Chris Rock has stopped performing on college campuses, he said in a recent interview, because college audiences are getting “way too conservative.”
“Not like they’re voting Republican,” he said in an interview with Frank Rich published in Vulture. “But in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody.”
Could Rock be right? I find the possibility disturbing, since I enjoy topical humor.
I marvel at comedians as varied as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Freddie Prinze and Joan Rivers who managed to make us laugh about race, gender, religion, ethnicity and politics while dancing on the edges of our touchiness.
But Rock detects a new uptightness in today’s campus audiences. He blames a social culture that has taken hypersensitivity overboard as we try to protect kids from insults and other painful realities of life – like race relations.
The youngsters are “raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose,’ ” Rock said. “Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
For example, the issue came up when Rock was asked about a protest that tried to cancel HBO host Bill Maher’s December commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley.
More than 4,000 people signed an online petition to cancel to protest his views on Islam which, among other indignities, he has called “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will (expletive) kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
I strongly disagree with Maher’s smearing of an entire religion for the crimes of its radical fringes. But I also disagree with those who think silencing him would be a sensible response. As Maher put it, “Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn’t upset you?”
Plus, the location of this attempt at pre-emptive censorship is particularly ironic: Berkeley is where 1960s campus activism was launched with s student-led “Free Speech Movement.”
A half-century later, the age of cellphone cameras and online petitions has brought a new wave of protests against speakers before they have a chance to speak — as if people should be deprived for the own good of their right to judge speakers for themselves.
This retreat into paternalism seemed to reach a new low at the University of Virginia last weekend. Sororities went along with a mandate from the National Panhellenic Conference to avoid the weekend’s fraternity activities to protect their “safety and well-being.” The women followed the order but, by all reports, were not happy to be told they couldn’t judge such matters for themselves.
I have long been annoyed by the notion that women and minorities are too fragile and vulnerable to laugh at themselves or advocate for themselves in a free-flowing spirit of democratic debate and conversation. We should respond to objectionable speech with more speech, not by trying to silence speech with pre-emptive censorship before any speech can be delivered.
Rock says he began to notice about eight years ago that comedy on campus “is not as much fun as it used to be.”
Media interviews with other stand-up comics found some similar reactions, particularly on such sensitive topics as race. White people, men and Christians tend to be safe targets. But, as one comedian told the Christian Science Monitor, to talk about sensitive topics like minorities, “a comic has to earn it.”
Public tolerance was tested past the breaking point when cellphone video of Michael Richards’ impromptu N-word tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club wound up on YouTube, ruining his career.
But as Rock says, comedy is the one art form that is being created, polished and refined even as it is being performed. Great art often comes from very raw beginnings. We lose something valuable in our society if we forget how to take a joke.