Casual Fridays: Do I Make You Laugh?

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CasualFridaysSeinfeld

It was this summer, talking on Late Night with Seth Meyers, that Jerry Seinfeld discussed how his comedy was being affected by this PC generation, and that is what’s keeping him off the college circuit, which is an old standby in the comedian’s world.

This is old stuff, to be honest, a trend among certain comedians to decry what was once referred to as, once upon a time, and by another sect of personas, the pussification of America, the increasing political correctness sweeping the nation, a trend that has no real permanence, it’s just a temporary annoyance.

On a superficial level, people who’d rather not have their feelings hurt would clash with the thesis of the comedian. Of course, these people who’d rather not have their feelings hurt might actually be people who don’t want to feel excluded from their own country, in that way that even jokes can be alienating. Yes, even jokes. Jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Well, somebody takes them seriously — probably comedians.

Ethnic, gender, sexual minorities, these people need to be considered. If you find they’re easily offended, that may be your cue for introspection, instead of going the other way. Even still, I can’t hate on Jerry Seinfeld too much, because even though he voiced such an outmoded and wrongheaded idea, he opted to simply back out, assuming he would offend someone. That’s a lot more than we can ask of other people, who recoil at this invisible evil, and then get aggressive.

The theme for this episode I think will be something about the delicate nature of communication. The way we talk to one another has to be carefully considered, and that was always true, but now that people are not just given voices, but ears, in a sense, where everyone has access to everything, we’re seeing that norms and the status quo are actually a lot more insular than we would’ve imagined, down there by the fire in Plato’s Cave. Things were great when they were normal, in our tiny world, and they’ll be great again, when they’re normal on a global stage.

One of the great classic defenses that I don’t even think gets used anymore is “I’m not singling anybody out, I’m offending everyone.” Back in the day of South Park and Family Guy. This is the Myth of the Equal Opportunity Offender, which might sound like a sensible claim on their part, until we remember that all jokes are not made equal. Comedy would be pretty one-note if that were the case.

The myth of offending everyone of course shirks the very idea of bias, which is an invisible thing, so forgive them, but anyone can easily overcome bias — first, assume you have it, because you do. Human life would be pretty one-note if that weren’t the case. But Family Guy is the go-to example here, in terms of bias, because it’s true that a gallery of people are being made fun of, but women in particular are scarily singled out. Even when it’s supposed to be a joke on the guy, it’s a joke about women, like the “Men: We Don’t Know What We Did,” which is meant to summarize and reflect on our general experience that women are erratic and unpredictable.

What I’m saying here is that bias can be hard to spot until you acknowledge the possibility of its existence. I’ve sat in an uncomfortable movie theatre watching a mathematically racist film just dumbfounded, first by the screen and then the audience’s welcoming gaze — I hesitate to say complicity, but that’s kind of where we’re at. Entertainment comes in, entertainment goes forth, even those who want to engage politically are held back by the early barriers.

So comedians are trying to be funny, and to competitive, often you have to be edgy — this means offending people on purpose. But because of political correctness, singling any one group out would be weird, so… offend everyone. However, you may not be as slick as you think you are. Not to mention the other half of this, which is where the audience comes in. The reason not all jokes are equal is because not everybody in the audience is equal.

And that’s a nuanced thing that can be kind of confusing, because you hear liberals say that everybody is equal, and it’s true, in a philosophical or ideological sense. But not everybody is on equal footing. Some people are disadvantaged by a society that is, again, biased. And so these people in your audience deserve consideration too; they are not lesser because they don’t love the dick jokes or the rape jokes as much as your buddies do.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, and that’s because it’s fairly abstract, it’s about feeling welcome in one’s own country. For some people, they can’t go back to their ancestral home on a holiday, it’s not a nice place to visit. This is what they have, and regardless, they’re here now, that’s all that matters. So zooming in a little bit, a minority in a newly diversity-mandated space will track a change in personal behavior to adapt to a new and uncomfortable environment. That happens all the time. The great example is women in ‘the workplace,’ and I’ve seen accounts of lone women in offices of all kinds — one recent example is the Gawker stuff, where women are simply devalued because the men in charge have no frame of reference for valuable women, and would rather go with what’s most comfortable.

