So in an observation that’s about as self-evident as the truths articulated in the Declaration of Independence, Jerry Seinfeld has griped that college audiences are too politically correct and sensitive these days (in this, he is echoing complaints made by Chris Rock and other comics). As Mediaite reports, Seinfeld appeared last night on Seth Meyer’slate night show:
When Seth Meyers noted that there are more people than ever now who will “let you know you went over the line” in comedy than ever before, Seinfeld agreed.
“And they keep moving the lines in, for no reason,” Seinfeld said, citing the uncomfortable feeling he now gets from his audience when he tells his joke about people who scroll through their phone like a “gay French king.”
“Are you kidding me?” he asked. “I could imagine a time where people say, ‘Well, that’s offensive to suggest that a gay person moves their hands in a flourishing motion and you now need to apologize.’ I mean, there’s a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me.”
Let’s stipulate that the world does not rise and fall on the needs or opinions of comics.
Let’s also point out that the actual problem with campus political correctness—which seeks not simply to enforce ideological or political orthodoxy but to shut down debate and discussion via overt acts of censorship and sustained campaigns to delegitimate as racist, sexist, classist, whatever free expression and inquiry—attaches to students and faculty that are hounded into administrative hearings and/or silence. You can recognize that the university has never lived up fully to its commitment of rigorously interrogating and expanding human knowledge to appreciate that college and academia more broadly should be places that thrive on disagreements and different conceptions of what is good, true, and acceptable.
Unless, of course, you’re the type of student who pens open letters like this one to The Huffington Post:
Yes, Mr. Seinfeld, we college students are politically correct. We will call out sexism and racism if we hear it. But if you’re going to come to my college and perform in front of me, be prepared to write up a set that doesn’t just offend me, but has something to say.
To my mind, this sort of formulation is, as Seinfeld‘s Kenny Bania might put it, the worst. There is nothing more conservative than insisting that entertainment be didactic and serious—that it have “something to say.” That is the impulse that underwrote not just leftists influenced by the Frankfurt School—who saw mass media and frivolity as a means of controlling the masses—and reactionaries such as former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett and Attorney General Janet Reno, who wasted hours of everyone’s time denouncing rap music and “violent” cable TV during the 1980s and ’90s. If you believe that everything from pop songs to standup comedy needs to have deep meaning, you can’t let any opportunity pass without insisting that it all send the “right” message.
To be sure, San Diego State student Anthony Berteaux also insists in his letter that, hey, he likes edgy and funny folks such as Amy Schumer and Louis C.K. and George Carlin and that Seinfeld should
Offend the fuck out of college students. Provoke the fuck out of me. We’ll thank you for it later.
But this doesn’t just ignore the chill that is already upon campuses when lefty feminist profs like Laura Kipnis gets dragged into Title IX hearings for writing about sex on campus in The Chronicle of Higher Education, viewings of films as mainstream and honored as American Sniper are replaced by Paddington, and students call for trigger warnings before reading The Great Gatsby. It ignores that one of the great functions of art may be to escape from the imperative that all creative expression ultimately be instructive, a totalist inperative that is every bit as dreary and detestable asSaturday morning cartoons once were.
This seems like a good place to remind the world of the existence of the late, great series Strangers With Candy (“the after-hours after-school special”), starring Amy Sedaris and a pre-Colbert ReportStephen Colbert, which suggests that life outside the thunder-dome of enforced didacticism can be pretty fucking offensive, very fucking funny, and generally and gloriously pointless.