What Can We Laugh at Now?: Political Correctness and Humor

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Cultural & Political

Originally published on The Body is Not an Apology, reprinted here with permission.

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 am English and grew up with a smorgasbord of well-articulated comedy which relentlessly mocked foreigners, the upper classes, the lower classes, the differently-abled, the neuroatypical, the ‘hippies’, the ‘sluts’, the ‘prudes’ and well, basically everyone. Of course, we also cruelly mocked our own kith and kin–which somehow made it okay because it nodded to 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 self-esteem grew and my awareness took shape, my tastes in comedy changed. I have become like Queen Victoria–not amused. I have veered to the opposite extreme–becoming incensed by tired tropes, stock stereotypes and tokenism in supposedly innocuous series–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.’ It is implied that it is up to the individual to control their own emotions, instead of censoring others’ hurtful behaviors. Like all blanket generalisations, there is a grain of truth in this. The grain is that it is possible to govern and rationalize our emotions as we gain emotional maturity. To know that insults often speak as much if not more to the prejudices of those who say them than those to whom they are directed. Certainly, my adoration of Fawlty Towers said far more about my own learned racism, than portraying the hapless Manuel as an accurate multi-dimensional Spaniard.

But whilst the journey towards emotional maturity ideally includes analysis and elimination of our gut instincts to blame others for our hurt, it also entails a responsibility–at the very least–for the foreseeable consequences of our actions. This is not a radical idea. Similar reasoning is recognised for physical actions and consequences by tort law 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. And to use the excuse that ‘it was just a joke’, is to wilfully disregard the impact of our words.

Comedy engages people, it associates both the pleasurable rush of endorphins and the reduction of stress hormones to the object of our mockery. 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 folk to stay in our comfort zone, where we are not to blame for perpetuating structural discrimination. These are foreseeable and measurable consequences. When trivial mainstream comedy floods our screens, it brainwashes and serves little purpose than to distract and numb our wits from the shock of others’ difficult reality, a kind of opioid placebo reassuring us that we can always go down the steps to an able-bodied bar ‘where everyone knows our name’ and shield ourselves from the rigours of our self-perpetuated fragility.

What we find funny is indicative of our beliefs, attitudes, judgements and opinions. It is a useful barometer. 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.

No one wants to feel guilty for laughing. We need to laugh. And to quote John Cleese once more, the whole point about comedy is that it is based on criticism. So I, like many of my fellow activists have discovered that although comedy is all to 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, yes, also ridicule the corrupt politicans, the bigots, and the dictators of our time. I don’t have a problem with that.

Shows like John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight receives 4.6 million viewers; he along with other comedians makes important issues accessible to us. And although I find some aspects 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 is also a part of our arsenal to fight for equality, justice and freedom for all.