The only thing I’d rather think less about than the Republican presidential race is the specter of “political correctness,” a phrase I use only in scare quotes. Unfortunately, there are fewer arenas more revealing of our current national psyche than these two ongoing deliberations. I’ve written before about how the GOP debates aren’t “good for comedy” and about the tiresome “PC” trope and I’d prefer not to discuss either of them again for a long, long time. But here, like a stonemason condemned to chisel away at the same boulder of rock-hard stupidity forever, I can’t help but revisit both topics once again.
This is because my wife decided she wanted to watch last night’s debate—I’ve strenuously avoided every one—and then fell asleep with her head in my lap 20 minutes in, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the blisteringly asinine spectacle livestreamed on my laptop.
Other than a callous disregard for human life—I’ve seen guys talk about fantasy football with more humanity than these Republicans discussed the bombing of innocent civilians—one theme that pervaded the proceedings was the danger of “PC culture.” Nearly every candidate referenced it multiple times, which means it’s a catchphrase that’s been focus group-tested for maximum delight to the lizard-brain base. It’s not going away any time soon.
While watching candidates blame “PC culture” on everything from ISIS to America’s lost greatness, I thought: What a boon for all the “edgy” comics out there! Here their pet obsession, the policing of public discourse by hypersensitive killjoys, was being given a full airing on a national stage in front of millions of viewers! Finally, some prime time exposure!
But I looked around on Twitter and didn’t see any of the prominent First Amendment Warrior-Comics praising GOP candidates for their bravery in confronting this vital cultural conflict. That’s because the war is over. The GOP debates prove it.
Think about it: every candidate who decried “political correctness” was standing in front of a microphone before dozens of cameras, free to say whatever they wished with no constraints other than FCC rules on profanity, their words beamed in real time around the planet. But despite the frequent references to the ominous menace of “PC culture” they were each able to articulate their numerous un-“PC” phobias (Muslims, immigrants, feminists), bloodlusts (Syria, Crimea, the social safety net) and bugaboos (Obama, Hillary). The only thing stopping them from expressing themselves more fully, more nakedly, for their vast audience was fear of judgment by peers, voters and journalists; in other words, the normal considerations of any sane human speaking in a public forum since the dawn of civilization.
Donald Trump has been described as “a YouTube comment section come to life,” and this raises an important point: if you have un-“PC” views you already have infinite ability to broadcast them on the Internet. Read any comment section. Every second of every day, millions of terabytes of anti-“PC” speech are being shot through the wires, accessible to anyone with a connection. All perfectly legal.
I recently glimpsed a Facebook photo of this year’s black graduates of Harvard Medical School along with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A proud moment for these young doctors. The VERY FIRST comment under the photo was from a white guy who took time out of his day to say, “All lives matter, it’s racist to say black lives matter.” Thousands of comments’ worth of heated arguments later, his comment still stood at the top of the post. No one’s being silenced here.
Due to the requirements of the craft, even the most stridently anti-“PC” comics are generally more apt cultural consumers than the average swing voter in a flyover state. They have a sense of what’s gonna work in front of a given crowd; it’s part of the job. Everyone, even the participants, knows that the Republican debates are America’s Test Kitchen for fake moralizing and disciplined falsehood, and every time a candidate blames something else on “PC culture” it becomes a more laughable conceit.
Even the white comic who yearns to use the N-word onstage knows to never say it to a black person’s face and probably wouldn’t vote for a candidate who used the word publicly. Even the most misogynist comic can draw a line from Carly Fiorina’s comments about Planned Parenthood’s “baby harvesting” to Robert Lewis Dear, Jr.’s killing spree in Colorado Springs. Whether you’re being accused of fomenting domestic terrorism with easily disproven lies or bombing on a comedy show because you made a poor word choice, people understand that public speech has consequences. They accept and even welcome these consequences, as evidenced by establishment Republicans’ fervent wish that Trump “crash and burn”—i.e. finally go too far into a live mic. They’re counting on the “PC police” to help rid them of this fascist nutjob but this time the cavalry ain’t coming, a delicious irony. Trump, the ultimate abusive hack: “I’m just saying what you’re thinking, folks!”
This brings me to my “Your Team” Theory of Cultural Affinity, best expressed in the old adage, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Back when I was writing this piece I conducted a little experiment on Twitter: I started with a CNN article about Seinfeld decrying the “political correctness” of college audiences these days, and I looked at who was retweeting it. Almost every time, this led me directly to a dark place in the Twittersphere, to accounts with five followers and an egg profile or an avi pic of some guy flipping a bird at the camera, a key angry comedian demographic. I found myself scrolling down timelines loaded with #Gamergate rhetoric, replies to feminist writers calling them “fat cunts” and arguments with strangers about the “reverse racism” [sic] of #BlackLivesMatter. Basically, the worst fucking people on the Internet; comment sections come to life.
If you’re a comic these days, you’re asking yourself: is that my flock? Are those the creeps I want to be lumped in with? Is Trump “my team”?
And these bird-flipping comics, they know deep down the war has been lost. Gone are the days when Frank Sinatra could make racist jokes about Sammy Davis, Jr.—to his face—and everyone would laugh and then they’d sing a duet. Even redneck roadhouse crowds, who’d normally delight at cheap stereotypes and rape jokes, they’re holding back a little. It’s starting to feel dated, this exercise in cultural button-pushing, a throwback to meaner times when Sammy had to sit there and take it. Bosses get fired for that sort of thing now. Even cops can be indicted. For the confirmed bigot, airing this stuff in public invites too much rancor; better to save it for the anonymous privacy of the comment section and the ballot box.
In a world of infinite media access the “edgy” comic who’s proud of himself for saying “retard” on stage is a corny-ass relic. Any audience member can see the world’s most offensive words, images and ideas in two clicks but this guy’s supposed to be a Free Speech Hero because he said “fag”? Nah. Considering the horrors you can view instantly on your phone in 2015, the “edgy” comic is a guy bragging he has a VHS bootleg copy of Faces of Death back in his garage. We’ve moved on, bro. Nowadays we’re surrounded by that stuff—can’t escape it, in fact. How about you just make us laugh?