1. The Problem
I want to talk about P.C. culture precisely because we have a really hard time talking about P.C. culture. Hell, I feel like we've been arguing about it since the term was coined in the '90s through today. Whether it's conversations about the rich asshole, Milo, violent protestors, or even the general state of public discussion. We argue. But unwrapping what "PC" even means is so damn crucial to navigating the lynchpin of how it makes us divided. And the main problem with the PC discussion is that two different things often get conflated: there is the "politically correct" element and then there's the actual politics behind it. But the failure to separate them creates a kind of chaos that is used to drive further wedges and upend the moral discussion at the heart of the matter. And it might be damaging us beyond what you can even imagine.
But let's just take it a step at a time.
2. The Crux
Political correctness is defined as, "the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against."
For the moment, I hope you can get past any associations you might have and understand that the intent behind being politically correct is clear: empathy with marginalized groups. This shouldn't be something that is all that controversial, at least from a basic place of sympathy for people who have it rough. And so political correctness becomes a prerogative because it is safe to say we have an endless history of no-one really speaking up for or considering these groups. And so, the inclination of being PC is something that is born from a place of caring. It is the inclination to be inclusive. That is what it wants. Plain and simple.
But it is the "often taken to extreme" part of the definition that begins the whole story of confusion and strife. Because, like most progressive issues, the popular dialogue on political correctness gets tied into the climate of how younger people or the most vocal among us are the ones who talk about it. And that means a lot of it is going to revolve around a kind of black & white thinking and righteousness. This reality is nothing new. And more importantly, lamenting the fervent nature of righteous people feels obvious, mostly because it's part of an even more obvious cycle. To wit, I see fervent 22 year olds espouse one politically correct thing, then go on to become a group of 25 year olds who feel disenfranchised by the specificity of what the 22 year olds under them are saying, and then they go on to become 30 year olds who roll their eyes at the entire process. This is not to say they lose their liberal belief set, nor what the political correctness is fighting for. Far from it. The eye roll is simply about growing up and getting better at communication. It's about wisdom over knowledge. It's about changing how we talk about the political climate, especially within the liberal community where it is so critical. It's about understanding that tangible progress is more important than being right. But as that cycle dances ever on, always with a new group of fervent people who think the old way of saying something is bad and the new way is good, the P.C. cultural discussion is both constantly moving and yet effectively stays "static."
This is how it is. And such a climate breeds a popular attitude among people where there is the fear of making a misstep, along with the belief that being P.C. is what makes you moral, along with the idea that pointing at all the bad people and saying they're bad is what makes you good (along with the failure to realize that merely saying the right thing is not the same as actually making a tangible difference in marginalized communities, but that's a whole other criticism). Alllll along with a certain vehemence for those who do not agree with this approach and do not fall in line. All of which just facilitates a sense of defensiveness from everyone outside that PC culture. And you get especially defensive when someone accuses you of being insensitive, of being racist, or sexist, or whatever -ist you can think of. You have probably been there. And this whole dynamic is exactly what many will tell you is to blame for our cultural divide. They'll tell you this is why PC culture has run amok and robbed us of a functional society that knew how to talk about problems before. They'll tell you that PC people are the enemies of free-speech. Hell, even ostensibly liberal SNL writers joke that listing more than two genders on an app is why democrats lost the election. And every bit of blame for why progressivism fails comes down to the errors in the fervent nature of political correctness.
And I think it's bullshit.
We get so caught up in the obvious criticisms of young people's fervor that we miss the most important aspects involved in the entire discussion, chiefly what they're trying to propagate and accomplish. It is to confuse vocalness with subject matter. It is a complete failure to understand everything that actually matters. But let's start with the most important aspect first: the defensiveness. Because I've definitely been there. If you write in the public space, especially when you talk about culture and politics, you will absolutely land in hot water at some point. And I have said things that were bad and/or look bad. I admit it whole-heartedly. I never meant to, of course. Hell, most of the time if you're being considerate you won't ever hear a peep. It's just the slip-up. And the feeling of suddenly getting attacked for a slip-up, especially when you mean well, can feel scary. It can breed an inherent feeling to be defensive and lash out at those who so obviously misunderstand you. But guess what folks? I know we experience everything in life by looking through our own eyeballs, but just try to remember that other people are saying this to you for a reason, that maybe they feel attacked by it. And much more importantly, don't ignore a certain reality: it is really easy to deal with someone who calls you out for not being P.C.
