Wednesday, June 17, 2015

0 Seinfeld & The Culture of Political Correctness


By: Marvin DeBose

“So what's the deal with all this political correctness?”

That's a question that actor/comedian Jerry Seinfeld may have been asking after a recent interview in which he discussed the difficulty of performing as a comedian on college campuses due to what he believes to be a culture of political correctness.

In an interview with ESPN radio, Seinfeld stated, "I don't play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, 'Don't go near colleges. They're so [politically correct].'... They just want to use these words: 'That’s racist'; 'That’s sexist'; 'That’s prejudice.' They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

This statement was interesting to me for numerous reasons, for one, I’m a big fan of Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld's sharp, observational humor and ability to find the absurdity within our everyday lives is a talent which few comics have been able to pull off successfully, and for so long.

But an even bigger reason that these comments stood out to me was because Seinfeld typically steers clear of controversial issues in his comedy. That’s when I asked myself, "How well does Seinfeld really know what's 'racist' or 'sexist'?"

Then I thought back to his response last year when an interviewer pointed out the fact that most of the comics which appeared on his web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, were white males:

“This really pisses me off... Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that... It’s more about PC nonsense.”

Seinfeld seems to mean well... but the issue is that he fails to realize is that his perception and worldview is largely based on his experience, which happens to be the experience of privilege
Now when I say "privilege", I don't necessarily mean "rich" or "wealthy". I’m talking about the institutional, systemic advantages which come from being a member of the group which has power in our society.

More specifically, Seinfeld is a 61-year-old white guy who grew up in the suburbs, and privilege as it pertains to being a white male in America is more complex than people think.

For example, one of the potential benefits of privilege which Seinfeld grew up with based on being white was the luxury of not having to think too deeply into racial representation in the media. When you grow up in a world where you are surrounded by people who look like you, you don’t really pay too much attention when other groups of people aren’t present because, in your mind, that’s the norm.

This is especially true for Seinfeld, who grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Massapequa, NY, a town in Long Island, which is still one of the most racially segregated regions in the country. Even Seinfeld himself recently noted on his web series that he hadn't even met a black person until college.

Ultimately, Jerry Seinfeld’s privilege as a white male in America can be summed in two words which he said: “Who cares?”

When institutional racism is not your experience, you have the option to not care about race. As a male, you have the option to not care about sexism, because sexism is not your experience.
However, if you're a woman, you live with the effects sexism... regardless of if you “care about it” or not. If you're black, it doesn't matter if you care about racism, you live it.

Of course, this isn’t a problem with Jerry Seinfeld specifically; the real issue lies in the fact that often, complaints about “political correctness” come from a place of privilege, and are dismissive and used as a means to criticize people for being offended, rather than examining why they are offended.

Some people may point to the fact that black comics like Chris Rock spoke about political correctness as well:

I stopped playing colleges… they’re way too conservative… Not in their political views… but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault… You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
The difference here is that Rock’s critique of political correctness is rooted in what he sees as America’s fear of discussing taboo topics such as race, gender, class and sexuality. Seinfeld’s critique is more about America bringing up those topics too much—Big difference.

But the question remains is there a culture of political correctness in our society?

Yes and no. 

I see more of a growing culture of sensitivity rather than political correctness, but I believe that is just because we a counteracting a deep rooted societal culture of extreme insensitivity. We are fighting against CENTURIES of insensitivity toward people for their race, gender, nationality, religion, sexuality or economic status. Our political correctness is only a byproduct our society’s history of social irresponsibility.

So of course such sensitivity comes as a shock to us… Our society was insensitive since its inception!

However, from the perspective of a comedy fan, I believe that we have to pay attention to the context of what someone says. Words are powerful, but it’s the context behind them which give them power.

Of course we have the right to be offended by a joke, but I think it’s more important to analyze why comics say certain jokes, what experience is behind them, and what makes certain people laugh at them and other not laugh.

As the great comedian Lenny Bruce once said, “The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it.”


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