Blargh Blog

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Hypersensitive PC Leftists Can't Take a Joke

I'm as opposed to prejudice as the next guy, but sometimes it feels like humorless, PC folks on the far left are out to stifle conversation and creativity by criticizing any joke that even mentions some group who they consider to be "disadvantaged."

Any conservatives who are out there are nodding along should turn things around in a mirror, because the PC humorlessness is at the other end of the spectrum this time. This time, it's Glenn Reynolds and Eugene Volokh who are chastising Garrison Keillor for this joke that he made in a performance on the night after the election:

We're over it, we've moved on. The election was days ago, days ago. Much has happened since then. We've practically forgotten about it here in our rush to enter into new activities, new frontiers, new passions. I am now the chairman of a national campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to take the right to vote away from born again Christians. Just a little project of mine. My feeling is that born again people are citizens of heaven, that's where their citizenship is, is in heaven, it's not here, among us, in America. If you feel that war in the middle east is simply prophecy fulfilled, ..., if you feel that lousy health care is simply a portal to paradise then you don't really share our same interests, do you? No, you do not. So if you vote then why not Canadians? Why not Scandanavians? They speak english too, they're perfectly well-informed.

But we've moved on. It's all behind us. No bitterness remains, no anger. Nothing you need to concern yourself about.

Reynolds explains why he thinks that Keillor can get away with making this joke about born-again Christians: "Everyone knows that they are ignorant, no-account rednecks and that it's safe to lampoon them in any fashion." Reminds you of the kind of hypersensitive generalization that you'd hear from the extreme cult-of-victimhood left in response to a joke about blacks, women, or gays, doesn't it? Reynolds also uses the common strategy of vaguely associating Keillor's remarks with statements that are actually offensive, in this case, those of Earl Butz, who was forced to retire for his racist remark in 1976.

Volokh is more reasonable and understated ("not in the best taste" is his criticism of choice), but his style of criticizing the storyteller and humorist could be just as stifling. He tries to make an argument by analogy, comparing Keillor's joke to supposedly analogous jokes about Jews whose real citizenship is in the Nation of Israel and Catholics whose real loyalty is to the Pope. I'm a fan of arguments that disarm the reader's prejudices by making superficial changes to the scenario before sharing the real facts (I even use that tactic in this post and this post), but the changes have to be superficial.

The changes that Volokh makes indicate a lack of understanding of humor. Changing the subject of a joke can change whether or not it could be humorous, which can affect how tasteful it is. Keillor compares citizenship in Heaven to citizenship in Canada. That is absurd. The joke depends on that absurdity. Volokh's Jewish version compares citizenship in Israel to citizenship in Canada. That is not absurd. I wouldn't even call Volokh's version a joke.

A more obvious aspect of Volokh's rhetorical ploy is to make the joke seem more tasteless by replacing born-again Christians with groups against which there has been more prejudice. Jews and Catholics have actually had their allegiance to America questioned on such grounds, while born-again Christians are commonly accepted as part of "heartland" America. Further, born-again Christians actually have chosen to have an allegiance to Heaven, while not all Jews have such an allegiance to Israel and not all Catholics are so loyal to the Pope. Volokh may think that these replacements only improve people's ability to spot the tastelessness, but these kinds of changes can actually create tastelessness. A joke about women's poor driving ability, for instance, would be tasteless in a way that jokes about teenagers' driving ability are not.

I don't mean to claim that Volokh and Reynolds are hypersensitive, humorless conservatives or that people overstating the offensiveness of jokes is one of the biggest problems that our country faces. I just find it interesting that some conservatives are taking on some of the vices that are considered characteristic of the far left as they overreach in their attempts to define what speech is acceptable and what is tasteless or demeaning.

UPDATE (11/16): Volokh provides an update, linking to the original audio to Keillor' s performance (the joke in question starts around 3:20). (I've updated my post to include Keillor's actual words instead of the newspaper's paraphrase.) Volokh is right that Keillor's joke is not a purely absurdist joke, but he seems to be under the mistaken impression that there's something wrong with joking about a group that you have some complaints about. The important thing is to not be demeaning or dehumanizing, which Keillor satisfies. The only thing he said that wouldn't be acceptable if not in joke form is that born again Christians should be denied the right to vote, which is obviously absurd in the context of a joke where their citizenship in Heaven is compared to citizenship in Canada and Keillor is emphasizing how he's completely gotten over the election.


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