How the intrusive PC culture may make the world a kinder, gentler place while simultaneously incapacitating art and comedy.
America has become more socially aware – and social awareness is a good thing. There are many marginalized and disenfranchised groups of people in the U.S. that have been persecuted and discriminated against for decades upon decades – and taking a more tactful and empathetic approach towards issues of gender, race, sexual orientation et. al. is -inarguably- a step in the right direction. But when awareness spills over into censorship, when becoming outraged or offended ends up handicapping artistic expression we have crossed a dangerous line. As individuals, we have the right to stop supporting a public figure if we find certain statements he/she makes to be abhorrent, ignorant or anything else. And in turn, their employers have a right to fire them for the same reasons; personal choices are not the focus here. And this is not an issue of free speech. At 32 years old, I am a part of an age group that some -including myself, in the title of this very article- have labeled the “offended generation” or various iterations therein. But being offended is not really the issue at hand, it’s when one takes offense to content and then strives to cease that content from being created where things take a turn. When people start to not only boycott art openings and film premieres but call for an all out ban on certain material, or start viral attacks against comedians because they feel the material in question is insensitive or offensive, things have simply gone too far.
Art has to be able to be controversial and offensive – it has to be. That is not to say that art has to be controversial or offensive to make an impact -this is not the case at all- but it has to be allowed to. Once creative expression is limited, creative expression dies. This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but it’s true. If art is put inside a box, if passion is contained so as to make sure it doesn’t offend anyone, it ceases to be art or true expression at all. It becomes homogenized, sterile and devoid of danger or any visceral pulse. The feelings that art generates should not always be warm and comforting, in fact, the best art often leaves one off-balance, and uncomfortable. The freedom in creation is what drives every form of expression, and once that freedom is compromised, and artists are forced to re-think and re-evaluate, all is lost. Social awareness is a wonderful thing, but when its tentacles reach away from realms of public policy, equality in the workplace, and social justice etc., and they start to suction onto art in an attempt to censor output, social awareness can become a paralyzing threat to expression.
Back in July the Eli Roth horror film, The Green Inferno had people calling for a boycott for its depiction of an Amazonian tribe as cannibals and savages, further perpetrating an ignorant and archaic portrayal of native people in general. Now, The Green Inferno is in fact, quite exploitative and offensive; it is rife with with over-the-top violence and is decidedly gratuitous and intentionally provocative. And it is true that a boycott does not equal censorship. But boycotts and social media campaigns have proven to have a big impact on financing within certain creative arenas and therefore, even though the act itself is not direct censorship, the result of some of these actions can and has led to censorship. Every stitch of The Green Inferno is crafted to offend. Roth lives to push boundaries and shock and offend his audience, and, as vile as his films may seem to some, his right to make these vile films should -and needs to be- defended.
Within comedy, social media outrage seems to pop up on a weekly basis and gain traction. The Wrap put together a nice breakdown of 15 comedians that have were under fire for jokes they told within the last few years (sans Carlin and Bruce at the bottom). Some recent topics comedians have tackled that have drawn outrage are: pedophilia (Louis C.K.), mass shootings (Dane Cook), natural disasters (Gilbert Godfrey), rape (Daniel Tosh, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer), race (Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer), sex (pretty much everyone), abortion (Sarah Silverman) and celebrity death (Jeffrey Ross). And yes, most -if not all- of the jokes on these subjects are offensive in some capacity, many are designed as such. The job of comedy is to shed light on difficult situations, to find the bright spot within the darkness – the brevity and laughter within the tears. These calls to boycott television shows and comedians based on jokes are not only missing the point of comedy entirely, but they are dangerous in what they hope to achieve. We have reached a point in which many comedians now put their material through a filter before letting that material loose on the public – and this is detrimental to the art of comedy itself on an intrinsic level.
In 1990, following the arrest of Luther Campbell and Chris Won Wong of 2 Live Crew for what law enforcement deemed an obscene performance in Florida, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), headed by Tipper Gore called for labeling and levels of censorship within the music industry. Several musicians testified against the PMRC in congress, Frank Zappa and Dee Snider among them. And while Zappa and Snider -two musicians with reputations for pushing boundaries- were not surprising members of the opposition, squeaky clean folk artist John Denver also testified against the PRMC stating, “may I be very clear that I am strongly opposed to censorship of any kind in our society or anywhere else in the world.” The PRMC had thought that Denver would be testifying on their behalf, due to his clean reputation, but he realized the danger and the slippery slope of content censorship on any level.
Now the counter-argument here states that the entertainment industry is highly influential and when products within it display offensive and/or insensitive material the industry is being irresponsible in regards to its role in society on a larger scale. Those in favor of censorship within these realms state that offensive pieces of art are detrimental to the general consuming public on a macro and micro level. One cannot refute this stance outright as there is an argument to be made here. There is no doubt that the world of entertainment is a large and powerful industry, and that many people turn to it for insight. And sure, if we are talking about prime-time shows on major network television, each network has a right to place their content within certain parameters. And networks like AMC and The Food Network were well within their rights to discipline and/or fire personalities like Paula Deen and Phil Robertson – this is not the argument.
The argument is about art. Entertainment and artistic creation is very often suffocated by censorship; the job of limiting or nurturing the impression an artist or piece of art has on a person -especially a young person- is up to that person him/herself or that young person’s parents. The world is not a vibrant, lush expanse, perpetually blanketed by sunshine and be-speckled with daisies – there’s some of that, sure, but there are also bound to be views that don’t align with your own, brutal acts that pull your heart from your chest, and intolerance abound. We should not always be so quick to extinguish all contrasting views and dissenting opinions with a swift swipe of the PC sickle. It shouldn’t be about the content, it should be about us – the consumers of the content. That is not to say that one cannot dislike or flat-out loathe an artist for something he/she created, that is absolutely in-bounds. There are an array of artists whose work I find repulsive and without merit, but I would never attempt to stop this art from being created – I just won’t support it.
I love that -for the most part- we live in a society that is more aware and generally more empathetic towards certain groups than ever before, it’s important. But art has to be able to be gross, offensive, dumb, ignorant, vapid, hateful, disgusting, loathsome, insensitive and any and all synonyms therein or it ceases to be art at all. Moreover, if we continually rally against anything that offends us, we run the risk of only existing within safe spaces filled with back-patting clones of ourselves, and this doesn’t really move society forward in a logical, linear format, it forces us all to live within the same, banal and tepid, white-walled room.
There is laughter in pain, there is poetry in gore, and there is beauty in the obscene. Art reflects life, unless we don’t let it reflect life. And if we don’t let it reflect life, it will have no life left within it.
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the Editor-in-chief of The Overgrown.