Phi Beta Cons

Is It Just a Joke?

I viewed FIRE’s documentary film, Can We Take a Joke?, on streaming. (FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is the leading watchdog for freedom of speech on campuses.) I do appreciate the film’s effort to present free speech and intellectual freedom concerns in a wider cultural context and to appeal to young people with the importance of these concepts. But I found myself dismayed at the film and have at least two objections.

First, I don’t see how Lenny Bruce becomes the standard bearer for free speech as we understand it in the academic context. I’m not for persecuting foul-mouthed comedy but it’s not the same thing as what we are fighting for in academia, which is the right to engage in the pursuit of truth, to argue points of view with logic and evidence, to uphold the integrity of scholarship, and so forth. As I see it, if Lenny Bruce and his many spiritual descendants are responsible for anything in America, it is not for any new birth of freedom, but for the increasing filth and perversity that saturates our popular culture and media.

Second, I was amazed that the film presents the gay rights movement as one that succeeded through intellectual argument rather than through calls for censorship and censure. Regardless of the merits of the arguments in support of that movement, it is undeniable that it has been one of the most ruthless in the application of political correctness, intimidation, bullying, and so forth. So the example of intellectual suasion given by the film undercuts its own premises. 


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