The very night Twitter permanently banned British professional provocateur and journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, comedians and free speech advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., for the screening of a film that argues political correctness is corrosive — not just to comedy — but to freedom of thought entirely.
“The internet makes me feel sentimental for old-time lynch mobs,” comedian Gilbert Gottfried told Independent Journal Review (IJR) Tuesday night:
“Because the old-time lynch mobs actually had to get their shoes on, go outside and get their hands dirty. Nowadays, you sit in your underwear on the couch and you form your lynch mob there.”
Gottfried is featured – along with about a dozen other comedians and free speech advocates – in the new documentary “Can We Take A Joke?” which examines what has come to be known as “PC culture” through the eyes of stand-up comedians.
The documentary’s D.C. premiere took place at the Newseum, a museum dedicated to free expression of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment (religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition).
In the Newseum’s great hall, headlines from news stories of comedians apologizing or receiving blowback from their jokes passed along the news ticker lining the room.
Gottfried himself was named in some of those headlines, incidents that were included in the film.
In one example, the longtime comedian and voice actor was fired from his job as the voice of the Aflac insurance company duck because of jokes he made on Twitter after the 2011 tsunami hit Japan:
But Gottfried is a well-established professional who’s able to bounce back from a bit of flak. The rest of us, random people on the internet without wide or influential platforms, aren’t so lucky.
Such was the case with Justine Sacco, a white woman whose joke about AIDS went viral while she was on a plane to South Africa, where she was born:
Sacco was fired from her job mid-flight and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended as anger turned to excitement when the public realized she had no idea yet how her tweet had spread.
Some actually went to meet Sacco at the airport to see her reaction:
But we are “all a mix of clever and stupid” and Sacco could have been any one of us, said Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson, who is featured the documentary. We are all “one tweet away from being Justine.”
The documentary argues that more speech is the best defense against offensive speech. As Sarah Ruger from the Charles Koch Institute, one of the sponsors of Tuesday’s premiere, told Independent Journal Review:
“The outrage mobs are more quickly mobilized than ever, which means people have an ability to react rather than engage, and that’s disconcerting.”
“Whenever your default reaction is to silence somebody, that ultimately pushes that point of view underground where it can fester, rather than dealing with the person and their viewpoints and trying to find something closer to common ground.”
The film differentiates between the chilling effect that political correctness enforced by citizens can have on speech, as on college campuses, and government censoring speech, but argues both are pernicious.
Another sponsor of the screening, Flying Dog Brewery, had its own run-in with government censors over the name of its “Raging Bitch” IPA.
In 2009, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission rejected the beer, setting off a six-year legal battle with Flying Dog.
— Flying Dog Brewery (@FlyingDog) May 13, 2016
Jim Caruso, the CEO of Flying Dog Brewery told IJR:
“For them, it was okay to have ‘backwoods bastard’ beer, ‘fat bastard,’ and ‘arrogant bastard’ and ‘jackass’ but if it had the name ‘bitch’ on it they just rejected it. Regulators just imposed that law.”
“The problem with regulation like this is they impose their agenda on you. So, in their mind, the word ‘bitch’ was unacceptable.”
Caruso said his grandparents fled Russia in 1913, just a few years before the Soviet revolution, and that free expression is “part of (Flying Dog’s) DNA.”
Flying Dog eventually won the lawsuit and established a 1st Amendment Society that sponsors pro-freedom of speech events like the “Can We Take a Joke?” screening.
When asked if he would accept any limits to free expression on his products, Caruso said:
“I would make a distinction between free speech and commercial free speech. I believe in truth in advertising. I can’t make false claims. I can’t say this is good for your health. …So I do see some minor distinctions.”
No venue, not even beer labels, seems safe from the PC police.
While college students get particular attention because famed comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Larry the Cable Guy stopped performing on college campuses altogether, even comedy clubs aren’t “safe spaces” for offensive speech.
“They film it. They record it. You can’t say anything in privacy,” said Gottfried. “I like to keep my fingers crossed that there is a silent majority that just understands what a joke is.”
With the possible exception of Yiannopoulos, perhaps no man learned to ride the anti-PC train more effectively in 2016 than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“Agree or disagree with (Trump),” said Gottfried, “he doesn’t think about what he says before he says it. He’s not really worried about everybody hating him. So I think there are enough people out there who are now going, ‘I am so sick of having to watch each word I say.'”
So does that mean Gottfried is optimistic about the future of free expression?
“That’s scary, that’s a scary one,” he responds, shaking his head. “Maybe I’ll be living out on the street.”
“Can We Take A Joke?” opens in select theaters on July 29th and is available digitally on August 2nd.