COLUMN: Humor has died in a politically correct society

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 5:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 15, 2010

David Rosman's recent column "Otis the steer-cow has some identity issues," as well as Sarah Palmer's response, says volumes about what we have become as a nation in our acceptance or tolerance of that which we may safely find humorous.

Although Ms. Palmer's opinion is extremely well-written and establishes her point clearly, I see an example of a continuing decline in our ability to laugh together and at ourselves.

Among the aggregate fruits of multiculturalism, political correctness and diversity is the overstimulation of sensitivity and a tendency to view oneself or associations as victims. The resultant emotional stress or distress is often seen as overreaction to perceived abuse of religious beliefs, sexual orientation, race, age, disability, ethnicity or country of origin.

Only utter fools or frauds would claim these abuses do not exist in society; nevertheless, as one who has lived, worked and studied among extremely diverse cultures for a period of 75 years, I have observed our collective sense of humor become a casualty to a heightened intolerance. Any comment or action — however innocent or unintended — that can be interpreted as deprecating, insulting or tactless will be a veritable "Murphy's law" of insensitivity.

A major contributing factor to this heightened self-awareness and hypersensitivity is the unintended consequence of classifying certain offenses against persons perceived as belonging to the social groups described above as "hate or bias-motivated crimes."

Although the underlying intent of protecting such groups (in addition to federal prosecution, 45 states and the District of Columbia have also criminalized various types of hate crimes) is praiseworthy, in practice it has proven in many ways to be impractical or unsuitable.

Regrettably, these are not isolated instances. On our university campus, there were calls to treat the February incident in which two students spread cotton balls on Black Culture Center's lawn as a hate crime. Cooler heads prevailed but not before it was blown out of proportion.

Getting back to the theme of tolerance through humor, the seeming lack of ability to recognize and enjoy amusement across racial, social and cultural lines is a disturbing trend.

As recently as the 1970s and early '80s, we were treated to such television series as "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Soap." Through the medium of innuendo and satire, these comedies treated the subjects of race, gender and sexual orientation with humor while labeling bigotry, prejudice and discrimination as the practice of fools.

Earlier examples of political correctness affecting ethnic humor are seen in the reaction to Mark Twain's novel "Huckleberry Finn" and the popular radio show "Thee Amos 'n Andy Show." Today, the former is maligned as racist and the latter as a racial stereotype.

In reality, the runaway slave in Twain's satire of that era was intelligent and the hero. On the air from the 1920s to the early 1950s, "The Amos 'n Andy Show" was popular with both white and black audiences as it was authentic and included ethnic humor.

Somehow we have lost the ability to react in a positive manner, and instead we have retreated into our own comfortable social, racial, cultural, religious and other enclaves. Those who are in the majority must attempt to understand and be tolerant of those who are different.

Finally, those who are of lesser numbers and influence differing in ethnicity, race or sexual orientation must realize that there will forever be ignorance and bigotry on both sides of the coin. And though the bias always appears intensified toward minority groups, the vast majority of today's society is a fair-minded and increasingly tolerant. Laughter is still the best medicine.

It could be worse — you could be an old, Christian white guy and be blamed for the multitude of sins and disasters affecting the world today.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Ellis Smith June 15, 2010 | 7:02 a.m.

Political correctness is a refuge for exceedingly small and pathetic people.

(Report Comment)
Nathan Stephens June 15, 2010 | 7:09 a.m.

