Forbidden Ideas

by Mark English

___

The English writer, actor and stand-up comedian, Alexei Sayle, was born into a seriously left-wing family (they were Communists), and he still adheres to what he sees as Marxist principles. This background shaped his life but did not entirely destroy his sense of humor. The title of his autobiography is Stalin Ate My Homework.

Sayle once talked about the peculiarities of left-wing audiences. He noted that when he did a stand-up routine at party conferences or other left-wing gatherings, there was always a brief but discernible pause between the punch line and the laughter, just time enough for audience members to pass the joke through a mental political-acceptability filter.

Censorship can be understood as operating in various ways: top-down (via the policies and actions of governments and/or media companies); or bottom-up (via self-censorship driven by social pressure or cultural taboos).

I have no “in principle” argument against censorship. Sometimes it is justified, even the top-down kind. The only trouble is that for many of us, the wrong people are in positions of power and are censoring all the wrong things. Even if the “right” people were in power, however, one could never be sure for how long. So the still popular (in some circles) ‘no censorship’ position is a kind of pragmatic compromise – and at first glance a sensible one.

As I see it, however, such an approach is neither realistic nor (perhaps) desirable. In the real world, censorship of one kind or another always exists to a greater or lesser extent.

If I was going to give a serious treatment of this topic, the focus would be on the impact of digital technologies. There is a lot to say. History is being rewritten and not in a good way. Certain views are being expunged from the record. Even some science journals are reportedly deleting previously published papers which have retrospectively been deemed harmful or offensive. But l will save all this for another time or – better – leave others to lay out the depressing facts. Here I just want to make a few remarks about the scope for personal frankness and openness.

Professional comedians inherited the privileges of the clown or of the king’s jester or fool who traditionally had a license to go beyond what would normally be considered acceptable speech and behavior. But how far beyond? What should today’s comedians be allowed to get away with? Should there be limits on whom or what they are allowed to make fun of? In most contexts today, as in previous times, strict limitations apply even if they are rarely spelled out, and there are adverse consequences for comics who overstep the mark or take what is perceived to be an unacceptable political or ideological line.

A blanket ban on professional comedians? At least this would represent a politically even-handed approach! In fact, it would not be censorship so much as a restriction on professional freedom – not unlike banning prostitution, but with arguably less dire consequences.

Theatrical productions were banned in England in the 1640s in a bid to rein in “lascivious Mirth and Levity.” The actors and theatrical companies strenuously objected, of course. But it can be safely assumed that mirth (lascivious and otherwise) and even a degree of levity persisted within the general population during these troubled times.

The notion of a ban on professional comedians is whimsical, of course. The comedian could simply rebrand himself or herself as something else: as a lecturer, say, or as a preacher, prophet or politician.

But, staying with the thought experiment for a moment, in what ways would a world without professional comedians be different from the world we know? There are all sorts of defenses you could make for the social role of comedians. The more serious and high-minded the defense, however, the less convincing it would be. Mirth and levity do not need a justification. They are what they are, and they justify themselves. And if having a class of professionals furthers the cause of mirth and levity – and so makes life a little easier to bear – well and good.

Let me play devil’s advocate, however. Paradoxically, banning professional comedians could make the world a funnier place. Let me explain.

Naturally funny comedians would not stop being funny just because they were not being paid for it. What’s more, they would be forced into the regular workforce (or unemployment lines), brightening up the lives of their colleagues on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, humor is relative, and funniness is extremely subjective and context-dependent. With no professional comedians to show them up, everyone would be funnier. Or seem funnier. Which – when you think about it – amounts to the same thing.

There is always a tension between laughter and authority. Generally speaking, laughter punctures pretentiousness, and in this respect is a powerful force for good. There is no more devastating response to a claim to authority or power than laughter, especially the spontaneous laughter of a crowd.

There are many situations in which implicit laughing bans apply. And they sometimes create odd – and awkwardly funny – situations in which people are driven to laughter despite themselves, in part because they are aware that it is verboten. The laughter bubbles up not just in spite of the fact but because one is trying to suppress it. The Biggus Dickus segment from The Life of Brian – schoolboy humor clearly deriving from shared experiences of the traditional English education system – serves to illustrate this point.

Ideally, we would all feel free – within the limits of politeness – to say publicly how we actually feel and what we actually think. But this isn’t the reality and never will be. The simple truth is that such freedom doesn’t exist; except, of course, for those with anodyne or boringly conventional views.

What is more, it happens that the range of publicly acceptable views has narrowed alarmingly of late. This is sad. But I console myself that such a state of affairs has been the norm for most of human history. I just happened to have grown up in a time and place of unusually great freedom and need now to wind back expectations.

For a younger me (and my young contemporaries) the Soviet system seemed like an outlier, an anomaly that would soon pass away. It did. Now, however, we find ourselves heading into a totalitarian system of a not dissimilar kind.

Lately many old Soviet jokes seem to have taken on a new lease of life because they now apply – mutatis mutandis – to us, to the Western world. This one, for example…

A man goes to the KGB, explaining that his talking parrot has disappeared, presumably stolen.

“This is not the kind of case we handle, comrade,” he is told. “Go to the regular police.”

“Excuse me, of course I know that I must go to them,” he replies nervously. “But I just want to make it clear, to put it on record, that I disagree with the parrot.”

