Comedy & free speech: Do the offended have rights? (Part 2)

Posted on 08-29-2016 by
Tags: LIT , civilrights

In my last post, I wrote about The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and its recently released documentary, Can We Take a Joke?. Can We Take a Joke? delves into comedy on college campuses and, to a larger extent, entertainment comedy and free speech.

I’m with FIRE, step-for-step, in defending free speech rights. Like FIRE, I think free speech should be stretched to it limits, even when offensive.

But Can We Take a Joke? stretches free speech the wrong way. It points to free speech, tied to offensive comedy, as a check upon offended listeners.

Free speech can’t be thrust like a bayonet to keep the offended in line.  Minus violence or a chilling effect, being offended is mostly a social issue, not a free speech issue.

Free speech, without more, doesn’t mandate silence or thick skin from the offended. 

Call me “prudish,” but I have nothing against offensive comedy.

I simply believe that all rights (even those of my adversary) deserve a defense.[1]

 Fire: The Freedom to Burn Wood / Wood: The Freedom to Catch Fire

Some of the best thoughts in Can We Take a Joke? come from Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. At one point, Rauch says:

Once you get into the business of saying you’re going to prohibit things that people find offensive or wrongheaded that’s where the most sensitive person in society gets to determine what all the rest of us can hear.

In terms of sensitivity, this is a very true statement, but also, it’s a statement limited by censorship and prohibited language.

Rauch also has this to say:

The only way that we find truth in any society is through public debate.

And this too from Rauch:

In any society that is free enough to produce open debate, it’s also going to be free enough so that some of us at any given time are going to feel really upset.

Rauch, in acknowledging the freedom of speech, also acknowledges its fraternal twin: the freedom to be “really upset.”

 Can These Twin Freedoms Co-Exist in the World of Comedy?

The answer is: they must. Without the “really upset” part, comedy’s nothing more than comedians trying to make zombies laugh.

To have any social value, comedy must generate a reaction beyond mere laughter.

It’s a point subtly acknowledged by FIRE, which says:

It’s time to remind the ivory tower that comedy is not only fun, it’s also a powerful social tool. Comedy helps to highlight social trends, current events, politics, and more, thereby opening new opportunities for dialogue.

Comedy can’t be a “powerful social tool” without impact, whether that be excessive offense or just being “really upset.”

And comedy can’t promote “opportunities for dialogue” while, at the same time, demanding that this dialogue be sanitized.

 Just “Lighten Up” = Flighty About Freedom

I applaud – APPLAUD! – FIRE for fighting for free speech rights. And I applaud them for stretching those rights to their outer boundaries.

I applaud Penn Jillette and Lisa Campinelli and Jonathan Rauch and a multitude of comedians for defending the right to be offensive.

I’ll defend that right with you (even if you offend me).

But if some listeners are too easily offended, I won’t circumvent their right to be offended with the simple quip “Lighten up!”[2]

What happens when free speech opponents impose the same edict upon our comedians?  

“Lighten up!”

In a world where comedians are forced to lighten up, there are still funny people: Bob Hope, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Carol Burnett ...

But sadly, there’s no  Lenny Bruce, no George Carlin, no Louis C.K., no Sam Kinison,[3], no Eddie Murphy, no ....  


[1] John Adams wasn’t a “Loyalist” for believing in the right to a defense and defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.  

[2]Would we ask an offended Constitution to “Lighten up!”?:

Official reprisal for protected speech "offends the Constitution [because] it threatens to inhibit exercise of the protected right,” .... - Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250 (U.S. 2006)

 [3] I saw the late, great Sam Kinison perform in 1989.  

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