Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Gilbert Gottfried’s infamous 9/11 joke, made only weeks after the original tragedy took place. The backlash was significant at the time, but not so bad that he couldn’t find work. Fast forward to March 2011, when Gottfried was immediately canned by AFLAC after joking about an earthquake and tsunami which devastated parts of Japan. What changed? Performative public outrage as a form of digital virtue signaling went viral, as social media created an environment which allows for mob action without having to go to the trouble of physically gathering a mob.
The problem of public shaming has hit the freethought community fairly hard, causing more than a few sackings and schisms over the last five years or so. If someone expresses ideas out of step with the prevailing wisdom in their community, they are too often shamed and run out. This strikes me as an appropriate approach for the truly irredeemable, but such folk are few and far between.
Freethought is only one among many subcultures which have been hit hard by the resurgence of public shaming, of course. Comedy—the best of which trades in transgressive ideas—is another one. Good comedians strive to get people thinking outside of their comfort zone, which makes them prime targets for a good shaming.
The 2016 film Can We Take a Joke explores how the age of outrage has impacted the field of comedy. Sadly, there is more than enough material to create a 74 minute film on such a narrow topic. Here is the trailer:
The filmmakers also give us a fair bit of historical background, taking us back to a time when the balance of power between obscenity laws and the First Amendment was much more in favor of the former. One gets the sense that the social media masses are rushing in to fill the power vacuum left behind when the government censors lost control.
Someone needs to send a screener of this film to the sort of people who cannot take a joke and enjoy writing scathing denunciations on blogs, for the sake of a Streisand boost. If you know of any, please help.