59 comments

  1. Taking as least prescriptive a view as possible towards this trend, which I’ve observed as well, I have to wonder if it will be “good” for the arts. (I can’t speak about the impacts on sciences.) One could survey the postwar era and reach the conclusion that there are no taboos left to violate—that the hierarchies of taste, tonality, morality, lucidity, highbrow/lowbrow, etc, were all reduced to rubble by others, leaving no boundaries to push. But those attacks on “decency” and structure were to a certain extent responses to their own culture’s lack of permissiveness, which was for years enforced from the top-down AND the bottom-up. I can’t condone the norms of that era, which victimized many, but I am thankful for the fecund literature of “forbidden ideas” it indirectly produced, which was developed in secret and at great risk until it broke into the mainstream.

    The rigidity of thought and belief that some insist on today is an attempt to serve the needs of our own era, and it is too new and too tender to be challenged for the sake of art. But eventually, another literature of forbidden ideas will flower beneath it, because frisson is simply too attractive. In art, everything “correct” gets boring and begs to be threatened; everything authoritative demands to be mocked. The forbidden, the transgressive, the shocking—and, as you point out, the comic—are by definition dialectical. Those who agree would do well to embrace and abet censorship, or even a ban on professional comedy. (If we started arresting comedians again for decency violations, we might even create the necessary conditions for another Lenny Bruce.) Surely some revelation is at hand. And I wonder what rough beasts, their hour coming round in time, slouch towards Bethlehem to be born.

    1. Jon

      “In art, everything “correct” gets boring and begs to be threatened; everything authoritative demands to be mocked.”

      I am tempted to say: In art *and in (most aspects of) life* everything “correct” gets boring and begs to be threatened, etc….

      In science, however, the dynamic is — as you yourself suggest — slightly different. Authority does not reside in individuals but in the culture of free conjecture and open testing (a culture which is currently under threat). Some ideas survive this process, others don’t. (And, of course, “boring” is okay. Par for the course, in fact!)

  2. To compare what is happening now in Western democratic countries with the Soviet system is very far-fetched. In the Soviet Union dissenters were executed or sent to the Gulag for years where they died of hunger and mistreatment or at best sent to mental hospitals because to dissent was a sign of “mental illness”.

    All the media was literally controlled by the government and no competing sources of information and news were allowed. If you had written this blog post in the Soviet Union, you would now be awaiting a knock on your door from the KGB.

    1. Note that I used the phrases “not dissimilar” [which is weaker than “similar”] and “mutatis mutandis”.

      I acknowledge however that the comparison is there (and was meant to be provocative and confronting).

      The claim is not that we are replicating the USSR. It is that we are heading towards a form of totalitarianism.

      I will eventually spell out my concerns in a serious piece or pieces (concerns about central planning, attempts to control the economy, secrecy, government corruption, rewriting history and thought control).

      1. Take a look at the following Wikipedia article. Estimations of mass killings in the Soviet Union range from 3 million to 20 million people. That’s just another league of political repression from anything I can imagine happening in current Western democracies, even in Latin America where I live, which has suffered brutal dictatorships, but nothing on that scale.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_repression_in_the_Soviet_Union#Counting_the_loss

  3. Helmuth Plessner, who considered himself a Philosophical Anthropologist, wrote “Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior” I don’t have the book, but it seems to be worth a look. One could say that both laughing and crying have to do with “Boundary Issues” or situations where we confront and respond to challenges to our self-identity. That’s my impression without actually having read the book.

    1. Charles

      Plessner looks interesting. Wish I knew about him earlier.

      I notice that Lachen und Weinen was first published in 1941. I wonder how the social and political situation played into his thinking.

  4. ‘The job of the comedian is to find the line [of what is conventionally acceptable] and then to step over it’ — George Carlin

    A man is walking by a lake when he sees someone drowning. Not thinking twice, he jumps in, clothes and all. He saves the drowning man, and when they’re safely on shore he looks up and sees that the man he has saved is Stalin. Stalin says, ‘comrade, you’ve saved my life. Tell me what I can do for you. I’ll do anything.’ The man says, ‘just please don’t tell anyone what I’ve done.’

    1. ira

      Step over the line? Ask ombhurbhuva.

      There are so many drowning jokes, not necessarily Russian. Stevie Smith’s “not waving but drowning” is the *deepest* I know.

      And I love the one about the Jewish mother who sees her adult son in dire trouble…

      “Help! Help! My son (the doctor) is drowning!”

  5. It does seem there is a classic dynamic here, where the boundaries get pushed and then new boundaries start to develop. Consider that liberalism in the 20th century, at least as I’d come to see it, was a fairly broad minded, live and let live appreciation for multiculturalism. Yet it has now congealed into this identity worshipping monocultural sectarianism. It was like something living and organic had been sterilized, mounted and put up on a pedestal. Sort of like what happened to Christianity, when the Romans turned it into the Catholic church. Or like any number of other cycles, where what was outside, fresh and new, becomes the new, official religion, with all the requisite gatekeepers, hierarchies and police.
    Like the internet of 25 years ago, compared to today.
    Like the Catholic church, it resembles nothing so much as a sheepskin, wrapped around a wolf.
    Power adapts and adopts whatever is useful to it.

  6. “Professional comedians inherited the privileges of the clown or of the king’s jester or fool who traditionally had a license to go beyond what would normally be considered acceptable speech and behavior.”

    And with that privilege comes responsibility. Finding the line and stepping over it is vainglorious if done simply for its own sake. Why punch a hole in the echo chamber if not to invite those within to come out into a better world beyond? The social role of the comedian is to lightheartedly “publish” forbidden ideas socially censored in order to invite a collective reflection on truth. This is an epistemic service. It’s meant to invite the audience into a better understanding of the human experience. It’s Abbey Hoffmans “Steal This Book,” Robin Williams making light of his own unseen pain (of addiction) so that we could all feel more normal, or Jon Stewart’s Daily Show skewering of Cramer’s Mad Money in the heat of the financial crisis. If not for the love of truth, then what for comedy?

