This week, in a course the Rude Pundit is teaching this summer on Italian radical playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rame, we read a short play titled "The Rape." It is a monologue told in present tense from the perspective of a woman who is kidnapped, raped, and tortured before being left on the side of a road. A harrowing piece, "The Rape" is all the more so because Rame herself, who performed it, was the very victim whose torment she is narrating. We discussed the monologue openly and sensitively, all appalled at the vivid descriptions, all admiring of the courage it took for Rame to perform it.
The Rude Pundit constantly teaches things that might upset students. He regularly teaches the play Blasted by Sarah Kane, which might be called "artsy torture porn." He does this because the plays shake the students out of their complacency. They have to confront something that is not just words on a page but also bodies on a stage. He talks about religion, gender, race, and more. He doesn't fear his students; he didn't before he was tenured. He admires, supports, and appreciates them. Well, most of them. (By the way, he also teaches Shakespeare.)
The only time he can remember a class discussion actually becoming something disturbing had nothing to do with these more graphic plays. Several years back, at another university, we were talking about A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, specifically the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche. A contingent of students believed that Blanche was "asking for it." A significant group of men and women said that, because she was flirting with Stanley and flaunting her (performed) femininity, she deserved to be raped. Some students vocally disagreed, but the pro-Stanley group held firm.
What can you do in that situation if you're the professor? Dr. Rude Pundit could have shut the whole thing down, told the asking-for-it students that they were wrong and that such thoughts had no place in a classroom. He could have jumped into the fray, taken the side of the anti-rape students, and crushed the other side. Who learns shit in either of those cases? All students get from those approaches is that politically correct professors will silence you.
Instead, this professor attempted to understand where they were coming from, not to validate their point of view (his aghast face probably had betrayed any attempt to pretend he was being objective), but to really figure out why they would say that. It came down to their limited comprehension of gender dynamics, of how Blanche was asserting power from her powerlessness, of how Stanley used the most brutal way possible to strip her power. The conversation was fascinating, and, while they could have been lying to please the teacher, more than a few had changed their minds by the end. (Let's not even get into a discussion here about how disturbed he was that several women in class were fine with Blanche being raped.)
Students could have complained. They could have said that they felt unsafe. They could have said that the Rude Pundit had no business even entertaining the appalling opinion of part of the class.
But they didn't. And you know why? Because the vast majority of students at the vast majority of campuses aren't concerned with political correctness, a term that seems to have come to mean, "Wait, you mean I can't do black voice, flit my hands gayly, and slap a female's ass?" for straight white men. Most students the Rude Pundit has taught, most students the Rude Pundits friends and colleagues have taught, most students period, across the nation, coast to coast, don't go to places where political correctness is considered beyond "Everyone is equal, and that actually means something. Now get over it."
Jerry Seinfeld, whose Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is a damn funny online show, has become a conservative hero this week for complaining about "creepy" political correctness on college campuses. Like Chris Rock before him, he refuses to perform at colleges because, as he told ESPN radio, kids on campuses "just want to use these words.‘That’s racist;’ ‘That’s sexist;’ ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what they’re talking about."
Even if we accept this as true, that college students (and faculty) have knee-jerk reactions and are too ready to organize a protest through Facebook and march on a Seinfeld show, so what? Seinfeld and Rock and, yes, even Larry the Cable Guy are comedians, people who supposedly want to push the edge of what is acceptable. How about, instead of whining about it, you confront it? How about you bravely go into the campuses that might most have a problem with your "gay French king" joke (which, c'mon, a little easy) and you fuckin' put it out there?
When speech police on the right censored Richard Pryor, he didn't bitch about it and only play to friendly audiences. He went out and became bigger than ever. When the actual police shut down Lenny Bruce, he went to his death fighting for his right to say, "Cocksucker" to adults in a club. He didn't just adjust his touring schedule.
But here's what Seinfeld, et al would find out if they'd stop listening to the poor comedians who got a few people upset at some campus: people protest things. And then those people speak. And then everyone's life goes one. They'd also discover, maybe to their chagrin, that at most campuses around the United States, most students are fine with letting you speak and moving on. They want to try to pass their classes, work their jobs, pay their bills, and live their lives.
(Note: The Rude Pundit has been reading Kirsten Powers' book The Silencing lately, and all this ludicrous alarmism needs to be separated from the cases where people are actually silenced, not merely inconvenienced by the voices of people who haven't been heard enough. No one is taking food out of the mouth of Seinfeld's kid.)
(Note to the Note: He'll review Powers' book soon.)
(Note not relating to the other Notes: This isn't about trigger warnings or other things. It's only about speech and political correctness. He'll deal with that stuff another time. Perhaps when he reviews The Silencing.)