So in an instance like that, we can either say that the woman should toughen up, that the adaptation thing sounded good back there, or that the men should consider them. For some, that that binary could even be divisive is mind-blowing, because really it’s just a mathematical thing, purely quantitative. Let’s measure both by the personal effort expended — the man in the latter case has to… consider the woman, and in the other case, the woman has to stay silent when she wants to speak, or be ostracized, which seems to happen arbitrarily anyway, she has to decide whether to dress like a slob or a slut, and maybe she even begins to question her own self-worth, and questioning one’s self-worth is something that comes easy to a lot of people, with little provocation. But if you don’t want to believe that men are evil, you have to find some way to rationalize the pay gap, or why you have no power even if you get promoted. Before women started talking about this stuff online, women didn’t have a frame of reference for evil men.

And this of course is ‘evil’ in the Eichmann in Jerusalem sense — which makes it sound worse, but it’s an evil we’re all capable of. The thing is — minorities are probably not going to point out when you’re doing something they don’t like. They’re not in a power position — you have to imagine for them, if you care, the consequences they may face if they spoke up, especially if their concern aligns with a hot button issue people are slinging arrows back and forth about on Tumblr.

But that’s actually step two on a lengthy journey of steps. I’m generally optimistic about people; I think that, in general, if people realize that what they’re saying is hurtful, and they really understand the scope of that hurt, they’ll want to change.

So for those people, here’s how I see the narrative working:

1) We stop saying whatever the hell we feel, temporarily.

2) We instead think about what we’re gonna say based on how it will be received, and then…

3) We can return to saying whatever the hell we feel because speaking open-mindedly will become second nature, and it can.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve talked about that before, in the episode about Fast Karate. But certain people conflate this recalibration of communication with a shutdown of communication, because as Americans who have rightfully been taught that their voices matter (though maybe not on the world stage), their greatest fear has always been censorship, and that fear is valuable, but cannot be all encompassing.

To 1), the things we feel are flawed, because we are connected to our past, and our past is flawed. That’s a lesson we’re supposed to be taking away from golden era TV but we never actually do, and that’s not entirely our faults. Again, to retread old podcast territory, it’s the complexities of the intent and interpretation dynamic. In comedy, or any art form, you have an intent as an individual human being with inescapable bias, and the interpretation is reached by a universe of people whose insecurities are unknown to you, but valuable nonetheless. That’s tough.

We are generally flawed, and in ways we aren’t trained to recognize. I suppose there’s a tendency toward personal supremacy when you come into the world and on all levels, you’re the apex — the only intelligent species in the six billion year history of the planet, the country with the best kind of government that a bunch of people died for two-hundred years ago, and depending on your region, everybody else in the country has a stupid accent. Some tough deconstruction reveals however that maybe we’re not so great, and I’m not just speaking to imperial Americans here.

I’ve spoken before along this line, where for example the image of women has stunted women’s self-perception toward, let’s say, artificial bodies, and it has of course programmed men even more so, to where they are true sexual deviants, no better than subhuman in extreme cases that are somehow all too common. These flaws have such enablers in our culture, people who will use platitudes and say ‘we’re only human,’ and ‘men are animals,’ without any heft or further internal investigation.

And that kind of attitude leads to an actual shutdown of communication. Again, I’m not saying that all comedians should go fuck themselves, but that language is a beautiful fucking thing. Don’t stop — nobody’s saying stop talking, but try listening too. Communication is not shut down when you shut your goddamn mouth, but in a more real, grown-up way, communication can cease, and that does bothers me just as it bothers you in your Holy 1st Amendment War on Christmas fairyland make-believe fucking universe of your own creation.

I can’t stand when something is provoked in a dialogue that shuts it down, when people stop talking because they’ve reached some kind of perceived impasse, which is essentially the same thing as a comedian who says something offensive and the offended party leaves. If the comedian genuinely wants a dialogue, again, they’ll recalibrate how to express the idea. In this new situation, the impasse isn’t insensitivity necessarily, and there’s nothing I can do about it — what I’m thinking of specifically is the thought that we cannot truly know another’s experience, as fully and purely as they do. Talking with a friend of mine, she’ll sometimes say, ‘you’re not a woman, you could never truly understand.’