My question for you Mr. Miller is this: why do you feel that the 'Cotton Ball Incident' shouldn't be considered a hate crime when the perpetrators themselves stated that they targeted the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center due to the name and those who frequent this facility? There was also the inherent tie to "blacks in this country made to pick cotton during slavery." And yet months after this is over with, you are still insisting that it wasn't a hate crime. Additionally, I question why is it that cotton balls were not thrown at the athletic department a couple of years ago when the Missouri Tigers defeated the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Cotton Bowl. Cotton should have been strewn all over the athletic department but it wasn't.
You speak of our loss of humor in your article and yet you fail to see that those attempts at humor to address serious racial issues missed the mark completely for many in this country. Serious issues were laughed off, not taken seriously and in some cases reenacted. The things that were tolerated in this country are no longer tolerated and acceptable. It has become apparent that the minorities in this country are viewed with a different disposition in the new millennium. In fact, during the 1970s having a Black president was only a dream while Amos and Andy and those types of shows were "educating America.' My advice to you Mr. Miller is that you and those that would agree with you, need to get with the times and stop reminiscing over the "good ol' days" because I can assure you that those days are long gone for most of America and the world.

(Report Comment)
Michael Grinfeld June 15, 2010 | 9:52 a.m.

Mr. Miller's commentary about humor and group sensitivity raises an important question: who gets to decide what's funny? What his commentary suggests, is that he gets to rule based on his value system. And it's difficult not to notice that his views emerge from a background nurtured in America's former, traditional, power elite, one that over time has mercifully adjusted to embrace a more diverse population.

So, rather than listening and learning about how people are sometimes hurt by the popular culture, he instead lashes out, accusing the people effected of killing off humor. How else can you explain his inability to distinguish between the groundbreaking comedy of "All in the Family" and the disturbing stereotyping (under today's standards) of "The Amos and Andy Show?"

Pundits like Mr. Miller use "political correctness" as a euphemistic sanctuary for what is actually plain old prejudice and bigotry. The truth is, Mr. Miller, you don't get to decide what's funny any more. The shift that Mr. Stephens so correctly observed in his comment is that we've slowly transformed into a society that more than before takes into consideration a broader range of interests and sensitivities. Today, there are more voices, and that's a good thing. It's taken us centuries just to get to this point, and we still have far to go.

That hasn't killed off humor at all. In fact, it has made our country a better one. And, I'm going to suggest it would make Mr. Miller and others like him better people if they could find it in their hearts to embrace the change, too.

(Report Comment)
David Rosman June 15, 2010 | 12:23 p.m.

Karl - and those who have responded to his column -
The background on this is "intent versus perception." What may be funny to one is insulting to another and, to paraphrase P.T. Barnum, you can't please everyone all of the time.

When I was performing stand-up comedy, the same story would have one audience rolling in the aisle and another sitting starring like deer in the headlights.

Karl and I, as well as the other columnist in this paper and world wide, write for their audience. Mine is mostly liberal, Karl's conservative. People who know me or are regular readers know that occasionally I have to break out of the serious mold and attempt to ply my humor to a very serious topic.

Karl did not "lash out" at anyone, but is making an important point here; seeing the bigger picture without regard to personal feelings when it comes to political humor would make this a much better place to live.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop June 15, 2010 | 2:43 p.m.

I did stand up comedy in clubs for over 10 years. If you look at the concept of humor itself in a scientific manner, you will find that it is virtually always at somebody else's expense. That which we as humans find funny is our own human failings or mishaps. Think of any joke you've ever heard. Go back and watch any comedy you've seen on TV. You'll see it's true.

When we insist on total political correctness - not offending anybody or any group, then we lose humor and we lose a huge part of our humanity (Hum being common to both). We also lose a trait which we as Americans cherish greatly - our ability to laugh at our own failings, recognize them, change them, and go on.

Michael Grinfeld poses the question: who gets to decide what's funny?

Well, I pose the question: Who gets to decide what is not funny?

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger June 15, 2010 | 4:00 p.m.

Don informs us that most comedy is at the expense of someone else. Probably so, and that's why I prefer puns, the more "awful," the better. Puns are wordplay, antics with semantics someone once said, and rarely done at a person's expense, other than to elicit that wonderful groan.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop June 15, 2010 | 4:10 p.m.

Hank, please for the readers, provide several examples. We can all learn from this.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop June 15, 2010 | 4:15 p.m.

