From Justin E.H. Smith’s “The Joke”, an essay from the April 2015 Harper’s:
It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.
The essay’s opening, of which this graf is a part, ends with a comment about “the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.”
This, for the record, is precisely the problem I had with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Despite her continual uses of humor, she argues in the book that there are some topics that are too serious to be joked about, without ever considering that their utter seriousness is what obliges us to make jokes. This seems to be the faulty line of thinking behind those protesting the PEN Awards. The second we decide something is out of bounds for humor, we are in its thrall.