According to a new Pew Research poll, 40 percent of millennials think the government should censor speech that’s offensive to minorities. Millennials, roughly defined as people born between Ronald Reagan’s second term and Bill Clinton’s first, are soon to overtake Baby Boomers and Generation X as the largest percentage of the American population, making their politically correct attitudes highly influential. Not surprisingly, this has caused some controversy.
Comedians in particular have been having a rough time adjusting to millennial PC culture. Jerry Seinfeld has criticized college audiences for being overly sensitive, complaining that millennials are offended by a joke comparing swiping on a cell phone to the mannerisms of a “gay French king.” Bill Maher has been covering college students’ alleged inability to take a joke for years. South Park’s most recent season – their best in years – was dedicated largely to the issue of political correctness.
Despite all the fretfulness of some comedians, many of the changes in PC culture have been for the better. Comedian Artie Lange is known for his offensive comedy, regularly using slurs like “fag” on air during his stint as a Howard Stern sideman. While Lange remains a critic of sensitivity, he has sworn off using slurs and acknowledges that a certain amount of political correctness is good for society – just not necessarily for comedy.
“We live in a more enlightened generation now,” Lange said during an interview with Huffington Post. “If someone came to me and told me something I said caused some kid to commit suicide, I’d be in a nuthouse for the rest of my life.”
An example of this progression is the 1997 Simpsons episode, “Homer’s Phobia,” in which a toy store owner befriends the family until Homer finds out he’s gay and ostracizes him. At the time, the episode was controversial simply for dealing with gay themes. A FOX executive admonished the show, saying, “The topic and substance of this episode are unacceptable for broadcast.” But to modern sensitivities, what’s controversial are Homer’s intolerance and the stereotypical effeminacy of Springfield’s gay community.
As social attitudes change what becomes acceptable to joke about moves along with it. Plenty of comedians remain edgy and relevant in the PC age, including Louis CK and Amy Schumer. They occasionally cross lines that get them into trouble but their careers hold up. Seinfeld’s position that he won’t play colleges anymore because millennials are too uptight is cowardly. It shows both that he doesn’t want to risk offending an audience and that he’s unwilling to evolve his act.
What’s alarming is not millennials’ distaste for slurs or jokes where the punchline comes at the expense of a marginalized group, but the totalitarian phrasing of Pew’s finding: “Four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.”
Our country is strange. On the one hand, nearly half of its largest age demographic believes in censoring speech offensive to minorities; on the other, Donald Trump is the current frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Trump is actually a good case-in-point. One can almost see the argument for censoring speech given the real-world consequences of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, including racism and bullying at his rallies and an uptick in violence against immigrants. Nice as it would be to see Trump kicked off television – or even arrested – for stoking racial and ethnic animosities, it’s not the way to challenge offensive speech.
Society must evolve to the point where the Trumps of the world are naturally diminished and marginalized by free-thinking and informed people. Although it is discouraging to see Trump exciting red-meat Republicans with his racist campaign, it’s encouraging to note that most Americans are still inclined to ridicule rather than follow him. For instance, despite hanging onto the lead in GOP polls for months Trump is usually far behind Senator Bernie Sanders in national polling.
What really ought to be championed for is not censorship of speech, but something like the Fairness Doctrine. In America, for-profit media still has the power to set America’s conversation. With the Fairness Doctrine in place, for every minute of Trump coverage networks aired they’d have to air a minute of Sanders. As things are now, Trump gets 23 times the coverage Sanders does.
The most serious problem with PC culture seems to be the protests and petitions used on college campuses to shut down certain speakers or presentations deemed offensive. Bill Maher in particular has gone after college students for this – perhaps because he has been in that position before. This is truly beyond the pale and, as Maher notes, the antithesis of the exposure to new and challenging ideas that college is supposed to be.
Nothing Maher says is heinous enough for him to deserve this kind of treatment. But even Ann Coulter, a regular target of college boycotts who has nothing but hateful venom to spew, should not be formally censored. Let people decide on their own that her ideas are revolting and eventually she’ll seal her own irrelevancy. Treating her as a danger to be legislated against makes her anti-establishment, which is flatly ludicrous.
Pushing back against those who score mean-spirited points off of minorities is great. Millennials should be proud to stand up for underdogs. But millennials in Pew’s 40 percent should also be able to see the difference between Seinfeld’s limp-wristed joke and Trump’s rank demagoguery. The way to deal with the former is to just not laugh. The way to deal with the latter is to fight back with ferocity. But for the sake of our most hallowed principle, the First Amendment, leave the authorities out.