Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » Don’t Make Me Laugh: Speech Codes and the Humorless Campus Precis
Edward Johnson
Edward Johnson

Major comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have stopped performing on college campuses, “because the audiences are too easily offended.”  Campus audiences that are quick to take offense at comic jibes are filled with students who seem to their critics to be self-centered, thin-skinned, and litigious, lacking an ability to laugh at themselves, in universities that are increasingly rule-bound (“procedural”), bureaucratic (“managerial”), and crassly utilitarian (“results oriented”), obsessed with “effectiveness” and liability.  Leftist faculty lament the influence of corporations, and right-wing faculty complain about “political correctness.” 

The effect of this drift towards a humorless campus leads not only to the treatment of particular words and even topics as taboo, and to the use of speech codes, trigger warnings, and other impediments to spontaneity.  This is where the well intentioned objections (by Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans) to ‘boy’ and (by feminists) to ‘girl’, seem to have led us, half a century later: to the quest for “microaggression” behind every word chosen, or even omitted. 

The traditional liberal position, exemplified in John Stuart Mill, distinguishes harm from offense, offering little comfort for the latter.One might have thought that the contemporary world of electronic communication – with which the college campus, in complex ways, overlaps – would fulfill the liberal dream of “more speech.”  More people can promulgate their views more widely and more quickly, and with less limitation, than ever before.  The idea that “more speech” is the solution has been under attack for some time.  The quondam feminist critique of pornography, for example, viewed the pervasiveness of exploitative images of women as at least constituting intimidation, and probably being harmful in more direct ways.  The feminist-inspired critique of sexual harassment (currently radically transforming American society) has encouraged us to perceive (sufficiently) unfriendly environments as harmful.  The creation of the category of “hate speech” aims (often successfully) to disqualify certain viewpoints from participation in public conversation.  (Even as the Internet breaks down the distinction between public and private comment – as does the pervasiveness of surveillance.) 

One of the most influential theorists on hate speech has been Stanley Fish who argues that “free expression could only be a primary value if what you are valuing is the right to make noise; but if you are engaged in some purposive activity in the course of which speech happens to be produced, sooner or later you will come to a point when you decide that some forms of speech do not further but endanger that purpose.”  Fish argues that there is no nonpartisan way to separate speech from action, and that therefore every attempt to do so ultimately boils down to a political decision about which consequences of action are acceptable and which are not.  Despite the large number of attacks in recent years on the “silencing” of academic discussion by “the left,” Fish’s underlying point has rarely been addressed.   A deeper critique of Fish depends on taking up the issue of regulative ideals.  In addition, the notion of a community as defined by a purpose does not make clear that we live in many communities, with many purposes, overlapping and conflicting. 

Discussion of use/mention confusions, and other issues, in connection with the N-word, and ‘the N-word’.   

One reason for the split between leftists and classical liberals turns on the question of how to understand harm.  Meira Levinson, arguing for a pedagogy that empowers students, even in secondary school, to challenge the power relationships found in society, describes the dilemma she faced in dealing with a Jewish student who wanted to do a project critiquing same-sex marriage.  “If gay rights are human rights, was it really appropriate to allow their civil, even human rights, to be married in the eyes of the state to be challenged in our classroom?”  Indeed, an important feature of the leftist position is that certain moral questions are settled, and so steps should be taken to keep them from falsely appearing to be controversial.  Deliberation is influenced, says Fish, “by whatever notions are current in the culture,” and when David Duke appeared in prominent media forums, “these appearances legitimized him and put his views into national circulation in a way that made them an unavoidable component of the nation’s thinking.” The creation of the category of “hate speech” aims to disqualify certain viewpoints from participation in public conversation. 

Even as I was finishing this paper, a profile by Richard Fausset, in the New York Times, of Tony Hovater, a white nationalist from Ohio who had marched in Charlottesville, was met with howls of outrage online claiming that the newspaper was “normalizing” (i.e., legitimizing) a Nazi sympathizer.  Like his critics, Fausset assumed that pro-Nazi ideology does not need to be – should not be – entertained, but needs instead to be explained: it is not something about which well-intentioned people might just disagree.  Hence the need to view the extremist as a case to be explained away, rather than as a (potential) partner in a political conversation.  And similarly, mutatis mutandis, for all of the other settled moral issues. 

One of the advantages of comedy is that it allows us to explore delicate subjects without committing ourselves.  We can feel others out, and if we find we have gone too far, we can pull back, and be “only joking.”   

Discussion of two practical examples of  “the Voltairean ideal”:  “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – or what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. characterized as “freedom for the thought that we hate.” 

Fish’s demystification of regulative ideals and reduction of praxis to politics is part of the Enlightenment project to make the world a better place through rational analysis, planning, and control.  But part of what makes the world work is ambiguity.  Both parties to a treaty may be able to agree they want a just and lasting peace, though they have quite different ideas about what all those terms mean 

Does bad laughter deserve indulgence in a democracy?  Does it have any place on a university campus?  Beyond the offense of being laughed at, there is the (presumably, psychological) harm of being laughed at.  And beyond that there is, as Levinson suggests, a kind of civic harm.  (Unless being laughed at, in the rough and tumble of joking relationships, is part of being treated as an equal.  Is the laughter inclusive, even if cruel, or exclusive, even if kind?) 

We might insist that something is “not funny.”  But if “part of me” laughs at it, then, as comedians like to say funny is funny.  Then again, one might say that it is “not a laughing matter” – meaning that laughter is not proper or appropriate.  The question is not whether one does laugh at something, but whether one ought to.  Of course, the application of ‘ought’ in the context of comedy is fraught with difficulty.   

If rape is wrong not just because it inflicts a harm but because it violates consent, or if violating consent is part of what makes it a harm, then what about making people feel (without their consent) what they don’t want to feel, laugh at what they don’t want to laugh at?  Harry Frankfurt pointed out that we not only have first-order desires, but second-order desires about what we desire, and perhaps yet higher-order desires – indeed, he located what he viewed as distinctive about human persons in this capacity for higher-order desires.  In this complex structure of desires, the possibilities of seducing, suborning, coercing, or otherwise interfering invite closer scrutiny. 

Laughing with unites, and laughing at separates – but what does laughing at oneself do?  If Aristotle is right in suggesting that pain is the mother of tragedy, and laughter is the mother of comedy, what do we have when we laugh at pain?  There is a difference, some would say, between laughing at the pain of others (satire) and laughing at our own pain (humor).  To laugh at the pain of others is cruelty; to laugh at our own pain is irony, as Richard Rorty might suggest..  At the limit, Dionysus affronts Apollo, the god of moral judgment, by saying, “It’s all good” – mercy and forgiveness trumping punishment and responsibility.  It is saving both thieves.  Because we are both.  One side says: Don’t take yourself so seriously, it’s all a joke.  The other side replies: Don’t make me laugh.