Racism, Comedy, Free Speech, and Buddhism

Last night I went to go see a good friend of mine perform for his second time at an open mic comedy night.  I went primarily to support him and secondarily hoping to be entertained.  Although both of these goals were achieved (the latter, perhaps less so) I emerged from the club very unsettled and uncomfortable.  There were two main elements that contributed to my negative reaction: The first had to do with the unpleasant feeling which I think most humans experience when they see another self-destruct in public.  The second had to do with the unapologetically racist content of the majority of the acts–from both black and white comics. 

The Humanity!
Before I get into the meat of what I want to talk about–the racist content–I’ll briefly describe the event.  The amateur open-mic comedy night is held every Monday night in a dive bar in a dive neighborhood.  First of all, I think open-mic events are excellent ways for aspiring artists of all stripes to learn how to deal with performing in public, learn what works (and what doesn’t), and get an idea of where they stand and how far they have to go.  Open mic nights are great because the audience is mainly groups that have come out to support a friend.  I think this is particularly important for aspiring comedians.  

That is one job I would never do.  Comedy takes real balls.  My full respect to anyone who even attempts this art.  There are a fair number of people who think they’re funny, but to have a room of people staring at you and expecting you to make them laugh?  That is pressure I can live without.

Anyway, for most of the people performing it was only their first or second time…and it showed.  My biggest fear was that my friend would totally bomb and I wouldn’t know how to respond.  Do I tell him, “no…you were hilarious!  You’re totally the next Chris Rock!” Or do I give him the honest truth and tell him not to quit his night job?  Seriously, this was my biggest worry going into the club.

Thankfully, my friend didn’t do too badly.  Considering it was only his second time and the incredible difficulty of making people laugh when they are expecting it, he did an excellent job.  He got some legitimate laughs.  I was pleased that I could tell him sincerely that he did do a good job.

However, I felt really bad for this one guy.  He brought the rowdiest group of friends.  They were talking over the other comics and adding their own colour commentary…at least until their poor friend totally bombed.  There is something very uncomfortable about watching someone crash and burn right before your eyes.

I should quickly point out this was a very small venue.  With maybe a little under 30 people in there.  We were so close to the “stage” my feet were on it.  This made it all the more painful to watch because it was literally happening right before my eyes.

This guy forgot all his jokes.  He started stammering.  He would start a joke, then mumble, “no, you guys won’t like that one”.  Then stare at the floor in silence. 

That wasn’t the worst part.  After about 5 min (it might have been less but it seemed like half an hour) of this he says, “think I’m going to cut my losses and walk off the stage”.  The crowd, 90% of which were there as support crews for friends wanted to extend their support to this poor guy.  A noble gesture to be sure.  But, unlike in the self-help books and the movies, this actually didn’t help things…  

At the behest of the crowd, this poor guy stayed on the stage and continued to stumble and stammer, and was still unable to vocalize a complete thought.  It must have been another 4 min but seemed like waaaaaaay longer.  This poor guy.  I’m not sure what a friend could say.  The only possible good thing for him is that by that point in the night his friends were so trashed, it’s unlikely they’ll remember much of what happened.  Despite the fact that he’ll likely never forget.

Racism in Comedy
Including my friend there were 3 black comics and (I think) 4 white comics.  What struck me was that most of the content from both groups of comics was about race and racial stereotypes.  Sure, sometimes it can be funny if it’s presented it the right way, but it seemed as though nothing was off the table.  Maybe it’s just me and that 5 years in the US hasn’t done enough to disabuse me of my tendency to treat race as a somewhat taboo topic–or maybe it was the way it was presented.  Probably the latter.

It’s strange.  I don’t feel any discomfort when I listen to Russell Peters, and his act is almost 100% about racial and ethnic stereotypes.  So, why did I leave feeling like I had just participated in something dirty and morally depraved?  I seriously left feeling physically unclean from the experience.