Not to say I ever will, but why not try? I think with our globalizing gadgets, we’re inching closer and closer to the kind of technological telepathy as prophesied by cyberpunk science-fiction. But I also want to believe that it’s something that can be accomplished by talking it through, that nothing, no matter how dire, is a lonely, isolated human experience. So we sit down with someone, we have a conversation — that’s the theory behind therapy and psychiatry, and it’s also the theory behind art itself, a connection between the minds of artist and audience with an abstract expression as the go-between. We’d like to believe that art is powerful, so maybe the mode of art can be powerful in a broader arena?

This is something that’s really been bothering me, because it’s a problem with no graspable solution, a limit we’re almost happy to accept. Why should we as individuals in a society remain mysterious to each other? Any talk of being more open and talking about our feelings plays right back into that pussification of America mythos — and no, I am not calling that the political correctifying or anything, it’s straight-up vulgar and demeaning.

This is utopia talk, where we’d be softer and possibly more reliant on each other, because again, that’s what a society is — a collaboration, but we’re so competitive and paranoid, and these qualities, which we all share, have caused problems. I think we can get there, and I think that taking a critical look at how we communicate right now can lead us there. And it’s kind of urgent that we do. Even people with good intentions are capable of horrible things.

You cruise Twitter long enough and you realize that liberals are not a monolith, and I’m not just saying that to cover my own ass. Everybody is their own person. They bring their own opinions, and sometimes these opinions conflict. If you’re such an outsider, it might be confusing to see infighting among feminists regarding topics as Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham.

But even if you have heard the term ‘intersectional feminism,’ you’ll still see complicated things, and I get why conversations with lefties can be daunting and eventually alienating. One example is the whole ‘but my best friend is black,’ thing. That’s something everybody who’s ever been caught red-handed and black-faced has said. You think the next one isn’t gonna say it, but they will, or some version of it. So you work with a woman, or a Muslim, or a gay guy — that does not assume you embody equality.

At the same time… that’s still better than nothing. Having even one ‘diverse’ person in your life can mean a world of difference, but in practice, casual bigotry is so rampant that the difference is nil. But I can see how that would be confusing, even in my own day-to-day, where I think, “Oh, I should consult with a woman on this topic… and at which point will they realize that I’m only talking to them because they’re a woman?”

So, things are not so black-and-white, and a big source of complication, I think, is the Internet itself, and how it has structured the way we communicate. Twitter especially, because we speak at each other in payloads, with these snappy, public talking points that have had a bevy of ulterior motives: shame the other guy, get a hot RT, make the followers lol

Ultimately, our residual self-image, our Internet persona, driveatars, whatever we’re calling them these days, are not 1:1 analogues, they are deliberate selves. And so you can speak carefully and precisely, but think about where that deliberate mindset is coming from. Are you trying to help in a way that makes complete, organic sense to you, or are you marching under somebody else’s banner?

If you remember the teaser from the prior episode, there’s an article in The Daily Dot about the show Steven Universe. Story goes, a fan did a bunch of fanart of the show’s characters, who are celebrated for representing a variety of human shapes and sizes and colors, but this fanart was ‘normalizing’ them, making them thinner or whiter — whitewashing, as we say.

StevenUniverse1

That’s not right or wrong, because it’s art, but it is emblematic of an outmoded mindset that is losing ground, even if it takes the form of a young girl and not an old man. What eventually happened was this artist got surrounded, and people were calling her all kinds of things, like ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘transphobic,’ ‘ableist.’ At the end of the article, a tweet from Steven Universe co-producer Ian Jones-Quartey puts the perfect cap on it, saying “Fanartists can create whatever they want & everyone has the freedom to criticize it for any reason. However, bullying is not criticism.”

Again, not every liberal is going to be even college-educated. It’s a short jump to empathy, but usually it’s part of a longer journey of self-discovery. So there are overly aggressive voices out there, and the problem pops up when this unnatural infrastructure of communication facilitates a mob. So outraged by this racist fanart, you drop a comment on that shit, because you’re not gonna research and see that there’s a dogpile building.

