The interruption of a stand-up comic’s performance by event organizers at Columbia University late last year served, obviously, as a reminder that college campuses remain places of intolerance and hostility to anything resembling diversity of thought. Nimesh Patel, a former Saturday Night Live writer and an Indian-American, was in the middle of a set at an event run by a campus organization when, allegedly, the nature of his material prompted the some of the organizers to stop his set and then turn off his microphone.

Few who are paying attention to the culture wars will be surprised by this. Many prominent comics, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, John Cleese, Russell Peters, and Patton Oswalt, either won’t play college campuses at all or have voiced strong opinions on the topic. The Columbia story should therefore shock no one.

The defenses of this hostility to the possibility of offense, even in comedy where the intent is to provoke laughter, are often high-minded pablum about social responsibility and correcting past injustices. Consider this snippet, posted in an open letter to Jerry Seinfeld by a San Diego State University student in response to Seinfeld’s lamentations about PC run amok:

It isn’t so much that college students are too politically correct (whatever your definition of that concept is), it’s that comedy in our progressive society today can no longer afford to be crass, or provocative for the sake of being offensive. Sexist humor and racist humor can no longer exist in comedy because these concepts are based on archaic ideals that have perpetrated injustice against minorities in the past.

Provocative humor, such as ones dealing with topics of race and gender politics, can be crass and vulgar, but underlying it must be a context that spurs social dialogue about these respective issues. There needs to be a message, a central truth behind comedy for it to work as humor.

The student misses the point of free speech in a society (and of the enormous usefulness that comedic poking serves in opening eyes to societal issues), asserting, instead, that there is only one “truth,” and that our “progressive society” requires comedy serve it.

He also ignores the fact that, for as long as comedy has existed, people have been able to laugh at jokes told at their own expense. The essence of a joke lies in the exaggeration and the intent (or, more specifically, the lack of intent to hurt), and it’s not only possible but quite common to make truly funny jokes about subjects that this earnest young man finds rooted in “archaic ideals,” etc.

Furthermore, comics need not incorporate deep social commentary in their humor. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, and the person who digs deep into it in search of offense is the one who needs to come to terms with that.

But, again, this isn’t anything deeply revelatory to anyone who finds the excesses of the PC movement to be distressing.

The question that popped into my head after I read this incident is, what happens if another element of the progressive agenda (and a hot topic among the current crop of Democratic candidates), free college, is achieved?

Defenders of campus censorship point out, correctly, that colleges are not the government, and that the First Amendment is not applicable to their creation of speech codes, censoring of discomfiting opinions, etc. However, if college becomes “free,” if the government is paying for your education, a case can be made that, now, the First Amendment will apply, and the colleges’ ability to restrict speech will be subject to the same rules and Court precedents that now apply to the government.

I’m sure the progressives will expect that, if they have achieved enough power to enact free college, they’ll have like-minded justices in SCOTUS and elsewhere. But, even the liberal justices on the Court have taken a dim view of censorship and other infringements of rights. Already, there is ample Supreme Court precedent protecting free speech in schools, and if higher education really does become socialized, the scolds and censors might not like what happens next.

As always, be careful what you wish for.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?