Unless you are super savvy, with footing as deft as a mountain goat’s, navigating today’s hyper-sensitive social landscape carries with it the near certainty that at some moment you will offend.
On NPR’s On Point this past Monday morning, Roy Wood Jr., until recently a correspondent on HBO’s “The Daily Show,” discussed with host Meghna Chakrabarti one problem today’s hyper-sensitivity has created for comedians like himself.
Jokes are still jokes, Wood said. It is the narratives audiences bring to the show that have changed.
Wood described a joke he tells about a guy who goes into a gun shop with another fellow to buy a gun. But no sooner have the words “gunshop to buy a gun” left his lips, he said, than an almost palpable change comes over his audience — it splits into two camps. On one end are the pro-gun types, on the other the anti-gun types, and presumably a minority huddled in the middle for protection.
Not yet the joke, mind you, merely the premise of the joke puts people like him, whose job is to make other people laugh, on the horns of a dilemma. Should he tell the joke as it is and immediately alienate half of his audience, or should he pull his punches?
“I think what has made the job of comedy more difficult now is that it only works if everyone agrees on the premise,” Wood said, quoting fellow comedian Mike Birbiglia.
In a broader sense, disagreement on “the premise” of just about everything, starting with the meaning of our founding documents, has us at each other’s throats. And I can’t shake the conviction that a sense of perpetual aggrievement is one of the key components of the engine driving our national estrangement.
Too many ready-to-be offended people out there, left and right, grooving on the sense of empowerment they get by casting themselves in the role of victims who are ill treated by “those guys over there.” I have seen it happen again and again, watched in dismay as decent people I once called friends transform into angry, sullen people eager to rake over whatever’s been said until they find the tiniest of embers at which they can take personal offense.
It was no accident that the comedic career of Rodney Dangerfield, which he had abandoned for years to sell house siding, took off again when he caught on to a universal truth: that at some point, most of us on this planet feel we “get no respect, no respect at all.”
Bright but unscrupulous people in the infotainment hierarchy, being keenly aware of this, exploit aggrievement to the hilt as a cynical means to build their base and fatten their wallets.
I know something about this subject. I remember clearly the day a former counselor noted, during a session, the fury and rage with which I had reacted to the suggestion that I was playing the victim card. The intensity of my anger surprised even me. Who, me? Play the victim? Never! But my fury provided the clue that she was right. I was coddling aggrievement because the surge of dark energy I felt was electrifying. I could justify so many bad actions.
Took me years, but I began to see victimization for the destructive force it was in my life. Recognizing it, I worked hard to conquer it. I still find like Odysseus of old, however, that I have to plug my ears with wax and lash myself to a mast to guard against its siren song.
I have found that many of the people who marinate and stew over perceived afronts have lost much of their humor and are no longer companionable.
Perhaps we should start measuring this as one of the leading indicators of our nation’s health: our ability, or lack thereof, to laugh at ourselves.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.