Even when you think you’re on the side of justice, you have to be careful. It’s what they say about the Abyss, man. Solid flick, but it’s no Aliens. You see absurd, maddening behavior everywhere, with liberal bullies, or GamerGate pundits speaking out against labels. I can’t shake that a solution to this problem is reconciling your relationship to the Internet. It gives you instant access, but caution yourself.

A good way to think before speaking is by doing the research. The methodology isn’t to ask your favorite feminist critic to give you the run-down, or even the recap of the current situation. The Internet is open to you, there’s a bounty of resources, but of course — it’s hard. Where do you go for information? The first thing you learn about news media is that it’s heavily biased, because it’s all corporate. So who do you trust? And why ask these questions when ignorance is so easy and better for your mental health?

Research is education, right? Learning things — that is not American recreation, and I fucking hate learning new things. I’m two degrees right of indifference to having learned things, but I am a lazy, lazy 22-year old. And I’ve seen things, I’ve been to college.

Now, part of this is Jerry Seinfeld talking about how he’s done with touring colleges, and that’s a thing that’s been happening, where because of content concerns, comedians are turned away. Immediately, this is about censorship, as everything actually is, if you look just beyond the veneer — the world sits atop the back of a giant green censorship, and it’s just censorship all the way down.

It’s another complicating element in all this, the cosmic worry that college students are shielding themselves off from discomforting things. Now as a nation we only put such a premium on comedians, but this issue grows, as the ‘trigger warnings’ spread like a virus.

OBSTACLEALERT

There’s anti-millennial hysterics and then there are real life accounts of college professors who have had their classrooms stunted by outrage culture. Professors have to break in and warn students about incoming disturbing content, even though this is content that is educational.

I read one such account, but I can’t for the life of me find the article, but the gist was that we should be sensitive to people who have genuinely been through trauma — in essence, we should indeed be sensitive to people with PTSD — but that trigger warnings have the potential to be, and have been, abused, like with any system of human interaction. That’s troubling.

College students are overly sensitive — how do you know if a student is genuinely disturbed, or just believes they are based on a mild flashback of some kind? How would you measure the value of the outrage? Well, that’s a dangerous science we’re best to keep theoretical until we have something else. Some fakers might fall through the cracks, but that’s one price to pay.

I want there to be some way that trauma doesn’t need to be provoked, nor sensitivity made the enemy, but education still takes place. Can this problem be solved? The fear is huge, it’s that we’re declining, that we as a society are just sliding inescapably into that pussified America. And that’s a scary thing for people. I don’t know why, but now it seems like that camp has a better arrow in their quiver. Students getting up and leaving a classroom, crying as they do, that’s an omen.

It’s a matter of recognizing that things are changing, which everybody has, and then responding either with adaptation, or combat. Wishing the world could either stay still or go back to what it was. The idea that maybe this current outrage culture is just a fad, when I don’t think it is. I think it’s honest, and it’s the honesty of a better generation. They’re not gonna put up with your bullshit, and maybe you won’t put up with theirs, but you’ll be dead first.

So if it’s adaptation we choose, this anecdote is a strong case for personalized, individual education. To my mind, that ideally means Intelligent Tutoring Systems. But in a practical sense, when the student leaves the classroom, maybe they’re encouraged to go to the library, or back to the dorm room and they log onto the directed experience of the school intranet, where they might have access to supplemental material.

When we work backward from the student perspective, we think at least — okay, maybe there’s a workaround. Maybe trigger warnings aren’t something we have to instantly push back against — how logistically difficult will it be for you as a professor to make your class asymmetrical, on a lesson by lesson basis? If your curriculum is as sacred as you think, then do everything you can to reach the maximum amount of people. You weren’t starting from 100%, you’ve always had students who come in, sit down, and fall asleep. We’re in a good place now because we could start thinking about a more deliberate engagement on the part of the professor.

This seems to go back to coddling college students, but let’s not be so quick to ascribe traditional values to an age group — they go to college because they have to go to college. They’re not there out of some burning passion for self-betterment, and they have to pay a lot of money — actually too much money, to be there. There was a time to cultivate a want to engage with material in a classroom environment, and that is precisely in middle school. I’m sure you remember your middle school days — a universe of wasted opportunity, and it wasn’t your fault, you were eleven.