If you're cynical about this, here's a script you can use: "I'm genuinely sorry. I didn't mean to say anything offensive. I know I can explain what I meant and why, but that's not important. Because I understand where you are coming from, what you are saying, and I promise I will do more reading to better understand this issue. More so, I promise I will do better in the future." And it feels really good if you actually mean all that, folks. And when you take this tact, you'd be shocked how quickly you're just talking to a person. Talking about where you both come from, why the issue is important to you, and how you can move forward. It works. It works every time. And there are so many times I wish I did it even better than I did. There's never been a time it hasn't worked. Which all leads to a simple notion of understanding:
To disarm the fervent P.C. critic is to simply disarm yourself.
And more importantly, to understand what they are really after. Which is why we can't have the PC conversation be so focused on getting the other person to take down their walls. You have to start with your own. You always have to start with your own. Because often we're talking about people trying to create a sense of consideration for the most targeted and victimized groups in existence. And often, they are a part of those groups. But we are so bad at being wrong because we feel like we are under attack. To which I will ask, you think well-meaning white people didn't feel attacked by the Civil Rights Movement? Of course they did. And yet so many people who look at something historical like that and shake their head are the same people who get so defensive at the idea of learning if someone identifies as "he" or "she". All to the point that they will bristle at the very suggestion, when this mere consideration for another person costs them nothing. It is as innocuous as getting to know someone's name. So to accept this, is to understand our own inclination to kindness. It always starts with self.
And yet, this is just one half of the equation. Because there is another aspect of this that is crucial to understanding the PC conversation and that is the idea that words matter. To wit, a few years ago I used the term "mentally handicapped" in a column. In the comment section, I got called out for using such an offensive term. I did not realize it was offensive, so I sat there for a second, caught of guard, then gathered my composure. I basically did a statement like the one above, saying I would adopt to the newer term, but I told a story along with it. When I was still living in Boston there was a big movement to get rid of the word "retarded." You can imagine how many Bostonians bristled at this, partly because the phrase "Dude, that's wicked frickin retahded" is practically part of the cultural lexicon. But the effort was rightfully put forth and the word "handicapped" was called the new sensitive term that would help fix our understanding of the issue and show sensitivity. This is what I adopted and learned. And all these years later, the term handicapped is now offensive.
Now, many would throw up their hands at this exact notion and point out the obvious fruitlessness of caring about this, even saying that they're "just words". At best, what they are really criticizing is the belief that fixing the word is what fixes the issue. But it's not the word itself. It's never the word itself. This point, which many would use to criticize caring about word-choice, is also obvious. For it is always what is in our hearts that matters most, right? But this is the whole catch 22 point of this criticism: the word is what helps show what is in our hearts. It always is because it's communication. It's how we navigate the popular discussion of the issue at the given time. And thus, the word is a part of the evolution of our understanding. We may have come up with a string of new respectful words and it may change again and again. We've gone from n-word to negro to colored to black to African-American and yet the problems of fervent racism remain. But using the best word is merely a part of trying to get to the heart of truth in that continued cycle of fighting the larger issue itself. It is always looking for the word that best describes the soul of a thing. It is communicating. And yes, it takes so much more than communication. It takes people really throwing in with their heart and inclusiveness in the real world and not being segregated. But using sensitive words is just looking at the world around you saying that you are trying. It is looking at the disenfranchised and saying "I see you."
3. The Turn
So... The war on P.C. culture.
... It got weird.
I'm sitting here at point of paralysis, trying to casually explain the rise of internet trolls, 4 chan, hardcore gamer culture, lulz, twitter-eggs, gamergate, pepe the frog, the alt-right, the rich asshole and how they came all crashing together in spectacular ugliness, but it's like trying to explain the mathematics of quantum mechanics (this article actually does a good job). But for the purposes of this conversation just know that all display a combo of 1) being virulently anti-PC. 2) being the kinds of people who have really sad, internal existences and internet they can be anonymous and escape into. And 3) a core philosophy that sees the value of what I will call "the big joke."
That is to say that the world itself is a joke.