Had to do my own research also. Most of these aren't very funny, but most of them too are at somebody's expense:

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller June 15, 2010 | 6:53 p.m.

I do not expect everyone to share my opinions--to do so would be foolish. In fact, a high percentage of those who comment online do not--many of them make my point more eloquently than I.

David Rosman is able to place the op/ed in its proper perspective; however, he is partially correct in defining the audience. I do expect more accord from conservatives; nevertheless, my goal is to encourage objective thought across the spectrum.

Mr. Stephens, you are adamant that the cotton ball incident be treated as a hate crime but, the University did not agree--for good reason. Drunk and stupid is a regrettable circumstance--a hate crime it is not.

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hank ottinger June 15, 2010 | 8:37 p.m.

Don: Well, I can't speak for your sense of humor, but many of those you cited were plays on words, not really puns. For example, if you were talking to someone about various fish, you could say, "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that's a moray." (Fish provide all sorts of puns: try them salmon enchanted evening...).
Or you could do a shaggy dog pun: A skeptical anthropologist is investigating South American folk remedies with the assistance of a tribal doctor who says that the leaves of a particular fern are a sure cure for any case of constipation. When the anthropologist expresses his doubts, the doctor declares, “Let me tell you, with fronds like these, who needs enemas?”

This has been variously rendered over the years as “with ferns like these, who needs anemones?" (Obviously the set-up is different).

Or last (for now) one I pulled off the 'net: A famous Viking explorer returned home from a voyage and found his name missing from the town register. His wife insisted on complaining to the local civic official who apologized profusely saying, “I must have taken Leif off my census.”

What? You don't think these are knee-slappers?

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Nathan Stephens June 15, 2010 | 9:29 p.m.

Mr. Miller, the University did not treat it as a hate crime because campus had no precedent in the M-Book or student conduct policies and guidelines.(That has since been corrected by legislation proposed by the student government aka the Missouri Student Association (MSA).) Correction, the University of Missouri Police Department did in fact treat the incident as a hate crime when it was investigated. Here is the line in the Tribune article about the arrest.

"Zachary Tucker, 21, and Sean Fitzgerald, 19, were arrested about 7:30 p.m., each on suspicion of one count of tampering in the second degree, a Class D felony enhanced because of the hate crime classification."

Mr.Grinfield, you make some excellent points. With regard to who gets to decide what's funny or what's not? The audience. The shows Mr. Miller referenced ran for quite some time but when the audience decided that it was not funny any longer, you can now only catch re-runs of those shows.

I guess my biggest concern is that there are some people that find it totally okay to enjoy themselves at someone else's expense. When I was in grade school, we called that bullying. I am glad that the majority in this country has decided that some forms of 'bullying' are no longer acceptable. Too bad we are not all in this category.

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Ray Shapiro June 15, 2010 | 11:23 p.m.

Granted that it is in poor taste to attempt using humor intentionally as a psychological weapon against another person or a group of people. This does not necessarily mean that we ahould call for severe punishment when we feel slighted by "poor taste," especially when the tongue wagging culprit is riddled with self-perceptions of being witty.
I did find the following article interesting on the subject of political correctness.
("Political Correctness Stifles Honesty and Expression")
I am also convinced that all dumb people must have blond roots.
But that could be just me.

(Report Comment)
Eric Niewoehner June 16, 2010 | 1:29 a.m.

I find it quite humorous that this op-ed has generated more comment than anything else I've read in the Missourian.

When it comes to entertainment, we can still find numerous examples of very funny ethnic humor such as Russell Peters or Eddie Murphy playing a white guy or bashing aspects of black culture in "Coming to America."

But when it comes to our everyday lives, we lack humor because political correctness, coupled with power, equates to living our lives in fear, rather than in creativity, risk and freedom.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop June 16, 2010 | 1:56 a.m.

