Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Use comedy to create social commentary, not to bring others down

Julia Gagnon

I recently attended a talk regarding the politics of disagreement in a campus community featuring Professor Jamie Raskin. The conversation was full of respectful disagreements concerning the topics of safe spaces, trigger warnings and “PC culture.” However, Andrew Magloughlin, the student representative for AU’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter, made a comment that stuck with me.

During the Comedy Central “Roast of Rob Lowe,” which aired on Sept 5th, many hateful comments were made toward political pundit Ann Coulter. Not only did these jokes lack wit and intelligence, but they were highly inappropriate - suggesting such actions as self-harm. There was a considerable lack of outrage in response to this from AU students or perhaps the media in general, especially compared to the immense reaction by the student body toward the hateful rhetoric perpetuated by Milo Yiannopoulos when he was brought to campus.

Magloughlin did not condone either public figure’s hateful speech but rather cited a “double standard” in comparison to the supposed liberal silence toward the “jokes” thrown at Ann Coulter and the outrage toward Milo’s appearance on campus. Although he condemned such hateful speech, he did not consider either directly violent, instead inferring that such a label should be reserved for direct threats. I must respectfully disagree.

In comedy there is a line you do not cross, often referred to as “punching down.” This is the type of comedy that often leaves a bad taste in your mouth and on the edge of your seat watching for the nearest exit. When someone is “punching down,” they are making a joke at the expense of someone who holds less privilege than them or they are using sensitive topics, such as sexual assault and suicide, to bring someone else down. These jokes takes away from the power of comedy not only as an art form, but as a platform for starting valuable discussions.

Comedy is supposed to make the audience uncomfortable enough to realize something about themselves or the world. When Chris Rock hosted the Oscars, he used his comedy to create a social commentary about the blatant racism that pervades Hollywood. It made the audience uncomfortable in way that forced them to confront their own privilege and didn’t allow them to hide behind their status or their good intentions.

Comedy, however, is often misused by those who view it as a cheap way to batter the opponent. On Monday night, we saw this strategy in full effect during the presidential debate. Donald Trump’s dismissal of Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments translated into verbal shutdowns when she tried to speak. He made comments regarding whether she had enough stamina or the correct presidential appearance, which offered no actual insight into her qualifications as president. This verbal battering from Trump is not a new part of his rhetoric and has pioneered a more protected path for the perpetuation of hate speech.

If you use violent speech, such as suggesting suicidal ideation or commenting on someone else’s physical characteristics, then you are part of the problem, no matter what political party you belong to. You are not automatically seated upon the moral high horse of your political party if you have ideological values.. Your words matter. If you try to combat hate with hate, you will only create war.

Julia Gagnon is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.