And I don't mean that like a comic who sees the humor in everything (we'll get to that comparison later). No, this means you, and especially anyone who dares care about absolutely anything in this world, is a joke. Especially serious things. Because life is suffering and caring and being serious is the path to suffering. That may sound like either a broad generalization or even a buddhist mantra, but it really is the best way to describe it, and instead of enlightenment, they are after the extremes of the lulz (laughter at another's expense). There's a reason The Dark Knight's Joker struck such a cord with this populace and it wasn't just his good performance, it was his mantra: "Why so serious?" It was his ability to reign terror and tear apart hypocrisy. It was the sense power that comes with having such a freeing attitude toward the cares of society. The pure, bleak joy of nihilistic glee. And yes, the way this philosophy was expressed could be as terrifying as when the Joker did it. The lulz is an almost pathological need to undo your seriousness. To undo what you care about. To not make sense. There isn't a side. There isn't a belief. The only goal is to burn down your side. After all, "Some men just want to watch the world burn." And what started years ago with trolls baiting you and the ensuing "don't feed the trolls" philosophy became a lot weirder and scarier when things starting turning political and organized (big surprise, cue their adoption of Bane). Because with the rise of Brietbart and a lot of other conservative thinkers who were literate in the attitudes of this internet subculture, the tenor changed. And the trolls, whether they knew it or not, became soldiers.
Watching this all happen in slow-motion was horrifying. Partially because it was hard to see, almost opaque, random signs accelerating. But when the spark of a nonsensical gaming conspiracy ignited in Gamergate, those with eyes on the culture started getting freaked out. The trolls were aligned in purpose now. And the targets had become intensely political. Those targets, mostly women and members of the trans community within the industry, found themselves on the end of constant harassment (the video game industry itself, rife with issues in this arena to begin with, was dreadfully underprepared to deal with it). To be fair, it was always this way for non-males in gamer culture, but suddenly it was all laser focused and centered around a "cause."
Enter Milo Yiannapoulous.
Of course, it wasn't just one person, but he was emblematic of everything. Suddenly there was a vocal force with an audience behind the Gamergate movement. See, Milo understood (and was a product of) this culture through and through. A master at throwing self-hatred back at the world, he was incendiary and willing to throw himself into this with reckless abandon. And armed with the conservative political aim, even emboldened by that support, he realized he could stoke anti-PC sentiment as the lynchpin into larger frenzy of extreme right thinking. You can see the blueprint in everything that he wrote. They preyed on young confused gamer kids who felt social anxiety about women. There was the popularization of the term "Social Justice Warrior" to undermine the empathetic aims of being PC and turning into some kind of pathological careerism. There was no attempt to parse anything over and sort out good from bad. There was only the intent to demonize. Individual or made-up events became entire bits of evidence of some grand conspiracy. In a case of turning Godwin's law into the boy who cried wolf, they used literal Nazi disinformation tactics to discredit opponents, all while eschewing the typical Nazi-language and instead creating a whole code-language and symbols (like Pepe) so they could use dog whistles in plain sight. They co-opted the language of the enemy to use against them. Suddenly, the troll army that never believed in sexism and racism was calling you sexist and racist. While there were impressionable people who actually got swept up into believing that, it was most evident in false accounts pretending to be LGBT popping up to discredit the games industry and say "I'm not your shield" (i.e. stop making liberal games in my name). When Tim Schafer made a joke about the tactic, gamergaters went right after him declaring him as being racist and homophobic. The goal was always to invert up and down. But most of all, they became masters of the strawman argument and cherry-picking. Like the source of gamergate itself, they would take a weak kernel of a seeming truth, or often something made up, then bash it into oblivion. They would make ornate long essays that connected various "dots" as "proof." They targeted anyone they could, especially the most vocal members of the opposition, and use information on their life to construe elaborate falsehoods from nuggets of seeming truth. All of this is not me trying to tell you that I'm dismissing something sight unseen. This was all constructed with the same conspiratorial insanity of how you get pizzagate. Trying to fight it, trying to reason with it, was like trying to fight smoke. It was only designed to confuse you. And it was all part of getting you to see the big joke.
And all the while, Milo didn't "do" any of this. He just knew expertly how to foster it. How to fan the flames. Go ahead, read those fucking articles about how feminism is worse than cancer if you want. Read everything he's ever done. Read the comments. Read how people were taking it. The goal was clear as day. I cannot explain the depths of the damage he caused. From the individuals he attacked to the holistic damage on the whole. And by working as Breitbart's "tech editor" (read: person who can make internet people angrier at the left) it became so supremely evident the whole PC war was just about undoing the fabric of liberal politics. It was a wedge that could be driven between the liberal community and those in the middle of the road. And so they fanned those flames and continued to indoctrinate into more extreme right thinking. And what did the trolls think of this newly specific political target that been given to them? Well, many became radicalized and part of the alt-right. And the rest didn't care. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And all the while, those plugged into internet culture watched this happen. We screamed and we shouted about what was happening. It was awful. I thought about quitting the Hulk. And there would be glimmers of hope, a moment where Anita would make it on Colbert, or a mere article in the New York Times. But then the conversation just moved on, as it all festered and got weirder.