Although the effect was cumulative, I think most of this effect on me had to do with the last comic I watched (and I watched a lot of comics that night!).  Incidentally, he was the only professional comic there (not sure why he was there).  He opened with a fairly innocuous witty joke, which of course had racial content, but nothing that might cause discomfort.  Everyone laughed.

The next joke–again to do with race–was deliberately intended to cause discomfort  (I don’t remember what it was).  After telling the joke and deliberately pointing out the audience’s discomfort, he went on a rant about how comedy clubs are the last place for true free speech and that PC has gotten out of hand.  (Still with the PC jokes?  Haven’t comedians been doing these since the 80s?)

Anyhow, without going into the specific jokes–mostly because I forget them–I had a couple of thoughts about racism, comedy, and Buddhism (I’ll get to the last part in a bit!).

First of all, isn’t there anything else to joke about?  How about politics? Children? Observations about life/people generally?  Why does it seem that American comedy is soooo hung up on race?  Yes, I know race plays a big role in American history, culture, and its psyche; but there are other topics.  Your whole act need not rest on this issue.  Not that it can’t play a role, but there seems to be an obsession with it.

Second, regarding PC language.  Yes, PC when taken to extremes might seem silly.  But it’s no revelation that there is an important relationship between language and our thoughts, which in turn influence action–on both a personal and social level.

This idea that PC somehow limits “free speech” in only true if we consider free speech in its crudest form:  the removal of the filter between our base thoughts and our words.  

One such type of thought is stereotyping.  I think if we’re honest with ourselves most of us will admit to stereotyping sometimes.   Maybe not on a regular basis but it happens.  Maybe if you’re a man and a woman cuts you off in traffic, you attribute her perceived poor driving to her sex.  But if another man cuts you off, he’s just an (individual) asshole.  You don’t make the inferential leap, that all men are poor drivers.   We’re inconsistent.  We do this with race, gender, social class, ethnicity, “look”, and so on.  

Arguably, we can’t help it.  This type of thinking is hardwired into us.   We perceive those that are different from us as other and attribute the perceived negative qualities of an individual to the entire group.  We’re also hardwired for this because our brains naturally seek to identify patterns–and we sometimes (often) believe there are patterns where there are none.  We have many other cognitive defects such as selection biases but these will suffice to make the point.

So what? So, most of us have these tendencies for base thoughts and over-generalizing.   Perhaps we ought to suppress them rather than celebrate them?  This is what it is to be civilized.  We are hard wired to class people into groups, just as we are hard wired to want to do heinous things when we’re angry.   Yet, just because the thought exists does not mean we should let it pass our lips as words or realize it through actions.  We are not animals.  We have the capacity to filter and we ought to at least try.   

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when to filter–and different situations might demand different filters.  What you say at your mother’s dinner table and what you say among good friends are probably different.  But I’d like to think there is still a bottom floor for what counts as decency.  

On a related note, I think the eight-fold path in Buddhism makes a compelling arguments for why we should self-sensor because it give a good account of the relationship between thoughts, words, and actions which is supported by much modern psychology.

With Buddhist ethics, everything begins with the Right View: We ought to strive for a right view of the world “since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.” http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/eightfoldpath.html

Basically, how we perceive the world influences the thoughts we have. Right mindfulness teaches us, amongst other things, we have a deliberative choice in transforming our thoughts into words or actions–it need not be automatic. Words have power and further shape how we interact with others and how others interact with us. The same goes for our actions.

(As a disclaimer, no, I’m not a Buddhist. I know, as I’m sure all of you know, that Zeus is the one True god. Nevertheless, I find myself sympathetic to many (theravadic) Buddhist teachings.)

If we want free speech, that’s fine.  However, we ought to ask what we mean by this, and what responsibilities come with it.  If we just mean its crudest form akin to what the comedian basically said: “I’m going say whatever the fuck I want to say, and I don’t give a damn what you think”, I don’t see how this benefits society–or, going back to comedy–how it could be insightful or funny.

An enlightened notion of free speech takes into account the responsibility one must take for the possible consequences of one’s words for one’s self, one’s audience, and one’s society.  I think Buddhist ethics give us a good beginning model to work with.

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