The question of “social consciousness” versus “free speech” is an unsettling central battlefield in the politics of contemporary popular culture.
From the conservative point of view, it is the use of mob pressure to suppress individual freedom of expression based on the development and enforcement of taboos about race, gender, and sexuality.
From the progressive standpoint, it is a battle to cure society of its habitual oppression of groups that aren’t white and straight and male. It is the leveling of the playing field, at long last — defining who we want to be as a society if we actually mean all of us are “created equal”. To get to a societal and cultural plane where that sentiment isn’t hypocrisy, we have to retrain our collective habits right down to the simple facets of culture.
But, in practice, this is one of several points that has been turned on its head in recent years.
It wasn’t so long ago that the conservatives were the ones suppressing free expression by policing fashion, linguistic conventions, and artistic choice from a platform of traditionalism. We were all too stupid and amoral to understand why certain things were inappropriate or offensive. So, we needed the conservatives around to tell us what not to do or say.
Now, suddenly, it is the progressive movement playing the role of policing what we do and say, and, naturally, with our best interests at heart, because most of us are just too stupid or philosophically immature to know what we’re supposed to be offended by.
At this point, the full scope of how this process is running off the rails is given by the experience of comedian Nimesh Patel, who was recently kicked off the stage at Columbia University for joking about race and sexuality.
The odd part of the whole situation is that the joke he told was actually extremely offensive. But that isn’t why he was kicked off stage. His joke was about gay, black men and centered on the idea that being gay can’t possibly be a choice because who would choose to be gay on top of already being black. “No one looks in the mirror and thinks, ‘This black thing is too easy, let me just add another thing to it.'”
He was confronted on stage by the student group that hired him for the act, and then he was chastised and ushered off the stage.
It is, in fact, an extremely offensive joke because it is predicated on engaging the audience (us) to take part in celebrating our communal knowledge of how homosexuality and being black are both inherent liabilities in life. One might defend the idea that we do, in fact, need to draw certain lines, and that, perhaps, he should be kicked off the stage for that presupposition and entreaty. It soils us by tricking us into a reality where we are laughing at how obvious it is that blackness and gayness are ontologically inferior factors in life.
BUT — and this is the big point — no one who was part of kicking him off the stage ever even realized that problem.
According to the transcript, members of the student group who did the off-stage-kicking were too concerned with the fact that Mr. Patel was neither gay nor black. In other words, they were indirectly offended — worried that they might be later held responsible for someone, in the abstract, being offended because he wasn’t entitled to that joke by his lack of homosexuality and skin pigmentation.
This is when you know you have reached rock bottom: The people in charge of being offended and of taking people to task for violating a norm have no idea why they should be offended in the first place, but they are no less likely to act on it in any case.