No one bothered to think we were the canary in the coal mine.
It feels so obvious in retrospect, but it was all part of the signal of a deep political shift in the country. Other writers have covered this much better, so there's no need to go into detail, but nobody suspected these people would find a hero in the rich asshole. But of course they did. It was the big joke, writ on the biggest possible scale. He's not their savior. He's The Joker. And he will help tear down the people who actually care about things. And so we find ourselves in this cultural maelstrom of trying to figure out how to navigate a public that wants to deal with the figures coming out of the wreckage of this. A public who doesn't realize they're battling smoke. A public that thinks people like Milo are just a new evolution of Rush Limbaugh or something. But as the line from Cormac McCarthy goes:
"You don't know someone until you know what they want."
And what Milo and the vocal anti-PC culture around him wants is radically different than they think. So the way we engage them is going to have to be different. Giving them airtime as a "side" in a "debate" is like booking baba booey and expecting something productive. This is a group of people who coined the term "becoming a hero" as a meaning for killing yourself (and hopefully taking others along with you). But surely this deserves empathy, right? Of course it does. I can't imagine the kind of life that would lead me into thinking that. But the mode of empathy is not in agreement in the discourse and finding common ground. It's stopping the game. The only mode of empathy is in trying to get past all that and to the source. It sounds silly, but the best analogy I can think of is how The Joker keeps telling the made-up stories of how he got those scars. They're all these tragic tales of woe designed to bait sympathy, right? But they're not true. They're just another joke. It's an ingenious (and terrifying) bit of characterization, but if you go outside that: there is a real reason to how he got those scars. And it's simply the one he's not telling. To that, the scars of the people perpetrating the heart of anti-PC sentiment are hiding the same. It's clear as day. So allow me to do something I never thought I'd ever do in my life.
Allow me to defend Milo.
Well, not really, we're too far gone for that. But let's call it having empathy for something under the heart of this situation. Because there is a poetic irony to the fact that Milo was undone by a failure to both understand and communicate nuance. In his conversation discussing the irrevocably formational relationships between older men and younger boys, what he was really trying to do (seemingly) was talk about the nexus of human development for people who have experienced this, and he did not go into details but it seemed like much of his own. It is part of a very real and honest conversation to be had about how young gay men grow up and navigate the world when they've been a victim of this abuse. He was trying to talk about something real. But, like everything Milo does, he did not communicate it from a personal place or even a place of empathy. He did not tell his story. Instead, he took it all and presented the most extreme version of a belief associated with it, which effectively justified Hebephilia. He didn't talk about being conflicted about this. He didn't acknowledge the horrific sides of such abuse. But all is par for the course from a firebrand who has never wanted to play the victim. And so, he was undone by a lack of understanding nuance, mostly his own. And because he spent his entire career avoiding nuance, being outrageous, using people's traumas against them, leveling straw man arguments and not having a single ounce of empathy in his damn soul, he was crushed under the massive weight of everything he has done. Especially in finally saying something that the GOP was radically not on board with, and he is going to quickly learn that the very people he rallied behind for support are the people who want nothing to do with him.