Education is paramount, this isn’t about character building. If they’re even eighteen years old, it’s too late for them. Against popular theory, their character is not gonna change in a fundamental way. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging them to explore, but imagining that because they don’t want to listen to you that means they don’t want to listen to anything is egotistical. And that’s not a good look for an academic.

Now, I mentioned Intelligent Tutoring Systems earlier — they’re amazing, but as of yet, mostly non-existent. This is where the scifi part of the podcast bleeds back in, but I guess we’ve tossed the term ‘utopia’ around a few times already.

Intelligent tutoring systems represent the intersection between educational theory and AI, and has been a thing perpetually in development since what looks like the 1970s. The gist, according to Wikipedia, something of an ITS in itself, is we have “a computer system that aims to provide immediate and customized instruction or feedback to learners, usually without intervention from a human teacher.” Originally it was more about teaching computers in a hands-on way, but more often skews toward the apparently necessary eradication of teachers, which is probably why I didn’t learn about ITS until this year.

That part of it I don’t like, but a customized, individual experience for students? If you could go at your own pace, that would eliminate the sometimes lesser evil of tracking in classrooms, which in my experience has bred all kinds of elitism in high school students. And then in terms of testing? It would only be a test of the system itself, not of the student, because… that doesn’t make any sense.

The educator should be evaluated to ensure that the teaching is actually taking place, whereas testing students is stressful, distracting, and arbitrary — there’s only one test, and it’s the one you take after you graduate college: sink or swim.

So it’s a self-correcting system, and you’d have the teacher there to fill in the gap between student and unfeeling machine. Whatever that means, I’d rather not begin to narrow it, because right now it sounds like the ideal educational environment, one that could be attained given the prevalence of those gadgets. It wouldn’t happen everywhere all at once, but I don’t think reducing idiocy needs to be this grand sweeping thing that we so often conjure upon even glimpsing words like ‘educational reform.’

I mean, a lot of students buy laptops for college, and now they’re probably buying tablets. I never brought my computer to the classroom because it was never necessary, but I am sure that other campuses are more in tune with the tech, and that opens worlds of possibility. Or, world — ITS, please. It wouldn’t just facilitate a kind of efficiency in the gummed-up gear-grinding education system, it could possibly encourage students.

Because the one lesson that all students absolutely need to learn and never learn is to think for themselves. The teacher should not be dogmatic, and not because the teacher may be wrong, but because the student then doesn’t have to question things.

And yet at the same time, I don’t want to believe that there’s no recourse for people who are no longer in school, who have no guided educational experience and no internal motive to learn anything at all. Sometimes personal research comes from guilt, whether long term stuff as depicted in the second episode of Master of None, or current events that are simply too hard to ignore.

Aziz

I guess that’s as much as we can ask, so it loops back into this episode nicely. The theory is that all you need to do is be always open-minded. Your pride will take a few hits — that’s education too. But once you’ve developed that ever-developing open-minded instinct, I think research will come naturally. You’ll want to know more about the world, even if it hurts. You’ll want to know more about people, because suddenly you’re taking on ‘diverse’ friends, and now you care about them, and they each have their eclectic arrangement of social issues. In a stupidly logical way, the key to the rest of the world is… first visualizing the key? It’s under a rug, and you’re the rug — how about, there’s a barrier between you and the rest of the world, but it isn’t insurmountable, given a handle on modern technology and attitudes, and coming through on the other side is a beautiful thing.

Le Conclude

What is political correctness? I don’t know, exactly, but I’ve always thought of it pretty simply, and always as applied to the conversations I see online. Mostly, it’s being specific with language, respecting that American English is vast and multifaceted, allowing a wealth of expressions and making even the most criminally undereducated among us writers in a sense, in our own unique way. A dimension of that expression, logically, needs to be a reduction of ambiguity, reducing the risk of runaway intent. And then the second part of it is tougher, and less conscious, it’s genuinely coming from a place of open-mindedness.