    1. jofrclark

      “The social role of the comedian is to lightheartedly “publish” forbidden ideas socially censored in order to invite a collective reflection on truth. This is an epistemic service.”

      I agree that humor (on the whole) plays a positive role and can help us put things in perspective.

  7. Mark:
    We used to have stand-up comedy; now it’s supine comedy.

    Well take America- yes do and we’ll throw in two pounds of bananas. First elect Family up to their wallets in financial scandal, crooked elections and the Big Guy trotting across the stage like a donkey avoiding a halter. Obviously their chief export is bananas. That’s probably better than the democracy they sent to Iraq.

    Kamala has the halter, a person of colour, a black woman they tell me but I don’t see that – I’m colour blind. Did you notice this stick I have?

    Are you worried about the cyber attack. I’m not. We have Ruby Freeman, getting it done y’all. The elections have been the most secure in our history. Clearly they were overlooked by the Russians and the Iranians and a teenage boy in Smolensk who won’t leave his room.

    I’m giving your dinner to the dog. (Russian accent)

    1. ombhurbhuva,
      Your comment is virtually incoherent.

      Without coherence your attempted humor (if that’s what it was) falls flat.

      I don’t know who Ruby Freeman is, so I don’t accept her as spokesperson for any point of view. I’m not viewing the video, because I don’t get the sense of any point you’re trying to make by introducing her.

      Given your previous comments, I suspect you want to say Biden’s election was illegitimate, There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. None has been produced in court where it could be examined, and in fact Trump’s lawyers, pressed in court, have acknowledged they were not claiming fraud. They are simply unhappy Trump lost.

      Sounds as if you are as well,,, too bad. That’s the nature of representative democracy, you win some, you lose some.

      You seem to be highly educated. Use that education to describe reality *as it is* and not a Trumpist fantasy world that would make you feel better.

      Joe Biden won the election fair and square. Politics is about something else now.

      1. E.J.
        You had as I recollect a similar confidence re Russian Collusion in 2016 which was never established. Without a proper investigation into the allegations of electoral fraud and constitutional infraction in 2020 the issue will not be settled. Get it done, y’all.

        1. Obviously, as I suspected, you’re a conspiracy theorist (and like most, poorly informed). There’s nothing more to discuss between us, there’s nothing more you have to say worth responding to. Reading your comments would be a waste of time. I won’t wish you good luck or farewell, you aren’t worth that respect. Try digging yourself out of that hole and maybe you will be.

        2. What a load of nonsense. There is no reason for any investigation. And the courts have ruled over and over and over again that there’s no there, there.

  8. Wonderful article, Mark! I love the point you make about laughter and authority. One of my favorite novels – not because it is well-written; it is not – is George Schuyler’s Black No More. Schuyler, if you don’t know, was basically a professional essayist but mostly a satirist starting in the 1930’s, a friend of HL Mencken. The novel is an absolutely satiristic skewer of the idea of race: it imagines a world where there is a treatment where black people can effectively turn white, and the chaos that ensues when they (predictably) do. Neither the NAACP nor Ku Klux Klan have anything more to do, racists – ironically – become even more racist (because ‘the threat’ is everywhere) and no one seems to realize that race turns out to be a meaningless concept.

    I mention it because it seems to be one of the single best analyses of race I have EVER seen – all done through some of the most biting, scathing, and sacrilegious (there is a grizzly scene toward the end where black people who refuse the treatment lynch some white people they don’t realize ‘used to be’ black people) humor. But I think the only way Schuyler was able to make some of these points was to package them in a humorous tale. The best thing we can do with race, he says, is to mercilessly make fun of it.

    Compare that with most every contemporary approach that, by doing the opposite of laughing at it, gives race a certain (over?)inflated authority.

    What if Schuyler could not write that book? (And for the record, he would have written it today, I’m confident. He was notorious for writing vicious barbs, getting a ton of blowback, and sort of feeding on it often, yes, by laughing at it.)

    1. “In most contexts today, as in previous times, strict limitations apply even if they are rarely spelled out, and there are adverse consequences for comics who overstep the mark or take what is perceived to be an unacceptable political or ideological line.”

      I do wonder about this statement, though. What do you mean by limits? Limits set by some recognized authority (government, a social media company?) or limits that emerge as decentralized norms (ones the people do not consciously construct, but fall into)? Because if the latter, as you say, those likely aren’t avoidable. Speech that is entirely unpolished essentially fails to be speech, at least as a reliable tool for communication, as it will no longer have enforced rules.

      I mention that because it seems to me that if there is comedy, there will always be a push and pull between norms governing what can be joked about and (some) comedians subverting those norms as an attempt to see if there is laughter there. But the norms themselves – at least if we are thinking decentralized emergent ones – will ALWAYS be there.

    2. Kevin

      Thanks.

      “Compare that with most every contemporary approach that, by doing the opposite of laughing at it, gives race a certain (over?) inflated authority.”

      I can’t comment on Schuyler’s book but I agree with your take on today’s scene.

  9. I see nothing here that contradicts or even seriously raises questions about the pragmatic liberal consensus that Mark mentions early in the piece and which I have articulated and defended myself, on any number of occasions here and elsewhere.

    There is perfectly good reason to restrict speech that is libelous, inciting, or involved in some sort of criminal activity or fraud. There is no good reason to restrict any other. “But, muh mores!” and “It’s offensive!” are not good reasons, in a pluralistic society, where what count as the right mores or offense are matters on which there is substantial disagreement. And we shouldn’t go “majority rule” on these sorts of things, precisely because no one can reasonably be assured that they or their peeps will remain in power. Again, I’ve articulated the arguments for these points many times and really don’t see any sort of argument against them here. Just gestures.

