Friday, January 20, 2006

Soft Bigotry

One popular phrase among conservatives who write on race is "soft bigotry," by which they generally mean that because of Affirmative Action we don't expect anything from black people, so they never get the opportunity to really prove what they are capable of. This is different from the good old days when one or two blacks might get access to white institutions and suffer disdain for their efforts.

Soft Bigotry might apply in other directions however. Making partisan jokes for example. Kenneth Quinnel has observed how unfunny many conservative jokesters or comic strip guys are. They don't have to be. You have a natural desire to laugh along with someone who is telling jokes that you largely agree with. Or to put it another way, Republicans have a million jokes all built around the central premise that "Democrats are dumb." And Democrats have their million jokes built around the premise that "Republicans are dumb."

And those jokes will generally get a laugh, when told to the right audience.

By the same token, if there is one elephant we all want to spear, it's "political correctness." Jokes that take aim at this mythological oppression are automatically applauded, regardless of whether the joke is funny or not. It's like a comedic get out of jail free card.

But I don't think comedians should ever be let out of jail; it dulls their blade and makes them less funny.

Anyway these half formed thoughts were inspired by an article by Terry Sawyer on Sarah Silverman and her brand of comedy. I know Ms. Silverman mostly as an actress, where she can be quite fun in a flinty kind of way (she was quite good on Greg the Bunny for example). Her stand up though seems problematic, however.
Silverman's champions should acknowledge that the surface-level of her performance dovetails nicely with the right-wing brand of performative bigotry whose message is more along the lines of: "We all know that black people are lazy and feminists are ugly lezzies, so I'm going to be the only person brave enough to say it." Irony can easily get deployed as a responsibility dodging device. Ann Coulter buttresses comments such as "When contemplating college liberals, you really regret once again that John Walker is not getting the death penalty. We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors," with claims that liberals have no sense of humor about the threat of being mass murdered, even though part of her larger intellectual project has been to pathologize liberalism and make its claims synonymous with "Anti-Americanism". In this instance, irony is used to keep the argument about the ability of the attacked to "take a joke", even while the pernicious core of the argument seeps into popular discourse in a slightly less extreme form. Both the impolitic and the "politically incorrect" are themselves market norms; so common that everyone from Dennis Miller to Coulter can envision themselves heavyweight shadow boxers with the ghost of political correctness. Sarah Silverman is not Ann Coulter by any unsavory stretch of the imagination, but both of them spill outrageous sentiments into discourse only to cower back into suspicious explanatory coves of irony, sarcasm, or theoretical hide-and-seek.
Anyway the article is worth reading, as it provides food for thought, even if you end up disagreeing with Sawyer's conclusions.

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