That, you have no direct control over in the moment, and in language. It comes later, and slower, and it can be challenging. For minorities of any stripe, it’s not hard, it may be second nature. But another thing I see from time to time is a benign blindness to certain racist or sexist things. A blindness that does not compromise one’s character even a little.

People who might somehow find humor in that KKK scene in Django Unchained, because it’s making fun of the KKK, and that’s very obvious racism, but can you identify when a weak olive branch is being extended in the form of tokenism? Can you spot the difference between a neutral or positive representation and a bad one? What about when a fictional group of people seems to offend a real world group, even though they’re clearly not the same thing?

Do you have a voice in your life, whether online or a friend of yours, who you think to in situations like this? Even if you never tell that person? If there’s an actor you love in a movie people are calling sexist, how does that impact your response time? Do you know enough history to be confident when things are historically accurate? Do you think something being historically accurate is a full justification when there’s an imbalance in historical stories being told?

Do you notice when there’s only one type of person in a scene? How does it make you feel? Anything? Because for most people, it doesn’t make them feel anything measurable. It’s not in the moment where the hurt comes in. As an Asian guy I don’t recoil at a movie with only white people and be like, my representation! It comes later, when at the end of the day, there hasn’t been anybody like me, because movies and TV were busy with other things.

An episode like this might sound nice, but I understand how cultural influence works in our society, and even if I were popular as a podcast, and widely heard, I actually failed following through on the thesis of the show, which was a much tighter bridge between the scifi talk and the SJW part. There should’ve been some kind of feint, or at least a delay, but almost immediately I identified myself as not only Asian but a social progressive. That’s alienating, and after an episode about Antia Sarkeesian, I’m only ever gonna be preaching to the choir.

To mention them for a second time, that’s what I love about Fast Karate on a conceptual level. It’s not, in practice, why I love them, but the brilliance of that show is how you could listen to the early episodes as anybody — liberal, conservative, politically inattentive — but then you change with the show, when these two guys who are role models in the sphere of anime fandom, because they’re not sloven, when they change, as they do. So in a sense, the scifi part of The Battle Beyond Planet X was designed as a kind of trap, but it was a broken trap.

And it’s upsetting to me in retrospect because I want to talk to the people who have read or know about John Norman, and the people who call themselves the Sad Puppies because of the Hugo Awards.

I guess I just wanted to be a part of that work because I don’t see it anywhere else. And of course, the place I really don’t see it is where it needs to be the most — in school. In the early days of my education, there were paper decorations on every wall, in every hall, famous words without attribution, for legal reasons, like “treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.”

Why is it that you have to go outside the classroom to see that line? Why is there no follow-up inside the classroom? Teachers understand the structure of curricula, of how lessons make impact and really stick. If this is a lesson you want to teach kids, you better do something about it, because as adults we think of a quote like that and laugh it off — it means nothing, because we already know it.

Do people embody such a simple lesson? We’re led to believe that the world isn’t that simple, but that’s because we don’t think of everyone as a collective everyone. We have allies and enemies, people have hidden agendas, people are invading and trying to disrupt the status quo for attention. These people don’t deserve sympathy, they don’t deserve to be treated well.

The very concept of ‘everyone’ is at the heart of this, and it’s an easy thing to misinterpret. “From Many, One,” was another one of these paper decorations, but I think this one was actually in high school, and I didn’t understand it, because whenever I saw it I just thought, “From Anyone.” The only thing that unifies us is our individuality, our uniqueness — that is the totality of what we all share as a worldwide society of human beings.

When you make a rape joke, you’re not offending some hive mind, you’re offending a cosmos of people that is vast and filled with all kinds of hopes and dreams and fears. Shouldn’t they have the option to engage with the world comfortably, or at the very least, without intense psychological discomfort? People want to be in on the joke, it’s up to you to have the imagination enough to think that maybe that’s possible.

Further Reading
Better Online Living through Content Moderation
Stephen Colbert vs. The Hashtag Activists
I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me
I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all.
The Demands” | “Across the nation, students have risen up to demand an end to systemic and structural racism on campus. Here are their demands.” This is what’s happening right now in the realm of higher ed.

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