    As for the hypothetical desire for a world bereft of comedians, I must admit to not understanding it, even after having read the essay several times. Mark maintains that a world where Eddie Murphy hadn’t done Delirious or Raw or played James Brown or spoofed Mr. Rogers on Saturday Night Live would be one in which everyone else would be funnier. I see no reason whatsoever to think this.

    The sentiment Mark expresses here sums things up well: “the range of publicly acceptable views has narrowed alarmingly of late. This is sad. But I console myself that such a state of affairs has been the norm for most of human history. I just happened to have grown up in a time and place of unusually great freedom and need now to wind back expectations.”

    I see no reason to unilaterally surrender in this way, and Mark has not given anyone a reason to think they should. Especially in countries like the US, where there are legal and constitutional protections and courts willing to enforce them. But true also, to a slightly lesser degree in the other Anglophone countries and even Europe.

    I wish that critics of the liberal tradition and especially of the liberal concern with social censorship would actually engage with the actual arguments put forward by liberals and especially, those found in Mill’s “On Liberty.” I suspect that they don’t, because they know they ain’t got the stuff.

    1. “There is perfectly good reason to restrict speech that is libelous, inciting, or involved in some sort of criminal activity or fraud. There is no good reason to restrict any other. “But, muh mores!” and “It’s offensive!” are not good reasons, in a pluralistic society, where what count as the right mores or offense are matters on which there is substantial disagreement.”

      I may be missing it, but I can’t see how the last sentence here squares with the first three. In the first three, you seem to be saying that there simply are good reasons and bad reasons, and that “it’s offensive” just IS a bad reason. Like, everyone would agree with that if they saw the thing clearly. But then you go on to say that these matters are, in a pluralist society, prone to substantial disagreement. Yes, they are, but I’d say that this is because there is often no agreement on what constitutes a good reason or whether what you think are bad reasons are actually not good reasons.

      It’s strange because when I interact with you, I sound like the bomb-throwing anarchist who refuses to make distinctions. But I think that is because you oscillate – or seem to – a great deal, as if you are not sure what you are trying to say. Reason doesn’t speak with one voice and can’t solve all problems, but oh yeah, there just are good and bad reasons that if everyone saw the thing clearly, they’d see the force of the way I do. Like, which is it?

      1. “I see no reason to unilaterally surrender in this way, and Mark has not given anyone a reason to think they should. Especially in countries like the US, where there are legal and constitutional protections and courts willing to enforce them. But true also, to a slightly lesser degree in the other Anglophone countries and even Europe.”

        I’m not sure the statement you quote need be taken as a surrender. It seems to be a simple recognition that this is sort of the way it’s always been, and every “the sky is falling!” response has been heard and felt in every past age by just as conservative of folk. Mark COULD be surrendering – and I agree that the ‘we could end all professional comedy” is a bit much. But as a good friend of mine (who generally wants to be anonymous but is a pretty known translator of works by Nietzsche and the like) says, a lot of this SJW excess is less a war than a storm. As Nadine Strossen deftly argues akin to what Mark says – there has never been a golden age for free speech, an age where it wasn’t under threat. And probably never a time where its imninent demise wasn’t deftly exaggerated by pessimists who moved too quickly. Maybe this is just a pendulum swing. Try to move it back to the ‘right side,’ sure, but maybe our role is to be here when it DOES swing back.

          1. “Nothing I wrote suggested — or depended on — there having been a golden age of free speech.”

            Maybe not. But your tone is often quite apocalyptic, as if somehow, what we are now witnessing is really different in kind or intensity to all of those other times where free speech was under attack and that too passed.

            “If you can’t distinguish between criminal and libelous speech and stuff that makes someone somewhere feel bad or understand why in a functional society, the former cannot be permitted, while the latter can and should, I don’t know what to tell you.”

            I can distinguish them precisely because the law codifies the distinction, and it codifies the distinction because in absence of law (really legislation), there is a legitimate fear that we’ll inevitably disagree on where to draw those lines. And that is what we are discussing here: where to draw certain lines that don’t seem to yield of any clear consensus.

            “Not everything requires — or is even well served by — a philosophical account.”
            “I find you often drift into what are ultimately “general skepticism” arguments which are always inapt when discussing specific, grounded issues like these.”

            I put these two together because I will give the same answer. I find that you too often resort to an “Oh, c’mon” objection where you treat your intuitions as obvious and whenever pressed you say “If you can’t feel what I know is obvious, I don’t know what to tell you.” And then, anyone who does try to articulate why that answer isn’t sufficient is met with the charge that they are being (gasp) philosophical. Why ague when “Oh, c’mon!” seems to work at every turn?

          2. “I can distinguish them precisely because the law codifies the distinction, and it codifies the distinction because in absence of law (really legislation), there is a legitimate fear that we’ll inevitably disagree on where to draw those lines. And that is what we are discussing here: where to draw certain lines that don’t seem to yield of any clear consensus.”

            = = =

            This is incorrect. The former are clear, prudential necessities for a functioning society. The latter are not.

            As for the rest, I already replied to it multiple times. You can philosophize to the end of days. Many things — especially having to do with social regulation and law — are ultimately a function of entirely or mostly prudential considerations.

      2. If you can’t distinguish between criminal and libelous speech and stuff that makes someone somewhere feel bad or understand why in a functional society, the former cannot be permitted, while the latter can and should, I don’t know what to tell you.

        Not everything requires — or is even well served by — a philosophical account.

