Jerry Seinfeld - White Hetero Male Worth $820 Million - Thinks World Is Too 'PC'
On last night’s Late Night, noted funnyman and dismisser of liberal dissent Jerry Seinfeld, doubled down on recent comments he made to ESPN that he thought “political correctness” was “killing comedy.” Seinfeld told host Seth Meyers and New Yorker editor David Remnick, "there's a creepy, PC thing out that really bothers me" and lambasted Meyers for announcing he would go easy on Caitlyn Jenner after her much-publicized transition.
It's a gripe we've heard a million times. Every now and then an entitled, well-positioned heterosexual white male comes along and bravely defends other well-positioned, heterosexual white males’ right to say things minorities, women and LGBT may or may not find offensive. More recently, this intellectual burden was carried by none other than Jonathan Chait of New York magazine, who declared back in January:
Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate... Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new PC has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.
It’s a similar argument to the one Seinfeld - and even Remnick - made on the Late Night last night. That the rise of the “PC culture," combined with the rapid dissemination of information on social media, has turned us all into a bunch of knee-jerk cry babies. To defend his point, Seinfeld pointed to a joke he told recently that he “sensed” some overly-PC audience members got offended by:
I did this joke about the way people always have their cell phone on them because their 'friends are so important.' Well, they don't seem that important [at this point Seinfeld begins flicking his screen in a traditionally flamboyant gay manner] the you way you scroll through them like a gay French King.
He would go on to tell his tale of persecution:
I did this [joke] in front of an audience. Comedy is one of those things where you can feel an opinion. And they thought 'what do you mean gay?' 'what are you doing?' And I thought, 'you can't be serious'?
'Serious about what?' would be the first question. His major complaint, like most complaints against "PC culture," is based on a phantom. Since Seinfeld can't really say specifically what the negative feedback was, it's difficult to parse this story. But it does bear mentioning the joke wasn't very funny, which could account for the negative vibes Seinfeld was feeling. In an effort to convey an exaggerated wrist motion, Seinfeld resorted to the two most tired limp-wristed cliches -- gay men and the French. While Seinfeld’s comedy chops are often above reproach, this particular example is uncharacteristically lame. Since cliche is a feature of both stereotyping and bad comedy, perhaps a more PC version of this joke would have actually made the joke funnier, forcing Seinfeld to reach for something a bit more original a “LOL French queers, amirite?”
Nevertheless, Seinfeld was upset because this joke didn’t land with his strawman college audience and he wants the world to know this is a crisis in urgent need of our attention. And this is the rub with most “anti-PC” arguments: they almost always rely on a string of anecdotes posing as some great, menacing trend. Because the perspectives of those annoyed by “political correctness” are overwhelmingly white, male, and heteronormative, they are, by definition, given extra purchase in the media and are echo-chambered as such. Three white men sitting around on a major network uncritically complaining about “PC culture” very well may be right, but it bears mentioning that three minorities sitting around a major network complaining about white privilege would be a mathematical impossibility. This is the nature of privilege: its most pernicious features - insularity, lack of self-awareness - become its most amplifying agents. Thus, the Seinfelds of the world take a few bombed jokes and unconfortable groans at Cornell as evidence of an emerging moral weakness rather than run-of-the-mill shifting norms - or more likely, a shitty joke.
Even granting his fears were justified, Seinfeld still has all of his work ahead of him. He and Remnick's other gripe: that social media has somehow turned us into a hypersensitive outrage culture isn’t really a gripe against "PC culture", it’s a gripe against the democratization of media through social media, namely Twitter, and its ability to level the playing field. As I noted during Chait's PC pushback last January, to men of previously unchecked privilege and status, cocooned by traditional media models, the idea that a bunch of nobodies online could radically alter the conversation must be explained away as some broader moral failing - everyone’s so sensitive these days! - rather than the amplification of voices that have been, until now, left out. In this sense, their issue isn’t really with the substance of internet push back, but rather its very existence. Much easier to dismiss the preverbal “cheeto-dusted” internet commenter or Twitter activist as some limp-wristed whiner than an individual with a legitimate view whose previous omission from the conversation was more about traditional patriarchal and racist power structures than some long-lost thickskinned-ness.
This is the core of what Seinfeld gets wrong: he views the emergence of dissenting voices as evidence of a new dissent, rather than one he is simply being introduced to for the first time. Absence of evidence, as the saying goes, is not evidence of absence. Just as the North America didn't come into existence the second Europeans stepped foot on it. Nor did those who find limp-wristed gay jokes offensive first show up in the 2010's. It just so happens - due to emerging social inclusiveness and the democratization of media - that Seinfeld is noticing it for the first time. In this sense, it appears the only overly-sensitive group to emerge over the past few years is not "college kids" but rather white male anti-PC crusaders getting ever-so-slightly confronted with their privilege for the first time.