The truth is they never wanted anything to do with him. Just like the people he used, he was someone they could use and weaponize for an uglier purpose. Which brings us to the deep tissue part of his story. For in this discussion of Milo there is not nearly enough conversation regarding his actual psychology. I really don't want to play some pop psychologist, and I'm certainly not getting into the lame idea that gay people can't be conservative (of course they can). But this is a conversation about the power structures we build from the joking. Few think about what being "the jester" actually means in a larger social strata, but Patton Oswalt once wrote honestly about comedy and the nature of bullying while growing up. He was a young kid, easy to be picked on, but he was a funny kid. And what he did to protect himself was rally behind the bullies and make jokes about others they victimized and egging on - again, all as a way of protecting himself, a way of attaining control and safety. It is something he endlessly regrets now, but I look at Milo and I can't help but see that come to life in a spectacular way. I don't need to project internalized homophobia on Milo. He's outright said that gay rights are horrible and that he would cure his homophobia if he could. He was a conservative dream. A gay man who said that being gay was the problem and thus "couldn't" be a bigot. A guy who hated liberals more than they did. And it all reveals the most basic tragedy of someone who took all that as a way of attaining "safety" and never wanted to be the victim. And so Milo spent a career trying to gain the approval of those who most despise his very personhood. He spent that time egging on the bullies, making outrageous jokes, demonizing the people he didn't want to be as weak as. Not only is it almost boringly textbook, but where this all was going to go was inevitable. Because the thing about any of these controversial positions is that you get trapped in the cycle, then it can only spin out of control. The criticizing of others becomes a way of acceptance from those who also criticize and when the backlash becomes real, it just stiffens the resolve. And so it keeps going, more, more, more. Hoping to fill the void. But it all leads nowhere. It's the rigged game of half-empowerment, which will only leave you forever hungry. So if there is a heart of empathy to this discussion, surely it must be here.
Just as the empathy is there for legions of trolls who activate on all that hate and carry it out. Imagine, to truly think the world is a cruel joke, you must first be victim of an endless array of cruel jokes. The state of being in that headspace, of seeing no way out, of seeing suicide as heroism, well, you can get the picture. And for that I only offer the most outrageous empathy for that situation. But for all in pain, and for Milo himself, there comes the inescapable reality of our actions. The spectrum of abuse that has been fostered and created out of that pain is undeniable. It is monstrous. And there is no outrunning the monsters we create. They must be stared at. Reckoned with. Dealt with. And I've been there. It's insanely hard. But things blow up because they cannot be sustained. And as long as one refuses to deal with what that, then we will never really get to the heart of what this is really about. And so the cycle of pain, the lashing out, will go on. Like the Cormac McCarthy line, in order to get at what we need we have to be honest about what we really want. Which brings us to the entire point of this third section.
Which is that we're completely missing the point of the PC debate.
We're supposedly having a debate between PC and Anti-PC culture, but we can't have a debate unless we're really talking about what we're really talking about. Unless we're really being honest about what we want and what we're looking for. If we want to get into this Bill Maher bullshit of finding mutual terms of "both sides," we are going to get lost in smoke. We have get away from so much of the false equivalency that surrounds this conversation (like the implication that protesting itself is to have an extreme viewpoint). We have to get away from the inherent defensiveness of getting called out. And most of all, we have to actually examine and be honest about what Milo and the rabid anti-PC culture is really after. Acknowledgement in discourse is just another smile in the big joke. And they'll use everything against you to achieve it. And so, when we look at every single piece of debate we have to stop with this automatic thinking that every answer is going to exist in a gray area between the two. And if I can be honest, I feel likes it's this horrific symptom of the long-running "both sides are wrong" thinking that plagues modern debate. Because you don't look to the middle of any argument for truth. You look at the framing. Because if the two "sides" are someone arguing for inclusiveness and someone being a manipulative asshat hellbent on your destruction, then what exactly are we meeting in the middle about? Ultimately, what everyone criticized Maher of was not realizing he was giving The Joker a seat at the table (and if he did realize, it's worse). This is why I'm always framing arguments around the basics of morality, ethics, and empathy. It's the only way I can try and get past those expectations to heart of why instead of how. And in that morality discussion we can't miss the only two sides that matter:
Victim and victimizer.
Sure, there can be nuance to the how, the why, but there is rarely any nuance to transgression itself. And if there is any true cruelty to what the great Milo saga has revealed, it is the age old truth that our criticism is never how feel about the victimizer / harasser. It all depends how we feel about the victim. Because the mainstream ignored years of his harassment of women, minority, and trans persons, but the second it was the mere insinuation that young boys were at risk? Well, then the GOP and center-left suddenly gave a shit. Only then was the book deal cancelled. Only then did it all come crashing down. Which just goes to show us...
Outrage only exists where there is empathy.
So how do we go from there? How do we navigate something so complex?
Weirdly, I look to comedy.
4. The Spiral
"It's just a joke."
