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Hey, It's Just for Laughs

CHICAGO — Chicago.-- Since I do not subscribe to the Comedy Central cable network, I cannot cancel my subscription.

But if I did, I would. The reason was reported by the TV columnist of the Washington Post, Tom Shales. It turns out that the program has been doing Alzheimer's jokes about Ronald Reagan.

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Comedians often take the view that nothing is sacred when it comes to making jokes. Well, lots of things are sacred, and we should insist on that, no matter what the comedians think.

I once had to stop going to a barber because he kept telling racist jokes while I was in the chair. He was a good barber, and some of the jokes were funny. But I could not tolerate the anti-black animus behind them.

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Perhaps it was cowardly of me just to stop going rather than to protest the telling of the jokes. I think my protest would have had no effect, but how can I be sure? Maybe the man will never learn that some people found his talk offensive. I wish, now, I had told him why I stopped going to him. I was trying to avoid unpleasantness, I guess.

We all have to make decisions about what we will or must tolerate, from relatives or business associates, in the way of offensive language.

But when the language is broadcast repeatedly over a public channel, I think we should do more. We should protest in public and withdraw our business.

Don't let talk of "free speech" intimidate you, or the claim that private boycotts are acts of censorship.

The right to say what one wants does not include a right to insist on other people's listening. We have a right not to listen. That does not silence the speaker by government authority -- the only thing forbidden by the First Amendment.

Unless we can set standards of civility in what we listen to, buy or promote, we are at the mercy of any loudmouth who gets before a microphone or a TV camera.

When people protest the tastelessness of some modern television shows, I wonder why they seem to know so much about them. We can just tune them out. That is not "repression." It is an act of freedom, a way of saying what kind of life we mean to live, what kind of things we disapprove of.

Civility is an underestimated virtue. Ours is a culture that presently tends to tear down the barriers of formality around other people. My phone operator, whom I have never seen and whose name I do not know, calls me "Garry" when connecting my long-distance call.

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That is not a serious infringement of privacy or dignity -- but it reflects a more general attitude that everyone has a right to instant intimacy, that there are no zones of respect that have to be approached gradually.

The popular adult fairy tale, "The Little Prince," tells of the steps one must take to become acquainted with another person, not just bashing into his or her space.

Is there a connection between the presumption of instant intimacy and the ugly jokes about Ronald Reagan? I think so. If a person has no right to withhold familiarity, then his or her whole life is open for others to use at will.

Stiff resistance to that will be called snobbery or frigidity, and will itself be made an object of ridicule.

I'm not going to bawl out the telephone operator for using my first name. I would feel a little silly.

But toleration of such lapses in civility easily leads us to keep quiet when more serious infringements of others' dignity arise. We smile minimally at the racist joke, or say it's "just comedy" when Mr. Reagan's illness is made the brunt of cruel laughter.

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We owe each other better conduct than that. We need to support each other in refusing support for such debasing stuff.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.



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