become persecutors and make others our victims. We have no less duty of care for verbal abuse — even through humour — than we do for physical abuse. What we find funny is indicative of our beliefs, attitudes, judgements and opinions. It is a useful barometer.
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Like many of my fellow activists, I’ve discovered that although comedy is all too often used as a tool to punch down, comedy can also be brilliantly effective at undermining the establishment. It’s — as always – – about the locus of power. Satire, for example, allows us to scrutinise and also ridicule the corrupt politicans, bigots, and dictators of our time. I don’t have a problem with that.
HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver garners 4.6 million viewers. Oliver, along with other comedians, makes important issues accessible to us. And although I find some aspects of his comedy problematic, he pushes me to look at wider issues and pricks the inflated egos of those obsessed with power. He’s my cup of tea.
I’ve found that comedy has enormous power, but like all power, it can be used both irresponsibly and responsibly. And when it is used for clarification and inspires critical analysis, it is not only the best medicine for us, but it’s also a part of our arsenal to fight for equality, justice, and freedom for all.
[Feature Image: A black and white photo of a person laughing. They have dark shoulder-length hair and are wearing a black shirt. Behind the person are trees. Source: Petras Gagilas]