American universities have long been praised for being the world’s leading institutions of free thought and education - until recently. Protests being championed by some college campuses around the U.S. have led to instances where exposure to sensitive topics has become demonized, or even prohibited, for fear of invalidating a student’s subjective experiences relative to the ideas expressed. I find it appropriate to not only push back against this fear of uncomfortable ideas, but to encourage us all to seek out and engage in these awkward and troubling conversations – if, for anything, the sake of comedy.
In instances where upsetting discussions have been allowed to occur, many have advocated that a “safe space” be made available for anyone who may find a particular debate too upsetting. While it is understandable that the feeling of being offended by a certain topic is a difficult thing to experience, and that being insulted, disrespected, or even verbally scorned is a challenge to endure, it is also an essential form of personal and collective growth. Indeed, engaging in sensitive discussions can be an opportunity for collective learning, progress, and hopefully, a bit of laughter.
Moreover, by addressing these tragedies head on, and by accepting your role as the butt of the joke in some cases, not only will you be able to properly come to terms with your own situation relative to the society in which you live, but we, also as members of that society, will be afforded an opening to heal ourselves as well.
This process can perhaps best be understood through the lens of comedy. Or better, through the recognition and appreciation for the healing effects of comedy via its incessant desire to explore unsafe spaces. It's need to continually identify tragedy.
Most agree that freedom of speech, to include comedy, is one of the bedrocks of America. But it too comes with limitations. For instance, laws against libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, incitement, the disclosure of classified information, trade secrets, or public security, among others, all have their rightful place at the table. But in order to achieve shared progress we must allow the battle of ideas to occur with as little restraint as possible. In a courtroom, for instance, it is essential that every argument reach its logical limit. Such an undertaking demands the fullest liberty of expression. And while certain restrictions on speech are necessary, no honest debate in a free society should be contained whatsoever merely by the bounds of a perceived social embarrassment or hurt feelings.
Enter the comedian. Many comedians today view their work as fulfilling this exact role. They see society as being engrossed in a constant sickness, wherein humor is not merely a temporary remedy with therapeutic effects, but a means to diagnosis a problem, in the hopes that it is eventually cured. To them humor is, in a sense, overwhelming joy at feeling intelligent. For instance, when we think about jokes that were funny 50 years ago, but are not so now, is this because the comedians of today are just not as witty? Maybe, but what is most likely the case is that these jokes are simply not as amusing, in part, because we as a society have healed ourselves of those particular diseases. These topics, whatever they may be, are no longer considered the tragedies they once were. As such, they no longer require a degree of courage or intellect to identify and explore.
Unfortunately, our laughter does often occur in contexts involving the humiliation of others, or upon experiencing some absurd incongruity. But rather than avoid these uncomfortable situations, and take refuge in our “safe spaces,” understand that it is in these very instances that the audience truly comes to understand the plight of the person being ridiculed; even if for a brief moment. It is here where that connection is made, subconsciously, and on a fundamental level never before realized by the listener.
Society needs to laugh, and debate, even, and perhaps especially, at your expense. Take joy in its laughter. Eventually, we will laugh alongside you. And hopefully one day, the root of the issue will be adequately addressed head on, the jokes will settle, and the taboo will begin to disappear. Perhaps the conversation itself, with a little wishful thinking on my part, will over time even seem a bit less offensive to you - forcing the comedians, as they always do, to stir up trouble elsewhere.
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