David Marcus in The Federalist writes a keen essay on the more subtle harms that cancel culture (yes, it’s a thing) can do to our shared cultural achievements. It’s worth a read. He hits on a few points that are missing almost entirely from the public debate on censorship in general, and makes one very important observation about comedy: “by laughing about…stereotypes [we can] diffus[e] them.” This is a concept as old as comedy itself, and it has a special place in the history of gay rights and gay acceptance generally, which we should not want to be erased.
In the Nexflix era people who were born in the late 90’s and early 00’s (how is that even possible?) got to discover TV shows and movies older millennials and Gen Xers grew up with. Friends is the most celebrated example, since it had a “moment” in 2017 and 2018. But its resurgence was also met with controversy over the *gasp* problematic jokes, especially insensitive gay jokes that peppered its decade-long run.
The 90’s were a weird time. Pants were too big, hair was out of control, and most of the country thought gay relationships (not marriage, relationships) should be illegal. in 1996 Congress sought “to express moral disapproval of homosexuality” by passing the Defense of Marriage Act by 342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate. It’s shocking today to even consider this. And in the midst of a national controversy about gay people and civil rights shows like Friends and Will and Grace flourished.
Tensions about cultural norms were high back then as they are now. No one had satisfactory answers about how much the government should be involved in dictating gay rights. Republicans and democrats took the position that the world would end if their preferred policies weren’t enacted. And while the “very political” class was engaged in blood sport, the rest of us did what normal people do: we laughed about it. In an environment where your elected leaders overwhelmingly disapprove of you, just being a part of the culture was liberating and life-affirming. Sure, a fair critique is that we were treated as two-dimensional objects and not three-dimensional subjects, but we couldn’t even discuss this “problem” if we had been left as zero-dimensional non-entities.
“Doesn’t it make sense to place ourselves in the continuum of what came before us and what will come after?” Marcus asks. Of course it does. No society springs fully-formed into perfection. We are, after all, flawed human beings, not demigods. Erasing the culture of the past deprives subsequent generations of guideposts to measure the achievements of a more just society. Acceptance comes as a result of changing hearts not by diktats or censorship that force the changing of minds. If we were to declare a new starting point, a year before which all cultural content would be obliterated, how would we know if we were progressing at all? It would be left to the whims of those who think they are our betters to tell us.
Not every positive change in society needs to be the result of some dour theory cooked up in a faculty lounge or in a Queer Theory seminar. As Aristophanes said “comedy too can sometimes discern what is right.”