Political Correctness Run Amok: University ‘speech police’ keep comedians like Chris Rock from college campuses

Chris Rock

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) picked up on a few details from a recent interview of comedian Chris Rock that shed light on the pernicious nature of the “unlearning liberty” mentality on America’s college campuses. The FIRE seeks to protect and defend free speech on college campuses in the face of restrictive speech codes and the growing belief by many that they have a right not to be offended by someone else’s views.

Susan Kruth, writing at The FIRE’s blog, notes:

In the interview, [interviewer Frank] Rich and Rock discussed how Rock, like many comedians, has been criticized by audience members who were offended by his jokes. When asked what he thought about the recent controversy over Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at the University of California, Berkeley’s December commencement ceremony, Rock said, “Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.”

Now, Rock doesn’t actually mean politically conservative in this context. In the interview, he clarifies:

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

Greg Lukianoff, President of The FIRE, has written extensively about this mentality. He published Unlearning Liberty, which details the struggle to protect free speech on campus from modern-day puritans — often liberals who tout academia as the “marketplace of ideas” but who sometimes seek to shut down those ideas with which they do not agree. Lukianoff recently published Freedom from Speech, which is a continuation of many of the ideas originally discussed in Unlearning Liberty.

In the interview, Rock highlights a move by students at the University of California at Berkeley to “disinvite” liberal comedian Bill Maher for comments he made about the religion of Islam. The FIRE has thoroughly covered Commencement season as “disinvitation season,” meaning students and/or professors and/or another community force objects to a particular speaker based on that speaker’s political, religious, or cultural views.

Disinvitations have been on the rise on the campuses of America’s colleges and universities.

Rock continued, confessing when he stopped playing college campuses:

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

What Rock admits next gets to the very heart of the politically correct problem — that objecting to someone’s speech just because you disagree with it leads to a chilling effect on all speech. Frank Rich asks, Does [the threat of politically correct backlash] force you into some sort of self-censorship?”

It does…

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

The threat to free speech due to political correctness is tremendous. Those who would defend liberty must defend freedom of speech for everyone — even if that speech personally offends you. And as Susan Kruth at the FIRE concludes:

Just as college campuses are meant to be “marketplaces of ideas” generally, they should be places where comedians and other performers are especially able to play with new acts. It’s disappointing to see that this is not so, and that the atmosphere for freedom of speech and comedy in particular on campuses has gotten bad enough that noted comedians are avoiding student audiences altogether. That is a real loss for them—after all, everybody could use a laugh.

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