So I’m scanning the radio stations for someone talking about the nitty gritty of the election and I end up on something called American Family Radio at 88.9 FM. I don’t usually listen to Conservative talk radio, but in the next fifteen minutes or so I am treated to discussion of Neil Postman’s seminal book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” comparison of Huxley’s dystopian future to Orwell’s, a promo for cheap copies of C. S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” and an extended critique of Senator Barbara Boxer’s use of a common philosophical error. Not homophobia, not “kick out the immigrants,” but boots to the ground critical thinking. I almost ran off the road.
Granted, these were followed by assertions that “bathroom laws” passed in Mississippi and North Carolina are a matter of “common sense.” But at least the appeal was to something called “common sense” — something to which opposing parties could point and argue their case — rather than to a zeitgeist driven “feeling” for Whatever All Thinking People Currently Believe.
In case you’ve missed the furor, Mississippi and North Carolina have passed bills which require a person identified as, for example, “male” on their birth certificate to use the Men’s Room in public — even if that person is transgender and self-identifies as female. People, say, 50 years old and above, who did not grow up with a gender politics mindset regard it as a rather bizarre turn of events that such a bill should turn out to be needed at all. Meanwhile, those who believe transgender individuals have the right to use whatever bathroom matches their self-identified gender regard the latter as hopelessly phobic, mob mentality types. Maybe even “fascist,” since that once rather specific term seems to mean “the wrong sort of intolerance” these days.
For all I know, there are transgender people out there who perfectly understand the qualms of those in favor of “bathroom bills” even while ultimately disagreeing. Or, at least, they can understand the situations that might result. Recently, in Seattle, a group of women in the women’s locker room of a public swimming pool were treated to the spectacle of a man – or, at least, a person sporting a male physique – disrobing in front of them. When the women quite naturally freaked out and informed the pool staff, this person informed the staff that “the law has changed and I have a right to be here.” The person left. Then, however, he came back and proceeded to disrobe while a group of young girls changed into their swim suits. The person never point-blank said, “I am transgender,” but perhaps did not feel this was necessary.
Imagine a person who, while displaying rather obvious male genitalia, sternly informs a group of dismayed 13 year old girls, “Don’t be on the wrong side of history.” The absurd, incongruous, lived reality of the thing cannot be dismissed simply by loudly declaring The New Norm. Surely, even the most ardent ideologue can understand why people are having to work this thing out.
In fact, the sort of PC grandstanding that can declare “It’s OBVIOUS that man should be allowed in a women’s locker room!” with no sense of how this might register with the general public sounds a bit like the Humorless Ideologue or Prancing Authority Figure so often parodied by Monty Python — an individual so caught up in exaggerated self-importance that they have lost all sense of proportion.
By now, some readers perhaps are beginning to feel a slight discomfort — because the author isn’t supposed to “think through” that situation in Seattle. He is supposed to affirm immediately that person’s right to use the women’s locker room. Done and done. Otherwise, he cannot be counted among the Enlightened. Otherwise, the author plainly suffers from zeitgeist dysphasia. Or perhaps he is phobic in some way not yet labeled.
Yet, this very discomfort is the problem. The fear of saying the wrong thing and so appearing in some sense “phobic” or “on the wrong side of history” is what is really inappropriate — in the context of critical thinking. If we are in the very midst of social change, we must be about the work of thinking these things through. This means we must feel free to articulate what is on our mind. What’s more, we need the social breathing room to screw up a bit in our attempts to articulate our thoughts. Merely acquiescing to superficial “status quo signals” because we fear rejection is like allowing product placement in our lives. It is nothing more or less than a generally agreed upon censorship — squelching discussion much as a “Red Scare” might have affected the social “dos and don’ts” of past generations. It silences the necessary public conversation that is part of critical thinking.
But, hey, don’t listen to me. Listen to John Cleese.
According to a Daily Mail article’s rather lengthy title, Political correctness is killing comedy, says John Cleese: Monty Python star believes fear of offending certain groups could lead to 1984-style society where free expression is not allowed
“John Cleese says that political correctness and fear of offending could lead to a 1984-style society.
“‘If you start to think “ooh, we mustn’t criticize or offend them,” [Cleese states,] “humor is gone, with humor goes a sense of proportion, and then as far as I’m concerned we’re living in 1984.’
“Cleese…said that ‘all comedy is critical,’ in a video for The Big Think.
“…People do not have the right to be ‘protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion.'”
“He then quotes psychologist Robin Skynner, saying: ‘If people can’t control their own emotions then they [feel a] need to start controlling other people’s behavior,’ as he continues the profound tirade.’
“Cleese adds: ‘When you’re around people who are hyper-sensitive, you can’t relax, be spontaneous as you have no idea what is going to upset them next.
