Saturday, August 8, 2015

Ha, Ha... Ha?

As I listened to the kids hash out whom to invite, it became clear that to get work, a comic had to be at once funny—genuinely funny—and also deeply respectful of a particular set of beliefs. These beliefs included, but were in no way limited to, the following: women, as a group, should never be made to feel uncomfortable; people whose sexual orientation falls beyond the spectrum of heterosexuality must be reassured of their special value; racial injustice is best addressed in tones of bitter anguish or inspirational calls to action; Muslims are friendly helpers whom we should cherish; and belonging to any potentially “marginalized” community involves a crippling hypersensitivity that must always be respected.
Caitlin Flanagan “That’s Not Funny!
I remember, in the late 1980s, being a college student, a possessed of what now strikes me as both a crippling hypersensitivity to issues of black-white relations and a complete insensitivity to issues that were of importance to anyone else - including race. But I was also stereotypical nerd - I played role-playing games  and read science-fiction and fantasy novels. I didn't date and didn't drink and the closest that I ever came to campus entertainment was an abortive attempt to go to a blues club that we mistakenly thought was only a few blocks away. So I can't speak to whether or not the “particular set of beliefs” straitjacketed on-campus entertainers then as it is said to now. I suspect that it did not, if only for the reason that I assume that the parents of my peers were a lot like my own parents. Had I called my parents to complain about a stand-up comedian hurting my feelings with jokes that referenced a gay man and his “sassy black friend,” I would have regretted it. Why, my parents would have wondered, was I making them pay for a long-distance telephone call for something that had nothing to do with either my schoolwork, housing arrangements or the financing thereof? My father was angry enough with me as it was, just for taking a stand on my choice of schools - there would have been no wisdom in further antagonizing him over trivialities.

Not that my parents weren't sensitive to the idea that being black would make me the butt of jokes - and thinly veiled expressions of disrespect, dismissiveness and even outright hostility described as “jokes” - but for them, part of going to college was to prepare me for a world in which there was no shelter from the malice and racism that permeated society. It might not have been the Army, but the goal was to toughen me all the same. And for the most part, my sensitivity to issues of race - a sensitivity that bordered on outright paranoia - was of little concerns to the rest of the people I went to school with. They had their own concerns to deal with, and making sure that I found everything on campus to be inoffensive was not one of them.

Of course, in the end, it wasn't anywhere nearly as bad as I would have told you it was when I was 20. Which I think was part of the central organizing principle of our parent's generation. Compared to what my parents endured when they were young, I was kicking back on East Street - I could handle the fact that my peers were occasionally unafraid to call me “nigger” to my face. Unlike the South that they’d grown up in, it was unlikely to ever go any farther than that. But in the same way that genuine First-World Problems represent actual difficulties for people, being an outsider in school came with its hurdles, and I can understand not only simply not wanting to deal with them, but not wanting anyone else to deal with them. I’d much rather than my niece not have to deal with the same antagonisms that I did - I’m simply at a loss to come up with a way for her to be prepared for the world she’ll find as an adult if she doesn’t.

In that sense, I’m more Conservative (in a political sense) than a lot of other people of my generation, who have children old enough now that they’re in, or have just graduated from, college. I don’t have any confidence that we can Newspeak our way to a better society by using a younger generation as shields. I realized that some of my schoolmates were were reticent to refer to me as “nigger” when I was in the room had no such compunctions when I exited it, and that enforcing outward obeisance merely resulted in me not knowing how people really felt about me. And while I found knives in the chest unpleasant, there were far preferable than knives in the back. Demanding obedience while cloaking it in “respect” simply encourages deception and hiding who one really is. It is when leaving behind old stereotypes and prejudices behind visibly improves one’s life that changes really begin to take hold.

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