Comedy has had a well-understood purpose: to entertain, to push boundaries and to keep us honest. Historically, the court jester was the one person allowed to publicly mock the all-powerful king perched upon the golden throne. It is for this reason that when a storyteller wants to illustrate a ruler’s descent into madness, we see him begin to turn his ire towards the lowly jester:
It is worrying then that the ever more powerful social media guns of the Social Justice Left are being aimed squarely at comedians. In December, American comedian Nimesh Patel was pulled off stage by students for doing woke (and funny) jokes about race. A few days later, I made headlines when I refused to sign a “behavioral agreement” to perform at a student comedy gig which insisted that I not joke about religion, atheism and 10 other “isms,” as well as demanding that my jokes be “respectful and kind.”
Given the public ridicule of the students and widespread support for the comedians in these cases, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the social justice ideologues would use the holiday season to reflect and reconsider. Think again.
On the very first day of this brave new year, news broke of a leaked audio recording of Louis CK joking about gender pronouns and Parkland shooting survivors. As is now standard with these cases, it was claimed he was “attacking” the subjects of his jokes while his actual words were usually left unreported and no link included to the leaked audio. As usual, we were forced to rely on the opinions of woke “journalists”—often expressed on Twitter—rather than looking at what the comedian actually said or how the audience responded.
Of course, on closer examination Louis CK’s jokes were not particularly offensive and, what’s more, they were funny. Rather than attacking Parkland survivors, he joked that “being at a school where people got shot doesn’t make you interesting”—an observation about the huge media platform some of the survivors have been given, which was clearly recognized as accurate by his audience who promptly roared with laughter. He also poked fun at millennials being worried about offense and safety, contrasting their attitude with his generation’s youthful drug-taking and wild exploits. Millennials duly took offense and claimed he was making them feel unsafe.
On the same day, Netflix pulled an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” for the following joke about the killing of Saudi Arabian writer Jamal Khashoggi: “They went through so many explanations, the only one they didn’t say was that Khashoggi died in a free solo rock climbing accident.”
It is easy to see how this joke would be “problematic,” given the need to protect the rights of marginalized groups like the Saudi Royal Family to enjoy Netflix comedies in a safe space.
Of course, a private corporation caving in to pressure from a national government is not the same as woke students censoring comedians, but these events are not unconnected. Once you make it acceptable to tell the jester what is off limits in one context, you enable those who would seek to silence him elsewhere.
The underlying assumptions of social justice censorship are that words are a form of violence, that a subjective interpretation matters more than the speaker’s intent and that safety is contingent on not being teased or challenged. The mainstreaming of these ideas is an existential threat to comedy (and freedom of speech in general). Comedians use lies to tell the truth—the notion that the exaggerations, stories and carefully crafted falsehoods we deliver on stage should be taken literally will be the death knell of comedy. The idea that your safety depends on me never challenging you is the end of any sort of useful communication. The assertion that words are a form of violence is not only non-sensical—whatever happened to “Sticks and stones may break my bones…”?—it is a cynical attempt to appeal to the decency of performers. After all, what comedian would willingly subject some members of their audience to violence?
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Godfrey Elfwick, the satirist banned by Twitter, pointed out that, to many on the Social Justice Left, the notion of free speech itself has become a “far right dogwhistle.” For the last year, I have hosted the YouTube show (and podcast) TRIGGERnometry with fellow comic Francis Foster, where we interview experts from different fields in the hope of bringing a light-hearted but fact-focused approach to contentious issues. We’ve interviewed people about the evolutionary origins of racism, the biological differences between men and women, the gender pay gap, populism, capitalism, socialism, communism and much else besides, but nothing has made us pariahs quite like defending free speech.
Even though my co-host is an old school leftie and I’m a centrist with a strong libertarian bent, we’ve been banned from comedy clubs and lost friendships in the industry over our “right-wing podcast.” When the story of my refusal to sign the “behavioral agreement” broke, I was called “alt-right” on the BBC by a fellow comedian.
Those of us in the industry who hoped that recent events would spark a period of reflection among the advocates of social justice and that 2019 might be the year where we finally come together in defense of free speech and its importance to comedy are looking less like the jester and more like the fool with every passing hour.
Despite overwhelming public opposition to political correctness, the arts remain a bastion of wokeness. While ordinary people see through the Social Justice Left’s virtue signaling, Twitter blue ticks and their sidekicks in the mainstream media continue to churn out clickbait about faux outrages. We are now in the bizarre position where what is and isn’t allowed in comedy is determined by sanctimonious writers who’ve never been in a comedy club. This situation is not sustainable. I’m a passionate defender of free speech and not just because I’m a comedian. It is a cornerstone of the West and the reason my ancestors came here after escaping the Soviet Union. It is what makes all of us who we are and we cannot give it up.