The cast of Fawlty Towers
Cleese in the famous “The Germans” episode of Fawlty Towers, in which he pokes fun at the British paranoia of mentioning “The War”
“‘I’ve been warned recently not to go to university campuses because political correctness has been taken from being a good idea, from “let’s not be mean particularly to people who are not able to look after themselves very well,”to the point where any kind of criticism of any kind of individual or group can be labelled cruel…”
“Cleese and the other comedians in Monty Python pushed the boundaries of comedy in the 60s and 70s, and movie Life of Brian – a spoof version of the story of Jesus – offended numerous groups.”
In his essay, The Politics of Humor, A. A. Berger writes, ““It is humor that enables us to see politicians for what they are – human beings, with the same problems we all face. […] Humor strips away illusion and awe.”
Political correctness, I’m afraid, also operates via illusion and awe. What’s left but status quo scare tactics if there is no such thing as a truly objective reality to which we all may appeal in making our case? Minus truly objective standards of right and wrong — objective in the sense that all are beholden to them — illusion and awe are all we have left. Refer to the Tao or to Judeo-Christian revelation. Just refer to something greater than the limited and changeable perspective that exists between your two ears.
This is what Cleese is pointing to when he uses the word “proportion.” A taboo can be lampooned only if a comedian appeals to a higher sanity, so to speak. A much needed tonic of absurdity helps us only when it reveals how far the norm has gone off the tracks. Cleese’s complaint is that this is altogether socially impossible if no one is willing to laugh at themselves. What he doesn’t pursue is WHY this is the case.
I would suggest if we are all entirely self-defined now and no longer beholden to some higher standard, there is no possibility of proportion, no credulity by which we recognize the ridiculous.
Even Kathy Griffin runs into Cleese’s dilemma. On My Life on the D List, Season 4, Episode 7: “Busted in Bora Bora,” Griffin, much beloved by the gay community, performs at a special gay retreat held at an all-inclusive luxury resort. Nevertheless, she runs afoul of her audience when she jokes about gay men who having made their way through fifty lovers in the past year suddenly decide to become a parent. She doesn’t say this as a conservative pointing to a recent study in gay male lifestyle patterns from the CDC, but as the Gay Rights Advocate Par Excellence. So why does she make the joke? She’s seen what goes on and she’s a comedian: her sense of proportion kicks in and points to the irony. Why did she bomb? “You can’t say that.” Not even if you’re Kathy Griffen.
A sense of proportion is impossible (and so satire is impossible) if there’s no true-truth out there somewhere — if, as in Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien, a representative of Ingsoc, can hold four fingers before Winston Smith and instruct him that it is five, because the Cause SAYS it is five. As O’Brien instructs Winston:
“Look at my hand, Winston. Right now, you see indeed four fingers held up to you. But as you can see (O’Brien uncovers his thumb, showing all five fingers), I have in fact five fingers. That is the essence of the Party, Winston: you think you know the truth by seeing things with your senses, but as you can see, your senses can disappoint you. The Party knows everything, is everything: the Party knows that there are five fingers here, even if you only see four of them. The Party knows the truth that you cannot see from the place you are standing at, because you are weak alone. The Party is strong and omniscient, and therefore if the Party says that two and two equals three, or five, it will always be right: you, by yourself, cannot know the truth.”
The result of this approach is unfettered, unrecognized absurdity — outrage over trivialities. Everyone is liable to be offended by any criticism. Why? Because they make matters of truth trivial, as changeable as the wind, yet associate their very identity with the same unhinged trivialities.
Take “gender fluidity” for example. Actress Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”) describes her own gender fluidity in this way:
“Gender fluidity is not really feeling like you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other. For the most part, I definitely don’t identify as any gender. I’m not a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, which — in my perfect imagination — is like having the best of both sexes. I have a lot of characteristics that would normally be present in a guy and then less that would be present in a woman. But then sometimes I’ll put on a skirt — like today.”
Likewise, a post on the site GenderWikia.com reads as follows:
“I’m not an expert on genders, and am rather new to the whole gender thing itself, but this is very much the same sort of thing I feel and I myself identify as genderfluid. I’m predominantly male, but sometimes have relapses into femininity, especially around that time of the month, and some days I’m simply nothing. I still like ‘feminine’ and cute things such as skirts, but I’m uncomfortable being called a she.
“It’s important to know that you don’t have to come out as any gender, or put a label on it, since you are you no matter what!
“I feel that, from the description you’ve given me, genderfluidity would be good for you, as it doesn’t tie you to one gender. Since you identify predominantly as female, you can easily still go by female pronouns, but sometimes mix it up, y’know?
“Either way, I hope you find something you’re comfortable with!”