I can't tell you how many times I hear that excuse. But how do we reckon debating with a culture for whom life itself and anything serious is just a joke? The question came front and center the other week when Pewdiepie, a popular YouTuber who got famous doing erratic Let's Plays, was cut from his deal with Maker Studios (Disney) over anti-semitic and racist jokes. To be clear, the greatest offense of these jokes is that they were lame, but I still feel there was a lot of knee-jerk attitudes of those who criticized him sight unseen and don't get the various merits to what he does. For one, Pewdiepie invented (or at least popularized) a certain comedic rhythm of Let's Plays that has become extremely popular. And you do not get that kind of fandom by being completely untalented and he has this weird accidental, pure reactive timing when he games that can be funny. But it's safe to say he's not crafting jokes. And it's even safer to say his brand of humor is undeniably juvenile and, to the discussion at hand, is no doubt the kind of stuff that is "in it for the lulz". While he does not live a life of despair, you can still see him falling into this weird pattern in the PC debate. He keeps framing arguments about people not liking him as people being afraid of him, along with the increasingly blunt nature of his jokes, along with his bizarre and seemingly "ironic" fandom of Donald Trump. When you look at the direction this train is traveling, it's not hard to see the echoes of what happened in the cycles before him.
I outlined the thinking on twitter, but it goes something like this - making inane "shock" jokes will just inevitably push you into becoming that actual hyper-conservative jerk you are first making fun of. It all starts with making a purposefully outrageous "joke," (For instance, Pewdiepie would frequently just shout "Rape!" when the screen would go black - along with making a whole song condoning rape - along with saying things like “If you’ve been raped and you don’t understand why rape jokes aren’t funny it probably wasn’t completely rape, or it wasn’t that bad for you”). He doesn't "mean" these things, but of course the outrage is sincere. So the "just joking" defense gets put up. But, and this key, the consequences feel weirdly real. But rather than actually face yourself, it is other people's sensitivity that becomes the enemy. So the jokes get more extreme. The consequences become more real too. So then it becomes about being PC. It becomes about "free speech" (always failing to realize that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from response). And then you're so embedded in your own war on sensitivity that you don't realize you've joined a side. Sure you don't know what you stand for; it's just all about them sweet sweet liberal tears. The biggest danger is when the people who support you start making "sense" because they see the same flaws in the people you hate. And you start espousing their beliefs. And soon enough you become the very fascistic asshat you once could not relate to, but only made "jokes" about. And that's the story of how the in-it-for-the-lulz internet became a bunch of dye-in-the-wool fascists of the alt-right. This cycle exists across a lot of the spheres of the internet.
To be very clear, I'm not calling Pewdiepie a fascist. Nor assuming he will become one. I'm looking at the entrenching dynamics of how he's grown increasingly politicized over time, specifically in his anti-PC mantra, and how this is similar to what has happened to many others in the sphere (like JonTron). I mean, look at the company of his recent support. When Stormfront started calling themselves the number one Pewdiepie fansite, he tried to distance himself, but it's going to take deeper examination than that, my man. Again, I go to the question: what do you actually want? Because as much as people blame the PC left for creating the conditions that make people defensive, this 1) implies that if left alone there would magically be no issue and 2) ignores the idea that the very goal of lulz humor is to provoke. To make outrage. That is the very thing being courted. And so to turn around and insist that that outrage is undeserved is disingenuous to the very intent of what is happening here. And worse, it belies the effect of your actions. As Kurt Vonnegut said, "we are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be." And no lesson is more important in understanding our effect. If you make a threat. That threat is a threat. But go ask Brianna Wu about all the people who were let off from making endless death threats to her "as a joke." Seriously, how far can jokes go? The intent of threatening is to make some scared and that effect is very real. It is the literal intent to terrorize. How many times do I have to use that word: Terrorize. And "it's a joke".
*Ledgers joker nods*
Seriously, why are we so bad at misunderstanding the nexus of intent and effect? I have to believe part of the reason is that we're really bad at talking about jokes.
Admittedly, laughter is a weird thing. It preys on our set of expectations and causes an involuntary reaction of spasming. That's, like, what it is. And laughing or not laughing is as specific to our own internal sensibilities as something gets. When we laugh, it is undeniable and so it is "funny". And the ways Pewdiepie's crass juvenile joke is not funny to me is precisely the reason it is funny to someone else. So we should just chalk everything in the world up to relativism? Eye of the beholder and all that?