        1. ‘If you can’t distinguish between criminal and…’

          This seems absurdly circular. How is criminal speech defined and who decides this? Plenty of countries have hate speech laws that make the kind of speech acts you seem fine with illegal and therefore criminal.

          1. Not circular at all if you spend five minutes thinking about what would happen in a large, modern, pluralistic society like ours if we permitted slander, libel, and incitements to violence.

      3. I find you often drift into what are ultimately “general skepticism” arguments which are always inapt when discussing specific, grounded issues like these.

    2. Mmm, interesting discussion.

      I always find that humor has an difficult and somewhat paradoxical relation with freedom of speech. It needs freedom, but it also needs limits to what can be said in polite society.
      The Germans say “Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht.” There are many ways to interpret this, but one is: laughing when you know you shouldn’t be laughing. The joke Marc mentions at the end is a nice example. It’s sad, having to live in society where a parrot can get you in trouble – but “trotzdem”, we laugh.

      However, take Charlie Hebdo. It’s a living proof that speech is to very large degree free in France. But when I read it (which is not very often) it rarely makes me laugh. They satirize *everything* . They don’t discriminate. They are equal opportunity-satirizers, there’s no group of people that hasn’t been satirized by Charlie Hebdo, often very savagely: catholics, muslims, jews, the pope, politicians, industrialist, you name it, they’re all fair game.

      When I read it, I admire the fact that France takes free speech seriously, polite society be damned. But is it funny? I sometimes secretly long for the times that polite society set strict limits to what can be said, and not murderous thugs armed with AK-47s. Charlie Hebdo would be much funnier, I think. Now it is what you get in a society in which anything can be said.

      I don’t know if people here have read “Extension du domaine de la lutte” by Houellebecq (it’s very good). But someone – I don’t remember who – succinctly described the core message as “absolute freedom leads to absolute poverty”. The freedom Charlie Hebdo enjoys in France, is fabulous. But the humor is often poor.

    3. Dan wrote:

      “The sentiment Mark expresses here sums things up well: “the range of publicly acceptable views has narrowed alarmingly of late. This is sad. But I console myself that such a state of affairs has been the norm for most of human history. I just happened to have grown up in a time and place of unusually great freedom and need now to wind back expectations.” … I see no reason to unilaterally surrender in this way, and Mark has not given anyone a reason to think they should.”

      You are misreading me. When I say “I console myself” I mean, literally, I console myself. I am not surrendering; I am just trying to cope.

      Seriously, what power do we have? Very, very little, I would say. We do what we can.

      You blame me for not addressing your (previously stated) arguments. But maybe you can’t fit everything into the kind of (good censorship/bad censorship) structure you want.

      (I think Kevin might be saying something similar.)

  10. By the way, my ‘general skepticism’ – which you are right, I do ‘drift’ into a lot – comes from (a) the recognition that humans are a very diverse and plural bunch, (b) the poverty of reason many times to lead to consensus on issues, and (c) in these cases, the temptation to appeal to precisely what we lack: objective universals that hang there in the ether waiting for those who see the world objectively to deliver us.

    So, when people disagree vastly with no seeming hope of consensus that can be reached by appeals to objective reason, intuition, or what evs, yes, my tendency is to treat the lack of consensus as telling.

  11. “I find you often drift into what are ultimately “general skepticism” arguments which are always inapt when discussing specific, grounded issues like these.”

    I don’t think our friend Bunsen (or I) are saying that in the absence of legal codification, no one will be able to distinguish between criminal and non-criminal or libelous or non-libelous uses of freedom. What we are saying, I think, is more modest: the reason you think that where you draw the line is the obviously right way is because we have codified these dinstinctions. And the reason we have is not because we can’t make distinctions outside of codification, but that we will very likely disagre on where the lines are to be drawn. In fact, you’d know this if you look at the evolution of caselaw on free speech, libel, etc. Courts have disagreed with each other over time EVEN WHEN the distinctions WERE codified. Imagine how blurry the situation if they weren’t!

    1. Exactly. Proponents of hate speech laws would make arguments identical to Dan, which he for some reason dismisses but never makes clear why. I think it’s because he has only given ‘5 minutes thought’ to a complex issue that requires a significantly higher degree of intellectual investment. Pluralistic societies have existed in the past and lasted for thousands of years. The idea that Dan knows exactly what the ideal society should like after giving it 5 minutes thought is laughably simple minded.

      1. I’ve written quite a bit about the issue you mention, so I’ve obviously given it more than 5 minutes thought. Happy to repeat some of the main arguments if you like, as it seems you’ve forgotten.

        Also, I never said I knew what the ideal society should look like, so I can only think you must be talking about someone else.

      2. I tend to agree, BB. It’s not simply straightforward or obvious what constitutes criminal speech vs merely offensive speech. Here in Canada, we have hate speech laws. The bar for prosecuting these hate speech laws can be pretty high, but I think most of us feel these laws are, on the whole, beneficial. In the US however, attitudes are different.

        This difference seems arbitrary and cultural. Laws are after all political creations and thus the product of cultural norms and values. Thus, what gets determined to be a criminal matter will be guided by the political climate.

        That said, the general difference between libelous and offensive speech seem to be the target — i.e. untrue, defamatory and harmful speech aimed at an identifiable group (e.g. Muslims, Jews, gays, poor people, rich people, blacks, whites, etc) is not considered subject to legal action, but part of the general give and take of vigorous discussion, and is therefore protected speech. Whereas, untrue, defamatory and harmful speech directed at an identifiable individual is considered subject to legal action.