Gender may be something that adults discuss with some seriousness and with the hope there is genuine scientific / psychological study involved in the conclusions we reach, but this is not the case with the next generation. For people, say, under twenty-four years old, gender is something you try on like acid-washed jeans versus a leather skirt. A person “finds” their gender the same way people used to “find” their major. They change their gender with the same ease with which a person might try a college class in archeology over a class in canoeing.
The argument being made here is not so much that people who have discovered they are transgender through a difficult process of self-discovery should be able to use the bathroom corresponding with their self-identification, but whether Sovereign Selves utterly disconnected from any criteria whatsoever other than whether they feel like wearing a skirt today should be able to choose whatever bathroom suits them at any given time. And whether anyone who cannot see this is standing in the way of the Sovereign Self’s right to happiness. “Why would anyone but a hater stand in the way of a person’s happiness?” cries the Sovereign Self while ignoring the looks of blank unbelief on the majority of the population.
If you don’t believe things have gotten that bad, you don’t have kids in high school.
There are real people out there who are searching these things out in their lives with real seriousness — not the giddy, self-imposed voodoo of a gender-based mood ring. The quotes above seem unreal, like people are skipping stones across the thin surface of some pop superficiality. But that very carefree, anchorless, pretty-soon-genetics-will-allow-us to-be-one-part-human-one-part-hedgehog quality is the appeal of the thing. “I am not beholden to anything Judeo-Christian thought once defined as reality.” “A feeling came upon me this week after reading a trans teen’s post on Tumblr and that feeling is now charting my fourteen year old course in life.” “And, by the way, I am part of a grand struggle for equality, facing off against legions of Trump supporters who will never understand me.”
Sounds kind of juvenile. Kind of perpetually adolescent.
The questions before us are:
1) Was everyone experiencing this changeable gender fluidity all this time, right there in the middle of the Fifties, and were squelched in pursuing their true selves until these hyper categories became part of the high school lexicon?
2) Or did a small percentage of the population experience gender confusion for reasons we still do not entirely understand? And did the efforts of that group — to put violent protest behind them and “make gay okay” — succeed? And did something beyond acceptance of homosexuality come to pass? Did a kind of end logic enter the culture and – as so often happens – the youth saw that end logic far more clearly than the previous generation? And so did the youth actually put it into practice an end logic which even gay activists might have shrunk from?
Gay activists in Seattle, regarding the fellow who disrobed in front of preteens because it was his “right,” ARE saying, “This doesn’t actually help us. We wish he hadn’t done that.” Teenagers, meanwhile, ARE saying without hesitation and with that adolescent air of defiant unreality, “Of course, he should be free to do that! I mean, anyone who abuses this freedom and molests someone will certainly be arrested. So what’s the big deal?” Meanwhile, fathers around the nation are wondering, “How do I let my little girl just waltz into the Women’s Room at Target now? I can’t go in there to make sure she’s okay. And we don’t own a Baby’s First Taser.”
Of course, the righteous response is, “If you haven’t experienced these feelings, you have no business commenting on them.” But, as I said before, are these the genuine struggles of individuals experiencing persistent identification with the other gender? Or is it a gender fluid game of spin-the-bottle? How many teenagers would be toying with these concepts of self if the drama of it all was not in the air? I mean, imagine yourself as a teenager. Then imagine yourself as a teenager dealing not merely with the usual questions regarding identity, but with a kind of perpetual gender masquerade ball powerfully influenced by the usual nonsense: peer perception, popularity, branding, celebrity, etc. Teenagers aren’t making judgements based on scientific studies regarding gender. They’re getting a buzz off today’s dose of righteous indignation on Tumblr.
The fact is, despite cultural momentum toward greater equality and multiculturalism, people still desire to be special. One of a kind. The chosen one. How is this possible if in today’s kid games everybody wins, if every single member of the softball team gets a trophy, and if observation of the adults in your world has shown you the best you can hope for out of life is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain — so there is no virtue, no heroism, no true greatness, because there is no truth worth dying for? The only option left – aside from “joining the Peace Corps” or “becoming a marine biologist” — is to assert one’s uniqueness and moral superiority by identifying with a despised minority. While it is still possible. If homophobes didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them. The inane loyalties teenagers once applied to brand identification simply have shifted to gender politics. There’s just so much more grand drama to breathe in.
In the above view of life, once you have chosen “the right side of history,” there is merely the bald, unabashed assertion of self-identity — an existential flexing of self in an otherwise meaningless universe. And if that’s ALL YOU HAVE in the way of self worth, anyone who challenges “your truth” — even in jest — becomes the Enemy. Just as Winston Smith, if he persists in saying he sees four fingers, becomes the Enemy. Just as there are no comedians in Orwell’s 1984.
The result: John Cleese can’t do stand-up on college campuses and the genuine struggles of individuals who experience same sex attraction or gender identity issues are trivialized.