Well, no because laughing at something is not an argument. To illustrate an extreme example, if your child starts crying and telling you about how they were sexually abused at school that day and you laugh in their face, that would be wrong, no? Okay, just wondering what our extreme baseline is here, because that would of course be horrific. So let's just extend the logic of that thinking and admit that there's a damn spectrum to what we can call the moral anchor within laughter. Yes, all comedy has a target. Often it is the self, a line of thinking, and sometimes the other. But when you look at satire itself, you understand the function is about having a deeply-considered criticism of that target.
And so I'll never forget the other night of endless Pewdiepie fans coming at me, telling me I didn't get satire and @-mentioning Mel Brooks in their defense of Pewdiepie. Forget conversations about Brooks being Jewish and the fact that he was actually lampooning shock humor itself, forget context and tact, the conversations I tried to engage in often belied the notion of groups that seemed to equate satire merely with "not being serious". I see this all the time whenever something horrifically tone deaf is posted. No, satire has to be laser-focused. And even then, I find Gladwell's thoughts on the complete ineffectiveness of satire to be fascinating. But most of these finer points get lost in the discussion at hand. So it all just gets chalked up to the idea that we have no sense of humor and are dumb. Also, we only like comedy we agree with, etc. So here's where I open this up a bit.
I really like Bill Burr.
And I don't agree on fuck all that he says. He'll spew ideas that range from sexist, to insensitive, to conservative, to libertarian, to reactionary, to anti-PC. So why do I think his comedy works? Why do I laugh? Because he constantly shows awareness. He knows that he's provoking and he doesn't cry foul or get defensive. He just makes another joke. He knows he's walking on a tightrope. He plays the game with the audience. He pushes one too far and gets a groan, but then he gets that glint in his eye where he knows the next one will make you laugh. And it all comes down to one thing. What does he want? Bill Burr doesn't want to offend me. He wants me to laugh. The difference is everything. It's similar to the much more proper attitude of this same tactic from the UK's Jimmy Carr. Watch his "most offensive jokes" segment and you'll realize it's framed nothing like an escalating series of dares, but instead a lesson in how to talk about edgy subjects, along with weirdly poignant criticism about a lot of forms of thinking, specifically to what free speech is really about. And like Burr, he wants to make you laugh and takes the responsibility and navigation of those subjects very seriously. And so while the popular conversation keeps talking about the victimhood of comedy, punching up, and punching down, I don't think those terms are what applies at all. There is a much simpler way of framing the conversation of the goals of comedy, and it was said by the brilliant W. Kumau Bell:
"Who do you want to include? Who do you not want to include?"
These two questions are at the center of pretty much everything. From the way we use signifiers, to the politics of being PC, to the vehemence of being anti-PC, to who you want to make laugh in an audience. It's all that simple question: who do you want to include? Because that's when you start looking at your morality and your shape of interest. For instance, who do you want your joke to make feel more comfortable: a rapist or a rape victim? Answer however you wish, but it speaks to what you're trying to do. And hey, if you want to make an edgy joke, go for it. But consider the questions: how do you bring the audience into it? How do you convey that you understand what you're saying? How do you show awareness? How do you do all this without being defensive? Or, instead of all that, can we just be honest about what you want and ask if you are just trying to fucking provoke people like a 14-year-old? These are always the questions. And that's what I'm asking when I look at Milo. When I look at Pewdiepie. When I look at everyone. I'm asking "What do they want?" And when looking at anti-PC culture as a whole, from the left-hating alt-right, to the trolls, to the knee-jerk comedian, the aligned message is clear, and whether they mean it or not, the effect of that want is the same:
They want to tear down people who actually give a shit.
The big problem is that we lost the plot.
It would be true just of this essay, but it's indicative of how the conversation in America on PC culture has completely gone haywire. Because, to be honest, it drives me a little bit nuts that the definition of political correctness says "often" instead of "sometimes." It means we lost that war of words and the entire inclination of actually caring what words you use for people is now regarded as extreme. Again, the war over words matter, just as the war over facts matters. Look at studies on how people feel about Obamacare vs. ACA, without ever realizing they're the same thing. Look at use of the term "alt-right" because they didn't want the stigma associated with their actual beliefs. Look at the knee-jerk way they recoil when they get called Nazis. Look at how the fuzziness of that technicality is used right back against you. It's all part of the upside-down. They are fighting anyone who tries to be protective of marginalized groups and they'll tell you that they're the ones who are really marginalized. Fuck man, I will tell you it is easier to find ground in a conversation with an actual KKK member and I'm not kidding (remember the Stormfront invasion of BMD?). They believe in something so morally wrong, but their goal isn't to upend the notion of serious conversation itself. And so, with the anti-PC crowd, it becomes part of the reflexive game that goes ever on. We lose ourselves completely in wars of false equivalency, pedantic arguments on "logic" that eschew morality completely. We call Nazis Nazis and they call centrists Communists. They call feminists extremists. They call Black Lives Matter "racists" and "terrorists." And at the end of it, a middle of the road populace looks at the swirling dust-cloud of this insanity and says "well, the answer is in the middle."
