Can comedy help us achieve a kinder society?

Cancel culture can veer from an attempt to rebalance the power dynamic to an attempt to be the new arbiters of virtue.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Audience members take in a stand-up comedy routine at Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts, on Oct. 20, 2021

I first learned about Skokie, Illinois, as part of my journalism education. I learned that when a group of neo-Nazis wished to protest in a largely Jewish neighborhood there, the American Civil Liberties Union came to the group’s defense. The United States Supreme Court’s subsequent 1977 decision affirming the marchers’ constitutional rights was heralded as a dramatic affirmation of America’s commitment to a sentiment long ascribed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  

That scene in Skokie – or Voltaire’s in revolutionary France – might seem a far cry from this recent cover story by Stephen Humphries and Harry Bruinius. Yet comedy is in some ways the most fascinating frontier for examining America’s evolving views on speech. While the courtroom offers the best insight into the nation’s legal standards, the comedy club might offer the best insight into the nation’s changing ethical and cultural standards. And as our cover story makes plain: Those standards are changing.

What are we to think of that? One interesting (though perhaps not surprising) insight from the story is that there appears to be a generational split. Millennials and Generation Z tend to have a very different sense of humor from those born before 1981. Older generations might say that their younger counterparts lack thick skin. Younger generations might say their older counterparts are mean or even hateful. The kind of insult and angry-opinion comedy that thrived in the 1990s – often focused on stereotypes – simply doesn’t strike the same chords. 

One reason is that younger Americans are more attuned to historical power dynamics. For example, a Gen Zer is three times more likely to know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun than a baby boomer, a Pew Research Center study finds. The same study reveals that a majority of millennials and Gen Zers say increased diversity is good for society, while less than half of boomers and members of the silent generation agree.   

In a more diverse world, the degrees of separation between anyone and a historically marginalized group are shrinking. But who decides what is acceptable? Cancel culture can veer from an attempt to rebalance the power dynamic to an attempt to be the new arbiters of virtue. This was precisely what Voltaire feared. 

Several years back, Atlantic columnist Caitlin Flanagan attended a college convention to assess the suitability of comedy acts. The students at the event “seemed wholly animated by kindness and by an open-mindedness to the many varieties of the human experience,” she writes. “They want a world that’s less cruel; they want to play a game that isn’t rigged in favor of the powerful.”

“Still, there’s always a price to pay for walling off discussion of certain thoughts and ideas,” she adds. “Drive those ideas underground, especially the dark ones, and they fester.” 

In that way, comedy is a window on how we find a way forward. What does kinder comedy look like, and how do we get there together? They are questions that matter far beyond the comedy club, because they might begin to answer a far more important question: What does a kinder society look like?

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