        So I am not sure if Dan is saying that the prudential considerations should be obvious to anyone growing up within the same western liberal culture, or if the difference between libelous and offensive speech should be obvious on slightly different, perhaps more naturalistic grounds.

  12. “This is incorrect. The former are clear, prudential necessities for a functioning society. The latter are not.”

    Speed limits on roads are a clear necessity for a well-functioning road system. That doesn”t mean that what those speed limits should be are clear and obvious. We codify them precisely because they aren’t.

  13. Dan

    “And we shouldn’t go “majority rule” on these sorts of things, precisely because no one can reasonably be assured that they or their peeps will remain in power. Again, I’ve articulated the arguments for these points many times and really don’t see any sort of argument against them here. Just gestures.”

    I don’t necessarily want to argue against this idea. The general notion that we should try to maintain limits on government power (over speech or anything else) I agree with. And for the reasons you suggest.

    “As for the hypothetical desire for a world bereft of comedians, I must admit to not understanding it, even after having read the essay several times.”

    It’s whimsical, okay? Or meant to be. It’s not about “a desire for a world bereft of comedians.” It’s also meant to be a bit provocative.

    “Mark maintains that a world where Eddie Murphy hadn’t done Delirious or Raw or played James Brown or spoofed Mr. Rogers on Saturday Night Live would be one in which everyone else would be funnier. I see no reason whatsoever to think this.”

    I too have — and appreciate having — memories of funny things professional comics have said or done. But let me try to explain what motivated the claim you are objecting too. (And remember, this claim was *explicitly* presented as whimsical devil’s-advocacy.)

    Take my bleak, boring, highly-regulated and disciplined high school years. Or army cadet camp — ten times bleaker (I almost deserted). This was my experience (and it continues, one way or another): the jokes that people told (fellow students, teachers, CUOs [the officer-rank boys in the cadet corps], etc.) were — or seemed — really, really funny. Funnier than TV etc..

    The context is all-important and funniness is relative.

  14. Frankly the whole cancel culture thing has a note of desperation about it. The frogs realize the heat is being turned up too fast.
    I do blame a bit of this on the industrialization and commodification of academia and a promoting of issues as devices and distinctions without much context. For example, trying to eliminate race and sex because many people find them discomfiting is a fools errand, given sex has been around for several billions of years of biological evolution, while races have developed over hundreds of thousands of years of geographic dispersion and cultural evolution. Wouldn’t an open minded discussion be the way to go, rather than simply erasing whatever the average college age person finds uncomfortable? In science, it’s called, “trial and error.”
    For instance, slavery was an economic issue. White people rounded up Black people to do the dirty work. Now we just ship the dirty work overseas and give the kleptocracies a cut of the profits, to keep the child labor in line. Which doesn’t get much mention, other than those who want to come here, which is an advantage for some political parties, who suddenly find them useful. Given that many immigrants tend to be quite culturally conservative, I suspect that if these people were white, they would be considered deplorables.
    Instead any and all problems are either due to Donald Trump, or the Russians.
    I got out of the water a bit ago. This time I just wrote in Assange/Manning. They had the guts to look the Beast in the eyes and not blink.

  15. Another Soviet-era joke:

    Rabinovich the Jew was handing out papers in Red Square. Two plainclothes agents see him and take him to the Lubyanka. The interrogating officer looks at the papers. “But these are blank pages”, he says. “What’s going on?” Rabinovich replies: “They’ll know what I mean.”

    Alan

  16. A Russian dog meets a Polish dog on the border. Russian dog: “How are things on your side?” Polish dog: “Not too bad, we can eat, but they won’t let us bark.” Russian dog: “Bark, what’s that?”

  17. A test. Tell me if you find the following funny:

    What’s the definition of an anti-semite ?
    Someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.

    Full disclosure: I’m Jewish, raised in a religious household. My only ‘group identity’ (ie nation, race, ethnicity, class, religion) is that of being a Jew (which I consider to be both a religion and an ethnicity). At home, and in the synagogue (especially in the synagogue — an orthodox synagogue, bien sur) it was more than clear that the world consisted of two groups: Jews and non-Jews. And for the most part, the non-Jews, specifically non-Jews of European ancestry, did not wish us well.

    And I find the joke hysterical.

    1. I’m Jewish and I don’t find the joke to be funny.

      In my experience I wouldn’t say that most non-Jews of European ancestry don’t wish us well. I’d say that most non-Jews have prejudices about Jews, but that those prejudices at times are favorable to Jews. Some non-Jews have an exaggeratedly good opinion of the Jews, for example, that we’re all highly intelligent or good businesspeople or
      artistically creative or have a great sense of humor, etc.

        1. Censored? Of course not, did I say anything to imply that? I’m as liberal as you are about censorship.

        2. Here’s another joke about Jews, which I find funny and might be objectionable to some people.

          It was told to me by a French woman who survived the Holocaust living in a closet as a small child during the Nazi occupation and whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz.

          A bunch of Jews are waiting on line for the shower in Auschwitz guarded by heavily armed SS. They know exactly what the showers are, although they remain silent about their fate.

          Suddenly, one of the Jews on line begins to shout obscenities at the armed SS, “Motherfucking Nazi pigs, your mothers are whores, your sister sucked my Jewish cock”, etc.”

          Another Jew touches his arm: “Calm down, don’t make problems”.

