No offence, but the wokerati are killing free expression - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Jerry Seinfeld

No offence, but the wokerati are killing free expression

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Yorker, legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld explains how the hard left has killed comedy. By imposing standards of wokeness, or political correctness, on the material comics use, so-called progressives are restricting what they feel able to say.

Seinfeld is, of course, right – and celebrated British comics of the standard of John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson have made the same point, as did the great Barry Humphries. But the point Seinfeld makes is not relevant solely to the world of entertainment. It evokes the wider issue of freedom of speech which appears to be under threat in every so-called liberal society one can think ofand it stems from a politically rather than morallyinduced obsession to prevent anyone being caused offence.

In his widely acclaimed book, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (2013), distinguished columnist and intellectual Simon Heffer reminds us that the Victorians had their own code of avoiding offence. Certain things, mainly to do with sex or other forms of depravity, were not discussed in front of women or children, for example, and it was considered vulgar to mention money.

Now, though, the taboo subjects are related solely to questions prevalent in identity politics: someone’s race, gender or sexuality being the prime subjects deemed literally unspeakable. In the working men’s and comedy clubs of Britain until the 1990s, a stand-up comedian’s routine consisted almost entirely of jokes making fun of the Irish, black people, women (often mothers-in-law) and homosexuals; jokes about people identifying as a different gender did not exist because most comedians did not imagine such people existed, and neither did their audiences.

Club audiences hooted with laughter; not because they were packed with those who were cruel, bigots, homophobes or chauvinists, but because the jokes were funny and, importantly, they self-evidently meant no harm. They did not incite violence or prejudice against the minority being laughed about; and they were inevitably included in routines that contained a large quantity of jokes about stupid white men. Now, that last group is just about the only one about which a comedian can publicly joke.

Or, in the Australian case, it’s primarily people on the right spectrum of politics who are the targets of comedian jokes. As Gerard Henderson has observed, ABC satirists – Mark Humphries, Charlie Pickering, Shaun Micallef – have all too often sneered at political conservatives, while the Green Left is rarely subjected to ridicule.

Seinfeld says stand-up is just about the only form of comedy that can stray into forbidden territory now, because it is relatively hard to police. This is true only up to a point: if the management of a club faces complaints from customers about the content of a routine, he or she has to be resolutely hard-minded to tell the complainant to grow up and exercise his or her choice not to come back.

Some comedians are renowned for the supposed outrageousness of their routines, and people go to see and hear them precisely for that reason. However, as the cancel culture has taken hold, others have found the outlets for their shows increasingly restricted.

There is almost no chance of finding such material these days on television or in films. Yet YouTube still contains films from 40 or 50 years ago featuring controversial comedians such as Carroll O’Connor (who played blue-collar dad Archie Bunker in the 70s American sitcom All in the Family), Ross Higgins (who played Ted Bullpit in the 80s Australian sitcom Kingswood Country) or Britain’s conservative stand-up comedian Jim Davidson still alive and working, but banished from regular television appearances more than 20 years ago.  

In the English-speaking world, many channels simply won’t show programs or films that include mockery of minorities or of women because they fear complaints to a regulator. Even the mildest material provokes concern: warnings before such programs start with something like “viewers may be offended by some of the contents,” giving them a chance to switch off. In fact, such programs often contain almost nothing that would offend even the ultra-woke: but operators are so terrified of being reported to the regulator that they over-compensate by parroting such histrionic warnings.

But so what if someone is offended? How does it change their life? What, to put it bluntly, is the problem? If someone hears a joke about a black man, does it incite him to despise or want to harm black people, any more than hearing a joke about a preposterous white man makes anyone want to despise or harm people such as that? Of course not.

We have reached ridiculous levels of sensitivity that simply reinforce the increasingly poisonous creed of identity politics. Throughout history, comedians licensed jesters have held up various figures to scrutiny by means of ridiculing them. No-one, irrespective of his or her race, gender, sexuality or any other attribute should be immune to this.

But as a result of the moral terrorism exerted by the wokerati, and all too easily submitted to by those who dread confrontation, the subject matter for jokes has now been restricted to the majority: everyone else now can depend on getting a free ride.

The tedium of so much contemporary film and television that markets itself as comedy reveals the effect on this genre all too plainly. Less obvious is the destruction it is imposing on freedom of expression, or how what passes as the left today is closing down any criticism through humour of the client groups on whom it relies for support.

But so-called progressives seem not to understand how they patronise such minorities, many of whose members feel they need no such protection or special treatment. Responsible people know when they are dealing with behaviour that incites hatred, violence and harm.

Jerry Seinfeld and people such as him do no such thing. It really is time their critics grew up.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.