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The Death of Comedy

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In March of this year, the vlogger Mark Meechan was convicted in a Scottish Court of violating the Communications Act 2003 for a video he had uploaded to YouTube in April 2016. The video, which Meechan claimed had been produced for comedic purpose (he claimed he wanted to annoy his girlfriend), featured a pug dog making Hitler salutes with its paw, responding to the command “gas the Jews” by tilting its head, and watching a Nazi rally at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Scottish Court that convicted Meechan (who is much better known as ‘Count Dankula’) concluded that he had been motivated to produce the video by religious prejudice. Perhaps without realising it, by convicting Meechan, the Scottish legal system has illustrated the importance of free speech and the threat that political correctness poses to it.

Unfortunately, legally and politically incited attacks against both free speech and comedy are not limited to the United Kingdom. In Canada, politically correct inspired attempts to silence comedians have been instantiated into law. In one alarming case, the Quebec Human Rights Commission awarded Jeremy Gabriel, a disabled former child star, $35,000 in damages after he was ridiculed in a comedy routine by Mike Ward.

It is little wonder, then, that some comedians have seen cause for alarm. Some, like Chris Rock, now refuse to perform on college campuses because of the oversensitivity of some of the students. Others, like legendary Monty Python star John Cleese, have warned that comedians face an “Orwellian nightmare.”

Political correctness is the antithesis of comedy. It is not that comedians have been prevented from practising their craft, but that the pressures political correctness place on them makes it difficult to do so. The comedian feels himself pressured to self-censor himself because of the way words are categorised by their supposed offensive or inoffensiveness. And he finds himself fearful of having his words twisted and misinterpreted to mean something other than what he meant it to mean.

Much of the problem arises from a culture that has elevated politics to something approximating religion. And, like all zealots, the fanatics of this new religion have attempted to conform every aspect of society to their new faith. It is the job of the comedian to make me laugh. It is not his job, as some would have you believe, to play the role of political activist.

Unfortunately, that view is not one held by many on the radical left. In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, Judith Lucy opined that people wanted to “hear people talk about politics or race.” And it seems that there are people who agree with Lucy. Comedy is not to be used to bring joy to people, but as a platform to espouse politics. Comedy has become a form of propaganda. And it is the liberal agenda that determines what is considered funny and what isn’t.

What the politically correct offer instead of genuinely funny comedy is comedy as a form of political activism. Comedy is to be used to spread progressive ideas and political correctness is to be used to silence that which opposes those ideas. Take, for example, Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing, which revolved around a conservative protagonist, which was cancelled by the American Broadcasting Company despite its popularity.

And nowhere can this trend of comedy as political activism can be seen more readily than in the current incarnations of late-night television. Legendary comics like Johnny Carson and David Letterman established late-night television as a form of entertainment that provided light-hearted entertainment before sending its audience off to bed. It was not afraid of offending people in order to do so, either. Today, however, this willingness to offend others seems only to be targeted towards those on the right of the political spectrum. It is as though the late-night comedian has decided to use his position to preach progressive politics to its audience rather than using their talent to make insightful and hilarious observations about the world around us. The result is that late-night host places commenting on political or social matters above entertaining his audience.

It is as though the late-night host has replaced humour for indignation. The “jokes” (in reality they are tirades) contain more than a modicum of vitriol and resentment. Samantha Bee referred to Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt”, Stephen Colbert accused President Trump of being Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster”, so on and so forth.

While it may seem alarming, it is precisely what happens when comedians see themselves as activists rather than entertainers. As Danna Young, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Delaware, commented:

“When comics abandon humour and go with anger instead, they come just another ‘outrage’ host. Now, if that’s cool with them, great. But if they are looking to capitalise on the special sauce of humour, then they’ll need to take their anger and use it to inform their craft, but not have it become their craft.”

Fortunately, there is a litany of comedians who refuse to conform their comedy to the morays of political correctness and progressive politics. Numerous comedians have denigrated political correctness as the “elevation of sensitivity over truth” (Bill Maher) and “America’s newest form of intolerance” (George Carlin). Jerry Seinfeld, a man whose comedy routines are considered among the least offensive in comedy, referred to political correctness as “creepy” on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Bill Burr accused social justice warriors of being bullies. Likewise, Ricky Gervais has tweeted “if you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things you find ‘grossly offensive’, you don’t believe in free speech.”

And all of this is not to say that political correctness has destroyed genuinely funny comedy, either. Netflix has spent a great deal of money producing comedy specials that are, in many cases, far for inoffensive. Ricky Gervais comedy special Humanity has featured jokes about rape, cancer, transgenderism, AIDS, and the Holocaust.

Comedy has been threatened by both progressive politics and political correctness. Mark Meechan may have found himself running afoul of the politically correct left, but as long as their people who stand committed to free speech and comedians prepared to make offensive jokes, the laughter will continue.

WHY TRUMP WON

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Not even Cassandra, cursed to prophesise but never be believed, could have predicted the tumultuous change that occurred in 2016. In June, just over half of the British public (51.89%) voted to leave the European Union. Then, in November, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the President of the United States.

And not only did Trump defeat Clinton, winning thirty of America’s fifty states (though Clinton did win the popular vote), the Republican Party utterly decimated the Democrats. Trump won thirty of America’s fifty states (Clinton, admittedly, did win the popular vote). The Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, have a majority in the Senate, hold thirty-three state governorships, and control thirty-two state legislatures.

Brexit’s victory and Trump’s triumph comes off the back of a deeper cultural movement. It is a movement that rejects the doctrines of political correctness, identity politics, diversity, and equality in favour of greater intellectual rigour and personal freedom. Trump’s gift to this movement has been to expand the Overton Window. As an indirect consequence of his uncouthness, the boundaries of public discourse have been expanded exponentially.

