Victimhood damages society... and comedy | John Beuhler on the failings of political correctness

Victimhood damages society... and comedy

John Beuhler on the failings of political correctness

In the past few years, I have noticed a trend that I believe to be dangerous to free expression and society, but more importantly — to me professionally.

I'm a stand-up comedian, and I'm talking about the explosion of hypersensitivity, fake outrage, and the renaissance of political correctness. People are claiming to be offended more and more by less and less; even seeming to seek out being offended.

Being offended is not the same as having your feelings hurt. Having your feelings hurt is an involuntary emotional response to a perceived insult or offence. Being offended is different. It is the defensive posture one assumes after having our feelings hurt. We do this in order to take some power back by drawing attention to the offence, and often returning fire.

The sneaky part of emotional offences is that people can claim to have suffered from them even when their feelings weren't actually hurt. They may do this as a kind of social power play.

This strategy is nothing new. It's a common practice in sports to embellish an infraction by the opposition in order to be awarded a game advantage; sometimes actually called a power play.

If someone can feign being a victim without incurring any actual injury, the experience can be wholly positive — for them. The victim often receives sympathy and attention, even praise for their courage. If the outrage is on behalf of someone else, they can even be considered selfless; thereby garnering even more sympathy, attention, and praise.

The problem with this empowerment of the victim is that people have begun to fake being a victim in order to gain power. We've made such an effort to comfort the victim that we've made being a victim a comfortable place.

This victimhood movement has adversely affected the heroism paradigm. A person used to become a hero by having a positive effect on the world, —but is now considered a hero when the world has had a negative effect on them.

People choose fake outrage as the easiest route to victimhood because it costs nothing, and no injury need have taken place—only the appearance of one.

People also use fake outrage as a way of elevating their own station from that of the group. You can even see this posturing in how inmates treat rapists and child molesters; as a last ditch attempt by murderers to raise their station from dead last and gain some social dominance.

These are just a few of the motivations for people to 'game' the system of political correctness.

Political correctness began as a way to socialise people into being more sensitive, but it has devolved into a point system where the victim wins.

Sharing one's fake outrage online offers the same sympathy and praise, but from a vastly larger, interconnected community.

Social media gives people a place to share their fake outrage in the same way it gives them a place to share their digital photography.

The media quickly created a demand for content, and people began to be offended by anything—in much the same way they began taking pictures of anything; so they could have something to share.

Fake outrage goes viral very easily because it contains the controversy and emotional triggers that content needs in order to compel readers to share it. It's perfect fodder for a community starved for the controversy that's missing from their own mundane lives.

The brass ring of fake outrage is when a celebrity breaks the rules of political correctness—because a celebrity-obsessed media will spread those indiscretions even more quickly. In a culture that has replaced piety with celebrity, the public likes to see famous people falter. When celebrities stumble from their pedestals, regular people then feel as if they're on an equal level with them; in turn, elevating themselves to the level of what we've put in the place of gods.

Being a direct victim of a celebrity's indiscretions offers much attention, and—unlike a sexual assault or paternity suit—a claim of emotional offence can be launched from the safety of one's own computer.

The really sad thing is that instead of using social media for information sharing, many have used it to join a culture of tattle-tales and fake victims. This new culture of victimhood is not a result of more emotional offences, but of a progression of time, technology and perceived humanitarianism. Political correctness was simply inevitable.

A decadent society eventually runs out of real challenges, and therefore problems must be invented. People train their sights on the perceived evils of their own culture in their search for yet another realm to conquer. Like an idle immune system takes the form of an autoimmune disease, people attack the very culture that has evolved to support their way of life. Hypersensitivity becomes less the right thing to do, and more just something to do.

The problem is that political correctness doesn't work — for several reasons.

It is designed under the false logic that removing negative speech will somehow force people to act positively towards one another. As if removing the weapons will end the war - but that doesn't work.

When a 'negative' word is eliminated, its negative connotation is migrated to the replacement word, and in time, the new word must then be eliminated. The only lasting result is the hyper-sensitising of a culture that begins to turn out more sensitive people — who in turn become offended by less and less. Society must then be re-sensitised, and the cycle self-perpetuates.

The cultural movement accomplishes nothing but to give work and entertainment to the sanctimonious; busybodies created by the same movement.

Political correctness now has the exact opposite result of what was originally intended; removing negative speech causes people to function worse as a society.

With the elimination of negative speech, we lose the ability to hold others accountable for their actions, including those in power. This is because negative speech is an integral part of criticism and shame.

Shame felt for oneself and from others is what civilises a society. No length of legal code or force of military can control a culture that is, at its core, shameless.

Shame isn't pleasant, but anyone who conducts themselves without caring what others think is in essence, acting antisocially.

In the effort to end bad feelings, society begins to dismantle.

Bad feelings will always persist because classifying new 'bad words' actually causes more hurt feelings because of the brain's ability to contextualise pain. Certain systems of the brain conspire to create a picture of the pain in order to assign it a level of seriousness. Think about the difference in pain levels between getting a tattoo, and getting a tattoo against your will. The terror that our emotions assign to the latter will cause a measurable somatic difference.

Soldiers will often require more pain-killing medications in the hospital than they did on the battlefield. Some will run miles before realising that they've been shot — and only then, will they fall to the ground.

A child who falls off of his bike when he is alone will pick himself up and dust himself off, but will burst into tears if his mother is watching. Both reactions are genuine, but with the mother's presence creating a different context.

A hypersensitive culture acts as your mother watching.

When we legitimise words as being damaging, they become damaging. When we overly sensitise society, we cause its members to be hurt by less and less.

Dr Antonio Damasio, a neuroscience professor at the University of Southern California, has said: 'What worries me is the acceptance of the importance of feelings without any effort to understand their complex biological and sociocultural machinery. …to explain bruised feelings by appealing to surface social causes…'

Eliminating words should only be done after very close examination, because language is the brain of a society. As with brain cells, when you remove words, you simplify the entire organism.

Political correctness removes words while technology limits the size of the message — to the length of tweets, or the brevity of texts. This leads to an erosion of discourse and art as a whole.

Which brings me to my problem.

Stand-up relies on profane speech and exaggeration for the benefit of shock and emphasis. The line of good taste is danced upon and often crossed because it's fun and that's what people pay for.

Comedy crowds are beginning to shut down and stay silent if any joke so much as mentions members of the ever-growing 'protected humans' list; as if being gay, or black, or female is a birth defect that must not have any attention drawn to it.

Calling a comedian sexist, racist, homophobic — or worse — has become an adult game of cooties where you point your fingers to draw attention away from yourself.

Stand-up comedy is something that allows us to put the rules of office behind us, to let our hair down, and to laugh at each other. A good comedian will seem like a funny friend, and when friends converse they don't do it by using a political rule book.

It's called a comedy 'club' because a club is a group of people who have a common interest. In this case, it's to laugh, to have fun, and to be entertained.

If you are someone who just wants to groan, complain, or clam up in order to prove that you are of a higher class than the rest of the crowd—or if you want to pull out a phone in order to tattle on the performer — you're betraying the nature of my art form.

So. I would like to invite those people to leave, and to go find something else to do that won't offend their delicate sensibilities. If that's you — you are not a good fit with stand-up comedy — and you're out of the club.

• Johen Beuhler tweets at @johnbeuhler and his website is here.

Published: 27 Jun 2015

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