Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
For a few days last week it seemed we might witness a rare example of integrity, independence, and courage in Hollywood, that herd of independent minds. Comedian Kevin Hart was slated to host the Oscars, but some tweets insulting to gays from several years ago surfaced, and the Salemite usual suspects began clamoring for the stake.
At first Hart refused to go through the social-media show-trial of groveling apologies. He gave common-sense response that even The New York Times accepted: “Guys, I’m almost 40,” he said. “If you don’t believe that people change, grow, evolve as they get older, I don’t know what to tell you.” Faced with an ultimatum from the Academy to apologize, Hart “passed” on the Academy’s demand.
For a brief moment, champions of free speech and moral courage were heartened. In an industry famous for cutthroat careerism and ruthless ambition checked only by orthodoxy and conformity, for Hart to give up a gig as prestigious and lucrative as hosting the Oscars is unheard of.
But soon it was business as usual. Hart caved, and announced, “I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past . . . I’m sorry that I hurt people. I am evolving and want to continue to do so.” The wolves, however, weren’t satisfied. Hart is now being attacked because his apology was “botched” and “insincere.” He needed to grovel more and show true contrition and evidence he’s “changed.” The p.c. police weren’t done yet with making an example of him to warn any other celebrity who dares stray from the identity-politics plantation.
The censorship of comedians for their content, however, has implications far beyond one comedian or form of entertainment. Controlling criticism of any group because something is deemed offensive or inappropriate ultimately privileges one point of view over another, and weakens everybody’s free-speech rights.
Comedy especially is linked to free speech. Formal comedy arose 2500 years ago at the same time as political free speech, democratic freedom, and equality, and has always had a political purpose––affirming our political equality by satirizing and mocking any group or faction that claims at the expense of other groups a right to more power than it deserves.
In Athens, then, the production of comedies was a state activity, overseen by boards of citizens, and produced during state religious festivals, which in turn were part of the political order of the polis as much as voting was. As a collective activity of the mostly poor Athenian masses, there were few restrictions on the content and language of comedies, given the starkly different levels of education and manners among the poor. That’s why antidemocrats like Socrates and Plato didn’t think the common people should have political rights at all.
Politicians, especially the orators and military leaders who became prominent, were favorite targets of the comic poets. And they were subjected to vicious charges and accusations, usually of an obscene nature. Scatological jokes and gags were common, as were brutal homosexual insults. As well as being funny to the Athenian audience, this obscenity underscored an important foundation of the radical democracy: no man, no matter his wealth, birth, or success, was free from the passions, vices, and failures that define all humans. All were alike in fundamental ways––hunger, defecating, having sex, dying––and laughing. These were the common necessities that created the basis of human equality and identity. Comic humor reminded the overweening politicians and factions mocked on the stage that they were still flawed humans and so should check their hubristic greed for power and status.
In this way comedy fulfilled its role of holding politicians accountable. In a small town like Athens, where thousands of citizens watched comic performances in the same theater, and the victims of the humor or satire were present as well, the jokes had an immediate sting to them many politicians wanted to avoid. Yet comic poets were protected by custom from any attempts to silence or censor them. The demagogue Cleon, a favorite target for Aristophanes during the Peloponnesian War, after one of the poet’s particularly brutal and slanderous plays, demanded that the Council silence him. But they refused, given the traditional political role that comedy played in criticizing men with power and checking their ambitions. Aristophanes, by the way, followed up his free-speech victory by writing yet another play making fun of Cleon.
This tradition reminds us of how comedy becomes political when it touches on matters of equality before the law or the abuse of power, by puncturing the pretensions of those who claim rights denied to other citizens. The importance of maintaining that freedom publicly to voice opinions means it cannot be limited by questions of decorum or hurt feelings. Moreover, in a country as big and diverse as the U.S., trying to establish such codes necessarily means privileging one group’s self-interested standards over another’s, and that process at times means bringing to bear political coercive power to benefit unfairly one group at the expense of another.
The relentless assaults on comedians today have trained many to self-censor their material to avoid wounding the sensibilities of selected groups bestowed such privilege. Identity politics in particular has created Madisonian factions that are “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community as a whole,” as Madison says. This defines well identity politics, which creates factions based on ethnicity or sex or sexual preferences, in which these categories represent victims of historical grievances. As such, they deserve rights denied to their alleged victimizers, even if they are personally innocent of the crimes.
As a result, in some respects we do not have equality of rights or free speech. Those groups outside the approved list of grievance factions are proscribed from using humor to express as they see fit their opinions about social issues such as same-sex marriage or homosexuality. There are no limits on black comedians when criticizing conservatives or Republicans or Christians or just white people in general. No one will demand apologies, or fire them from gigs, or boycott their work. But as Kevin Hart is finding out, even our most powerful identity-politics faction must submit to the politically correct standards for discussing issues, or watch their careers implode.
This double standard by which one faction has the power to use insulting humor to express their political and ideological views, while another is either pressured into self-censorship, or hounded and hectored into groveling apologies redolent of show-trial confessions, creates injustice. It undermines the foundational notions of equality under the law, and compromises free speech through self-censorship and harassment.
Finally, the bane of any kind of censorship is the restriction of ideas, or controversies, or even facts that occurs when one faction can control the speech of another. For example, as columnist Kira Davis pointed out on Townhall, the hysteria over these tweets ignores an uncomfortable fact for the multicultural left, which assumes that identity-politics factions are unified in their beliefs.
In fact, millions of church-going blacks have much different views about homosexuality. As Davis writes,
Another problem Hollywood is forced to largely ignore? “Homophobia” in the black community. No black person is surprised to hear about Kevin Hart’s supposed homophobic tweeting. Black America still hasn’t jumped aboard the PC train some 20-30 years after the idea of PC was forced to the forefront of our culture. Go to a party in a black home, watch black movies, listen to your favorite black comedian and you’ll hear all kinds of “inappropriate” things flying around. Gay slurs abound. Tasteless jokes about effeminate men, trans folks, and gay people are the norm. The black community is a church-going community and while everyone knows someone who is gay, they don’t necessarily believe it’s a cause for celebration. There’s no one at the dinner table telling the Kevin Hart’s of their family to curb their homophobic language. It isn’t shocking. It’s normal. Many black gay people stay closeted to their families because of this. Homophobia - or at least a version of it - is rampant in black America. Most black people will confirm this.
We may disagree about the extent of the problem or Davis’ characterization of it, but it certainly exists. And it certainly is one that would benefit from an open and frank discussion whether through seminars or comedy shows. But the coalition of tribes that comprises identity politics proscribes such a discussion or making it a topic of humor. It would not suit the progressive ideological agenda to admit that genuine diversity is much more complex that they care to recognize. Instead, they patrol and surveil the public discourse and exercise their privilege to silence whatever speech they don’t like. Meanwhile, no speech they do like, no matter how vulgar, rude, obscene, or insulting to others like Christians or conservatives, is ever dragged to the stake for public immolation.
In the end, what we are really talking about is tyranny, the abuse of power to serve selfish ends. And as Aristotle said about tyranny, no free man endures such a regime. Unfortunately, Kevin Hart is just the latest to sacrifice his freedom for some peace and quiet.