Throughout his campaign, the media treated Trump as a joke. He hasn’t got a hope in Hades, they claimed. In the end, however, they were proven wrong. Trump won through a mixture of hard-line policies on immigration and a rejection of political correctness and far-left politics. And he won through his astounding ability to market himself to the American people.

The first thing to note is that Trump thrives on scandal. Much of this ability emanates from his already tarnished reputation as a rude, uncouth, bully and womaniser. Trump has never denied these facets of his personality (in some cases he has even emphasised them). What this means is that those who voted for Trump did so despite the significant faults in his character. Consequentially, accusations involving sex or money (the two things people truly care about) has little effect on him.

Then there is his skill as an emotional manipulator. Trump appeals directly to the emotional sensibilities of the people by using fear-mongering rhetoric to circumvent the mind’s critical faculties. Rather than emphasising the importance of maintaining the integrity of immigration law, Trump chooses to emphasise the crimes – rapes, murders, drug offences – committed by some illegal immigrants. After this, Trump promotes anger by setting up an out-group as the enemy. As a result, Trump implies not only that he is the best man to solve these issues, but that anyone who opposes him is somehow anti-American.

Finally, there is Trump’s use of simplicity and repetition as persuasive tools. Nuanced and boring statements can be taken out of context. By contrast, simple and heavily repetitive statements are harder to take out of context. But, more importantly, such statements are also more likely to be believed.

Much of Trump’s use of simplicity has its basis in his relationship with language. Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level and averages one syllable per word. While it would be easy to dismiss this as unsophisticated or low brow, it is important to remember that small words have a stronger and more immediate emotional impact, are more accessible to a wider audience, and are considered more believable. Cognitive fluency bias means that that the easier it is to understand something, the more likely it is to be believed. As a consequence, Trump’s use of small, simple words means he is more likely to be understood and, therefore, is more likely to be believed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Trump’s magnetism is his ability to bypass the traditional mediums of communication and appeal directly to the American people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who relied upon celebrity support and the mainstream media, Trump and his supporters used social media to appeal directly to voters. The lesson is clear: voters like for politicians to speak to them as equals, not preach to them from on high.

THE RIDDLE OF INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY

Defendants At Nuremberg Trials

On November 20th, 1945, twenty-four leaders of the defeated Nazi regime filed into Courtroom 600 of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice to be tried for some of the most reprehensible crimes ever committed. Over the next ten months, the world would be shocked to learn of the depth and extent of the Nazi regime’s mechanised horrors. By the end of the trial, twelve of the defendants would be sentenced to death, seven would be sentenced to periods of imprisonment, and three would be acquitted.

Contrary to what one may believe, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not psychopaths, sadists, or otherwise psychologically disturbed individuals. Rather, their actions arose, as psychologist Gustave Gilbert (1911 – 1977) concluded, from a culture which valued obedience. The observation that mass-horror is more likely to be committed by normal men and women influenced by social conformity would later be categorised by Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) as the ‘banality of evil.’

This shouldn’t be as too much of a surprise. After all, human beings are hard-wired to obey orders from people they deem superior to themselves. In 1961, Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933 – 1984) carried out a famous experiment which explored the conflict between authority and personal conscience. Milgram’s experiment was inspired by an interview with the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (1900 – 1947). Höss was asked how it was possible to be directly involved in the deaths of over a million people without suffering emotional distress. Chillingly, Höss answered that he was merely following orders.

The process of the experiment was simple. Two participants, one who whom was actually a researcher, would draw to decide who would take the role of teacher and who would take the role of student. (The system, needless to say, was rigged to ensure the actual participant took the role of teacher). The teacher and student were then separated, and the teacher was taken to a room with an electric shock generator consisting of a row of switches ranging from fifteen to four-hundred-and-fifty volts.  Supervising the teacher was an experimenter in a grey lab coat (an actor in reality). Through the experiment, the teacher was to ask the student questions and administer an electric shock every time the student got a question wrong. As the experiment continued the student would deliberately give wrong answers. As the shocks got more and more severe, the student would scream and beg for mercy. When the teacher expressed concern, however, the experimenter would insist that the experiment continue. By the end of the experiment, Milgram had concluded that all participants would continue to three-hundred volts whilst two-thirds would continue to full volts when pressed.

The Nazis were able to create such obedience through a well-calculated propaganda campaign. Hitler outlined the principles of this campaign in Mein Kampf:

  1.  Keep the dogma simple. One or two points only.
  2.  Be forthright and powerfully direct – tell or order why.
  3.  Reduce concepts down to black and white stereotypes
  4.  Constantly stir people’s emotions
  5.  Use repetition.
  6.  Forget literary beauty, scientific reasoning, balance, or novelty.
  7.  Focus solely on convincing people and creating zealots.
  8.  Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.

Similarly, Hitler’s speeches also followed a very specific and calculated formula:

  1. Hitler would unify the crowd by pointing out some form of commonality.
  2. Hitler would stir up feelings of fear and anger by pointing out some kind of existential threat.
  3. Hitler would invoke himself as the agent of a higher power.
  4. Hitler would present his solution to the problem.
  5. Hitler would proclaim the utilisation of the solution as a victory for both the higher power and the commoners.

In essence, the Nazi propaganda machine facilitated feelings of group identity and then used conformity to gain control over that group. They gambled that the majority of people preferred being beholden to a group than identifying as an individual.

If there is any lesson which can be derived from the Holocaust it is that the distance between good and evil is shorter than we like to believe. As clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is fond of pointing out, if the Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary people and you’re an ordinary person, the only logical conclusion is that you too are capable of horrendous evil. It is not enough to be critical of those in powers, eternal vigilance means being critical of our own need to conform and obey. Our freedom depends upon it.