Monday, June 4, 2012

800 Words: Culture of Offense

Jason Alexander is not Michael Richards, after spending my youth watching Seinfeld on loop, I can tell you definitively that Michael Richards is an actor who does everything on instinct. There is not a moment when he even thinks what he’s doing, the ideas simply pour out of him as though he’s a vessel for a talent larger than himself. But while Michael Richards doesn’t even consider planning his ideas a moment in advance, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss and particularly Jason Alexander are actors who consider every possible shade of line-reading and gesture, and go with the one they think is best only after long thought.

When you look at their respective reactions to scandals in which they used offensive language, the reaction is utterly telling. Michael Richards was dumbfounded in the face of his instinct going awry - appearing on Letterman to give a dead-eyed apology which no one took seriously. The same instinct which twenty years ago made him appear the essence of laid-back hipsterdom made him take off like a rocket when faced with the slightest pressure. Is Michael Richards really racist? The only answer that does his personality credit is to say: absolutely, at least at the moment he uttered those words.

But Jason Alexander is a very different person. Last week, when appearing on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Alexander used the word ‘gay’ to describe a sport, cricket, as something effeminate – a description which most of us have probably used at one point or another in our lives without a second thought to whom it might hurt. He was called on it by fans for using it offensively, and used the as a lynchpin for a 1000-word apology in which he expressed solidarity with the gay community and traced the entire stereotype back to its origin. Jason Alexander is clearly a thoughtful person, but I can’t help wondering…

Is this a sincere apology, and if it isn’t, should it be?

As far as stereotypes go, Jason Alexander’s offense was clearly an offense, but it was at the lowest possible level, barely even meriting a mention except apparently on twitter. Now, one would expect that a Seinfeld star would be particularly sensitive to this kind of trouble after what Michael Richards did, and one can’t doubt that if you’re going to apologize, the way Alexander handled it was the best possible way. But the end result of this is that Mr. Alexander will not be vilified, he will instead be congratulated on his thoughtfulness and sensitivity, get his name back in the press, with the hope that it will lead to an offer for a new TV show or starring role on Broadway.

Jason Alexander is not Michael Richards, and compared to what Michael Richards did, his offense was so bland that it barely merited a second thought by all but a few people.

All over our lives, we hear stories of famous people saying the same offensive things we hear on a daily basis from various people in our lives, and we pretend to be shocked and appalled that these people we don’t know would say something so awful. What could the end result of this be but people on television growing ever more circumspect in what they allow themselves to say. It’s one of the terrible ironies of today’s America that the same PR consultants who are hired to manage un-politically correct gaffes are the same firms who enable politicians and corporate executives to hide their true intentions behind mountains of bullshit. We can’t have it both ways, either we want our public figures to speak their minds in public, or we don't. And since we don't, we live with the consequences of a society where no media outlet feels compelled to make powerful people speak their true thoughts.

And if you still think that eliminating offensive language is a total good for our society, look at a simple case like Mel Brooks. A living legend he may be, but he got there by making fun of Jews, Women, Blacks, Hispanics, Gays, Catholics, Hippies, Hillbillies, the Irish, and countless others – and he did so because he realizes what only true comedic greats do: even in its most benevolent form, humor is an expression of superiority and relief. Just as we’ve evolved to cry when we require protection, we’ve evolved to laugh when we realize we need none. If it doesn’t hurt someone else, it ain’t funny. In his two greatest films (The Producers and Blazing Saddles), Brooks respectively uses every offensive situation imaginable against Jews and Blacks. But anyone with a modicum of sense realizes that he's not using racial stereotypes to portray either Jews or Blacks negatively - he's using racial stereotypes to negatively portray those who use racial stereotypes. 

But if a comedy writer started out today with Brooks’s brand of humor, (s)he wouldn’t even be allowed to write a sitcom pilot. In the Obama era, Mel Brooks is a bigger legend than ever – a symbol of how offensive humor can be used to bring people together and throwback to the brief era between the Production Code breaking down and the advent of Political Correctness when people could make fun of whomever they wanted without fear of retribution. Mel Brooks’s best movies and comedy routines are still amazing because they have a liberating power; a power which allows us to laugh at all the things that are now forbidden to us. When a woman in an elevator accosted Mel Brooks and told him she thought The Producers was vulgar, Brooks replied “Lady, the movie rises below vulgarity.” Forty-five years ago, Mel Brooks could make comedies in Hollywood which dared to suggest that stupid people still live among us who think Hitler was a great man, or that people who love John Wayne films are nostalgic for an American era that considered blacks an inferior race. Today, Dan Harmon gets fired from Community, the utterly unique (if slightly overrated) sitcom he birthed and ran for three years, merely because he offended Chevy Chase and speaks his mind in public too often on the internet.  

We live in a culture of offense – no matter what interest group we belong to, we all feel entitled to take offense when someone says something that isn’t to our liking. In many ways, it’s probably a step forward from the era when bullies could say whatever they like to any minority with impunity. But before long, Political Correctness can harden into Newspeak no less dangerous than that which exists under any authoritarian regime, and no matter how bad their intentions, people bland enough to never give offense can rise to power, while no matter how good their intentions, people interesting enough to sometimes give offense can be barred from success. We've already seen the beginnings of how this problem takes effect on media outlets as diverse as Fox News and al-Jezeera, both of whom exploit the culture of offense stir up resentments against causes for which nobody should take offense. Because if we even give an inch wiggle room to people looking for a way to exploit us, the bullies will always find it. 

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