          1. A sense of humour tends to be national and what is amusing for the natives is grossly offensive for outsiders or others not quite adjusted to the national mood. Now the Scots like the Irish tend to have quite an atrabilious outlook which combined with paralogism can be hard to follow. Take the case of the man who was fined 800£ for the display of a video on youtube in which he showed his girl friends pug dog giving the nazi salute upon hearing ‘sieg heil’ or ‘gas the jews’. To me that is a satire on Nazis who displayed canine type conditioning. Others deplored this adorable bullpup uttering hate speech or being complicit in such.

            https://www.thesun.ie/news/1520653/jewish-leader-tells-nazi-dog-trial-he-was-stunned-by-video-of-pet-trained-to-give-sieg-heil-salute/

          2. I don’t believe that anyone should be fined for giving a Nazi salute or for training his dog to give one.

            When I was in the university, over 50 years ago, I participated in a group which invited controversial speakers to our campus. We invited the leader of the U.S. Communist Party, Gus Hall, whose talk was boring and tame: I recall shaking his hand. We also invited the leader of the U.S. Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, and while I did not attend his talk and while it was picketed by a small group of Jewish students (I didn’t picket it either), I fully approve of having invited him and of his right to freely express his ideas.

  18. I have a copy of Bootleggers – Samogonshchiki – a 1961 comedy short film from the Soviet Union, utilizing the talents of the theatrical comic trio Nikulin, Vitsin and Morgunov. It is as the title says, the antics of three bumbling vodka bootleggers, and their troublesome German Shepard. Early on they sing a song celebrating their illicit activity. Eventually the dog steals the copper tubing from their still. and after a comic chase through the snow covered forest landscape, the dog leads them to a police station where they are of course arrested. It would be easy to remark that this ending validates the law, and through it, by implication, the whole legal apparatus of the Soviet Union. But I think it could be read fairly as subversive. The bootleggers are low-lifes, but only within an agrarian economy that they clearly participate in. They are, in other words, farmers among farmers, lowering themselves only by searching for a line of (illegal) employment by which they can earn a little (non-taxable) cash. Since they are really not very different from their presumed audience, we can safely guess part of the enjoyment of the film for that audience is vicarious enactment of repressed possibilities. The ending arrest reminds them of the risks such possibilities run; but already these possibilities now stand revealed. It is now substantially validated that one can engage in private enterprise, and to do so in an enjoyable manner – if it hadn’t been for that goddam dog, right?

    It was the great Soviet semiotician, Mikhail Bakhtin, who discovered a fundamental truth about the carnivalesque, the gestalt of all humor, in Rabelais and His World. It is unavoidable; it begins in the body. In order to inhabit anything like a ‘polite society,’ certain bodily functions have to be controlled, suppressed, even denied (different functions depending on differing societies, but no society lacks this demand for functional control). We fart, we belch, we shit, we piss, we vomit, we yawn; men get erections, women get wet; we pick at our teeth, our noses, our ears, our belly buttons, our assholes. Scratch our groins when socially improper, and laughter ensues. *We can’t not do these things, we can’t not laugh at them!* We are always skating the border of carnival. Great comic writers and artists and performers merely point this out to us. It is always socially disruptive. I will not simply say it should be; I say with Bakhtin that it *must* be. It is necessary for any society to last for more than a generation, that it’s underlying absurdities be occasionally admitted. (As I once explained to a traffic cop, “But I thought the speed limit was only a suggestion.” Fortunately, he saw the humor in it; but I still got the ticket. Speed limits are absurd, because it is absurd that we drive potential death machines at any speed, absurd that we can’t trust other drivers, who may or may not be drunk, absurd that we need to admit speed limits collectively and put them into law, absurd that I have to pay the state for the ‘privilege’ to drive – I could go on, but if the reader doesn’t get where I’m treading, further enumeration would be no use. Put it reductively thus: it is absurd for an a-social animal to pretend sociability by way of a social contract of any kind. This is not really but a sense of things; and my experience with others that most of us have this sense, but that the absurdity of it all is not something most people fear, but in fact informs the meaningfulness of their social participation. What Christian apologist once said, “I believe because it is absurd.” I can’t say that about God; but if we’re talking about the social contract, I certainly share that sentiment.) To return to the Soviet Union, I think it one of the oddities at their effort of totalitarianism, that the Stalinists never really understood comedy, especially (surprisingly) satire. Of course it could only go so far before being shut down. But the art of Soviet satirists could be seen in their ability to skate the boundaries of the carnivalesque without becoming overly obvious about it. Yet censors trained in rhetoric and propaganda couldn’t recognize the lasting damage comedy and satire did to faith in the State. I think Stalinism was actually too rigidly narrow for its own good – it could not recognize the power of the comic because it had no explanation for it. Stalinist theory was always top-down conceptually. Bakhtin reminds us that comedy is always bottoms-up.

    We should always remember (as we almost never do) that the most enduring, most pervasive, most ideologically unified totalitarian system in Western history was that of Christendom – from the fall of the Western Empire to the reformation. And Bakhtin, who reaches back in his study to the Middle Ages, reminds us that the Church always had difficulties with the carnivalesque, it always kept coming back, despite suppression of pre-Christian pagan festival, to the point that the Church officials in various cultures finally had to make some place for it. (The celebration of the end of the harvest and the turn towards Winter Solstice, for instance – AKA “Christmas.”)

    We have on record many small societies that have virtually outlawed the comic – the Puritan culture of 17th century Massachusetts, for instance. But small, localized cultures are quickly abandoned by those who have elsewhere to go. The only two modern large, powerful societies that have attempted to put an end to laughter have been Nazi Germany and the China of Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.” Both efforts came to nought. Nazi Germany ended in Ruin; Communist China has transformed; but although Xi’s dictatorship is much less tolerant of satire than his immediate predecessor, comedy per se remains a vital part of Chinese culture, both among urban elites, and in the rural villages.