And that's how you get Milo talking to Bill Fucking Maher. If we constantly look to the middle of any fight between two "sides," then we inherently ignore the duties of framing. Because one fucking Google search can tell you the entire history of that asshat and the amounts of damage he's done, but nobody bothered to listen. And we have to bother. It is our job to bother. Put beautifully on twitter by @theludds "A generation raised on South Park can't grasp the difference between skepticism and cynicism." And we cannot accept that. Our humanity hangs in the balance and I'm not exaggerating. So with this particular battle of PC culture we lose the most important part of the plot and that is the caring of the core intent.
This is precisely why I always talk about morality.
This is why I ask those most basic questions that get at the center of empathy more than anything else about the given debate: what do you want? Who do you want to include? Who do you not want to include? Why? Because that's what we're talking about when we really talk about anything. Because that's the intent of what we're going for. Because this isn't about me being good and you being bad. It never was. To paraphrase Diane in Bojack, I do not believe there are good and bad people. There is only what we do. And there is only the effect of those things. So let's go to the most pertinent question of all:
Why am I doing all this?
Believe it or not, I ask myself this question all the time. Wade into the waters of talking about liberalism in a popular space and there is nothing they won't throw at you in terms of a projection. Pick any number of your stock assumptions: you're a guy pretending to be feminists just to get chicks (because who could ever mean it seriously?), you're being a dumb idiot who isn't properly afraid of Muslims (somehow I haven't touched the rampant Islamophobia in this article), you're doing this to make money off these columns that toe the line or raise your profile (cue endless laughter). But what seems to drives them the most nuts is the idea that a Twitter account by a talking Hulk would be serious. At first I was bewildered that so many of them would make fun of cartoon account when 90% of them have a nonsensical name, handle, and anime avatar that have nothing to do with each other (along with calling someone a faggot at least four tweets down). But everything clicked when they made fun of me for "rping" as the Hulk. It's not the joke account. It's that the joke account is serious that's the biggest offense. It's the actually giving a shit, because giving a shit is the worst thing you can do.
So I'll ask again: why am I doing all this? Why write about movies and politics? Yes, it's because I give a shit. It's because I feel insanely lucky and want to express endless gratitude. I do not consider it heroic or anything more self-serving than the simple idea that it is important. It's because I feel compelled and passionate about it. It's because writing helps me explore and formulate understanding of the world around me. Hell, this column started as a Twitter thread on one point and now it's 8000 words. It's a kind of meditation almost. It's because it actually connects me to people in a meaningful way. It's because I fuck up like everyone, and I'm still trying to be the best person I can. It's because I'm really, really trying to do better. It's because I think awareness and being part of an informed electorate is a civic duty. And yeah, I would love if the world wasn't on proverbial fire and I could write about movies hour after hour and not think about these things, but these things keep happening in a way that demands urgency and attention So they keep needing to be talked about, and then they need something done about. And in the end, the reason I write is the same exact reason I feared the rich asshole from the very beginning.
Because I don't think the world is a joke.
It's the only one we got and I'm trying to run around with 60 million other Americans and try to hold it together with duct tape. You can demonize this. You can demonize me. I don't care. What I care more about is the person sitting idly by who doesn't know what to think about all this. I think about the person the other night who tweeted at me: "never forget how you subscribed to a parody movie critic account years ago and it's trying to feed you politics now."
This is where I tell you that it's always been political. I've been writing about the thematic messaging and morality of movies from the very beginning. If anything that, along with basic cinematic function, has been the focus of the entire body of work. And if you have somehow divorced the two, then I'm not sure you got what these columns were about in the first place. For art is important. It's the model and reflection of living itself. And so often art has been the thing that prepares us for the most grand obstacles in life, ramping up to what's important. And here. Now. What's happening in this country. This is important. So I write about politics because it is the story of empathy, morality, and awareness written into the fabric of our lives.
And it needs the most empathetic part of us.
Not the joke.