Hank, your response makes people with sense. However, we have seen a clear redefinition of what makes "sense" over the last 50 years. Today you will find your fish pun perfectly acceptable. Let the PETA folks become the definers of funny and not funny, and you will find yourself ostracized for being mean to fish. If you laugh and say it's not likely, I would only point out to you that 50 years ago, if somebody had suggested that from 1975 through today, that we would murder 3,000 unborn children in this country every single day of the year, people would have looked at you like you had three eyes and were from another planet. Do not underestimate the damage to be done by letting any one person, group, or law define what is funny and what is not funny.

The constitution defines our right to free speech. Nowhere in that document does it say we have a right to not be offended. If you don't defend Voltaire's concept of free thought and speech, then you have truly missed the very essence of liberty. I will defend with my life your right to stand in the public square and state your piece, as long as you are not advocating violent overthrow of the government or physical harm to your neighbors. However, I also can not be forced to stand in the square and listen to stupid drivel. The worst thing you can do to those you disagree with is to simply turn your back and walk away....unless they are advocating your murder. For over 200 years now we've had our revolutions at the ballot box. In between elections, we can work and strive to change the laws. But those laws must conform to the constitution. And until the people pass an amendment protecting us from being insulted, then I say grow up and deal with it. Exercise your right to speak, but don't run over anybody else's. And jealously guard against those who would crush it.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop June 16, 2010 | 2:24 a.m.

Nathan, when I was in school, bullying meant continual physical intimidation and assault. Back before political correctness and the age of litigation for any cause, it often resulted in a fist fight between two boys who more often than not became friends after that. And just like the fact that a policeman is not always going to be there when you need them, you had to learn to deal with bullies. And amazingly, this was done without murder, even though a great many kids and teachers carried firearms openly in their cars. Part of growing up and becoming a well rounded citizen meant learning to deal with disagreeable situations and issues. It is most unfortunate that liberalism has turned much of our country into a society that whines and moans about the most trivial of issues. Unfortunately too, in the last 30 years we’ve created a society that has been exposed to constant graphic violence on TV, the big screen, and video games that was never contemplated 50 years ago. All this foisted upon us by liberalism that says you can’t tell me what to say. That’s true, but in a free society, we are expected to exercise self discipline – a concept that liberals also deride. So now we have graphic violence in all our entertainment, and we have a society that turns its head at the murder of 3,000 unborn babies every single day of the year for 35 years. In Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), there were more murders in 2009 than there were combat deaths to US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Small wonder we have so much violence today in our non violent, politically correct world.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger June 16, 2010 | 6:59 a.m.

Really, Mr. Milsop, I think you need to get out more. You turn a brief discourse on harmless puns into a stentorian, condescending lecture on abortion rights and the First Amendment.

As for your response to Mr. Stephens and your allegation that violence in entertainment has been foisted upon an innocent public by liberalism, I would counter by saying that graphic violence meets a demand. If people were turned off to violent video games and porno-violent films, they wouldn't buy them. But (sadly), that's not the case.

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Don Milsop June 16, 2010 | 11:26 p.m.

Mr. Ottinger,I didn't say the public didn't want it. I just pointed to cause and affect. These are the major factors that changed and these are the results we've seen.

I find nothing in my discourse condescending about either abortion or free speech. Why are you feeling defensive?

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush June 17, 2010 | 12:02 p.m.

I wonder if any of these people should use the "Get a sense of humor" defense.

Or maybe these are just pranks -

I wonder if there is any "heightened self-awareness and hypersensitivity" to these people. Or maybe, someone wants to "blow out of proportion" these comic hijinks. I wonder if the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 is a fair limit to freedom of speech, and if the military deserves to be a protected class?

Frankly, I find fraud unfunny; I find racially motivated littering unfunny. And I find their defense through humor contemptible.

But what I do find funny is the "authentic" Amos n' Andy in which the main characters were voiced by white actors Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden - here's a picture.
And I mean, laugh-out-loud funny.
Hey, I laughed out loud! I guess humor isn't dead.

(Report Comment)

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