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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.

IT’S TIME FOR A RETURN TO TRADITION

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Modernity is in trouble. From the menace of migrant crime in Europe to the sexual transgressions rife in modern-day Hollywood, the moral argument for modernity is quickly waning. How did things go so wrong? And how do we fix it? Perhaps a return to traditional values and ideals are in order.

The modern world developed over hundreds of years. The post-medieval period has seen the advent of tolerance as a social and political virtue, the rise of the nation-state, the increased role of science and technology in daily life, the development of representative democracy, the creation of property rights, urbanisation, mass literacy, print media, industrialisation, mercantilism, colonisation, the social sciences, modern psychology, emancipation, romanticism, naturalist approaches to art and culture, and the development of existential philosophy.  From the computer to the mobile phone, the motor car to the aeroplane, the marvels of the modern world are all around us.

The modern world has replaced the Aristotelean and faith-based concept of human life that was popular in the Middle Ages with a worldview based on science and reason. Modern intellectualism, therefore, follows the example set forth by Cartesian and Kantian philosophy: mistrusting tradition and finding its roots in science and rationality.

Culturally and intellectually, the 21st century represents the postmodern era. Postmodernism can be difficult to define accurately because the various cultural and social movements that use it as their central philosophy define it for their own purposes. Jean-Franҫois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), who introduced the term in his 1979 book, The Postmodern Condition, defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Similarly, Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophical movement in opposition to the philosophical assumptions and values of modern Western philosophy.

Postmodernism came about as a reaction, indeed a rejection, to modernity. With its roots in the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), the postmodernist rejects the philosophical theory of Foundationalism – the idea that knowledge is built upon a solid foundation – in favour of large-scale scepticism, subjectivism, and relativism.

The postmodernist likes to see himself as Beowulf fighting Grendel. That is, he likes to see himself as the mythical hero fighting the historical-critical monster. Inspired by doctrines of white privilege and toxic masculinity, and driven by an anti-capitalist (except when it comes to their I-phones), anti-racist (provided the person isn’t white), anti-imperialist (but only European imperialism), and anti-transphobic (because gender is a “social construct”) rhetoric, the post-modernist inspired neo-Marxists and social justice warriors have invaded the modern university and college campus.

Modernity and post-modernism have produced a swathe of existential and moral problems that the Western world has, as of yet, proved unable (or perhaps even unwilling) to solve. To begin, the modern world has abolished the central role that God, nature, and tradition has played in providing life with purpose. In spite of all its cruelty, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920) saw the Middle Ages as a highly humanistic period. Everything was considered to have a divine purpose. Even someone as lowly as a Medieval serf, for example, could feel that he had a role in God’s greater scheme. There was a sense of, as Martin Buber (1878 – 1965) puts it, “I-thou.” Modernity swapped “I-thou” for “I-it”. The human will replaced God as the ultimate arbiter of meaning.

This problem has been further exacerbated by the alienation of the human spirit to nature. Science, for all of its positive qualities, has had the effect of rendering nature meaningless. No longer is a thunderclap the voice of an angry God, nor does a cave contain a goblin or a mountain harbour a giant. Science may be an excellent means for understanding facts, but it is not a substitute for wisdom or tradition when it comes to determining human purpose. No longer does the natural world command the sense of reverential majesty that it once did.

The answer to the problems of the modern, and, by extension, post-modern, world is a revitalisation of the traditional beliefs, values, ideas, customs, and practices that have made the Western world great in the first place. We must reject the destructive ideas espoused by the postmodernists and work to revitalise our traditions. It is high time we started taking some pride in the traditions that have made our civilisation so great.