I watched the “free speech” movie: It was bad

After hearing about the controversy about Students for Free Thought’s screening of “Can We Take a Joke,” I decided to log onto my dad’s Amazon Prime account so I could watch the movie myself.

When the film first began, I was excited that Gilbert Gottfried was the first interviewee. He is a celebrated comedian who, while often stirring up controversy, is also generally respected. Besides Gottfried and Jon Ronson, author of So You Have Been Publicly Shamed, everyone else in the film is either a “free-speech” know-nothing, a D-list comedian like Lisa Lampenelli and Adam Carolla, or the narrator, who ties a lot of unrelated points together.

I became hesitant once the “presented by DKT Liberty Project” label appeared across the screen. This film is a perfect example of how interviews and B-roll on any topic can be arranged with narration to make a strong rhetorical point.

The film spends a lot of time telling the story of Lenny Bruce, a famed comedian who fought government censorship. Bruce’s story is one of a comedian truly pushing the first amendment protection. The cases this movie otherwise covers are private institutions and individuals exercising their prerogative powers as citizens and private factions to counter and restrict offensive speech.

The film asks whether Bruce would be allowed on campuses today without asking whether Bruce would be doing the same routine today. In today’s society, Bruce’s comedy would no longer be groundbreaking. Surely a genius like Bruce would be able to come up with something more applicable to the modern social climate.

The film also fails to recognize that the “Social Justice” communities on college campuses are incredibly self-critical. Both during my time at Lawrence and in communicating with friends on campuses around the county, I have heard criticisms about the internal machinations of the social justice movement time and time again.

One of the most problematic parts of claims like the one made in this film is that it comes from outside the movement working for social progress. Those who make these empty “first amendment culture” arguments are operating on the notion that they are outside of the movement for justice.

The majority of the comedians who harp on censorship are not funny or intelligent enough to make interesting social commentary so instead have to “troll” in order to get a reaction and remain relevant.

This is a poorly structured movie and it does not raise any nuanced questions about freedom of expression. It is my understanding that the “Free Speech” club wanted this film to start a campus discussion, but I have a hard time understanding what it is they want to talk about.

Shock comedians and controversial speakers are making incredible amounts of money off of this pretend censorship problem. This is a non-issue.

Since this film was meant to spark conversation, I wanted to share a story of how subversive humor can actually help us with coalition building and person-to-person diplomacy.

While in the Dubai airport, I ended up in a discussion about world politics with a Nigerian Security contractor and a Palestinian duty-free worker.

We were an interesting trio who all came from very different perspectives. When we first started talking, both men were clearly uncomfortable because of my Yarmulke. It became clear the Nigerian man had never met a Jewish person before and the Palestinian man had never met a non-Israeli Jew. One of the men made a comment about George Soros and I used it as an opportunity to dispel some of the discomfort.

“If there is a Zionist conspiracy controlling all of the banks, Soros owes me a check! I am out here wearing a Yarmulke and everything. I am a college student; the federal reserve better not be holding out on me!”

The two men were quiet for a moment and then both burst out in laughter. My joke had the absurdity of these anti-Semitic conspiracies clear. After I made that joke, the three of us shared a meal and talked about our lives and homes.

This experience taught me something important. It is okay to name things that make us uncomfortable and it is even okay to joke about them, but we have to do this in a thoughtful way. It is 2017, and we need to have a higher standard for humor. If something is only funny for white guys, then it is not very funny.

 

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