    This brings me to my main point: I agree with much of Mark’s essay here. But although my own vision of the future is as dark as his (albeit for different reasons), I cannot agree with his suggestion that the political will ultimately squash the comic. I think that fails to recognize , not only the subversive power, but the inevitability, of the comic.

    Apocalyptic novels and films often have the end come in a tragic recognition of human dependency and frailty. “Not with a bang but a whimper.” My own sense is that, like the failed prospectors of Treasure of Sierra Madre, or the survivors at the end of The Wild Bunch, our last moments will be spent howling with laughter at the absurd arrogance of our species, in our assertion that there was anything of value here beyond a good fart and a great lay. And getting laid requires two people, whereas a good fart is all one’s own.

    1. ejwinner

      “The only two modern large, powerful societies that have attempted to put an end to laughter have been Nazi Germany and the China of Madame Mao’s “Cultural Revolution.” ”

      Goebbels understood the need for humor and comic release. Much German cinema in the 1930’s was comic. I recently wrote a piece in which I linked to the (humorous) film which was designed to launch Ingrid Bergman’s career in Germany (Die vier Gesellen).

      And here is the famous “Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein huhn…” routine from Glückskinder (1936):

      https://youtu.be/1hgUx9h3nU4

      I think you need to distinguish more clearly between general humor and — specifically political — satire.

      1. Yes, you’re right; I’ve slogged my way through thousands of pages of Nazi theory and propaganda, where only savage belittling of opponents and schadenfreude reign. I forgot the cinema and the theater of the day, which did keep alive certain comic cultural traditions. And I suppose some Sinophile can correct me about the Cultural Revolution (although that may have been more complete, since tradition per se was treated as suspect). Oh, well; that just emphasizes my main point, I think.

  19. What if monotheism is only a social device? Logically it would seem a spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which we fell. The fact we are aware, than all the stuff of which we are aware.
    The father figure lawgiver would than be a rhetorical device, to persuade an ever regenerating population to shut up and get with the program.
    One author I found very insightful is Gilbert Murray. His most noted book is, The Five Stages of Greek Religion. One of the points he made is that the Ancients were not ignorant of monotheism, but as there was no distinction between culture and civics, it equated with authoritarianism. As in one god, one ruler. To that age, pantheism was their understanding of multiculturalism, as societies evolved from tribal organisms, to social networks, as the political geography became ever more filled out and relatively stable. Both democracy and republicanism were born in pantheistic societies.
    The Romans adopted Christianity as a way to formalize the empire, under one god. Though vestiges of pantheism remained, in the Trinity. Which laid the default political framework of Europe for the next thousand years, as the various kingdoms and monarchies. Divine right of kings.
    When the West went back to more populist forms of government, it resulted in a separation of church and state, effectively culture and civics.
    Which offers a possible understanding of the Judaism of today. Given this strong tribal identity, yet losing their geographic location, they became dispersed throughout the Western world. Which naturally put them in the strong position of being a significant part of the network tying all those political nodes together. Intellectuals, doctors, bankers, merchants, etc, they could be the connections distributing knowledge and resources around. Though also perennial outsiders and open to rejection when these social organisms felt threatened.
    As for Islam, it hasn’t had a clear reason to separate culture and civics, so there is no real separation of religion and politics. For one thing, the geography of the Middle East lacks the degrees of physical boundaries Europe has, with its mountains, seas, gulfs, rivers, channels, etc. A relatively fertile land, where groups did develop in isolation and better able to guard specific territories. Whereas in the Middle East, the rivers would be centers of attraction, not dividing lines, given the aridity. So the lines between different groups were more tribal than territorial.
    The fact is that we are all like branches of a larger organism, growing off in different directions, evolving different traits to deal with those circumstances, then coming back together and having to sort out the differences.
    Given monotheism equates the ideal with the absolute, there can be little live and let live, if the Other doesn’t see your ideals as the ultimate.
    Good and bad are not some cosmic conflict between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary of beneficial and detrimental. The 1/0 of sentience. Even bacteria get it.
    So when we treat good as aspirational, rotherham elemental, conflicts do become a race tot he bottom, of us versus them, as all nuance and subjectivity is suspect.
    We exist in between that absolute at the center and the infinite stretching out. Nodes and networks. Organisms and ecosystems. Individuals and societies.
    Yin and yang, rather than God Almighty.

    1. brodix

      “When the West went back to more populist forms of government, it resulted in a separation of church and state… Which offers a possible understanding of the Judaism of today. Given this strong tribal identity, yet losing their geographic location, they became dispersed throughout the Western world. Which naturally put them in the strong position of being a significant part of the network tying all those political nodes together. Intellectuals, doctors, bankers, merchants, etc, they could be the connections distributing knowledge and resources around…”

      Judaism is the religion, no? You seem to be talking here about the ethnic group which defines itself in terms of *ancestral connections* to the religion.

      Interesting observations on Middle East geography and Islam.

      1. Mark,
        I think it’s a valid argument to make that religion is a cultural framing device. The implicit social factors that define society. It has come to be seen as quaint superstitions, but that seems more surface questioning of the narrative devices used to frame the social lessons, instructions, do’s, don’t’s, insiders, outsiders, etc. that define the social organism.
        Ethnicity is more a matter of genetic history. People can be on opposite sides of cultural, religious, political divides, but still ethnically close. Which is not to say some of the larger divides are not along those deeper ethnic lines, but that is only one of the factors. Often people have migrated and when they drop their old cultures and adopt the host culture, they tend to integrate within a couple of generations, but if they retain their own culture, it becomes a foreign body in the host organism.
        I am intentionally using biological references, because I think society functions far more organically than we appreciate.

Comments are closed.