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The art world’s lost sense of humour Censors assume everyone must be stupid

Censored art: Philip Guston's Riding Around (1969)

Censored art: Philip Guston's Riding Around (1969)


December 14, 2022   6 mins

“Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.” Truer words than these famous ones of E.B. White’s have rarely been spoken, and so requiring an explanation for jokes has long been, if not a strict taboo, then at least frowned upon for the way it ruins the fun. To not get it used to be a sign of an individual’s shortcomings, an admission of either dull-wittedness or hopeless disconnection from the zeitgeist where humour is born.

But lately, the common wisdom about letting comedy or artworks or even facts speak for themselves has been subverted by a deepening fear of what might happen if something gets lost in translation. A guy who doesn’t get the joke might instead get the wrong idea — and what then? Some sort of catastrophe, for sure, if not outright anarchy.

These anxieties were on particularly potent display amid the recent to-do surrounding the Twitter Files, which are either a groundbreaking act of corporate transparency by the tech world’s biggest disruptor — or a giant, embarrassing nothingburger, depending on who you ask. For those not in the know, the Files offer a glimpse behind the scenes at Twitter during various recent controversies, when content moderation arguably crossed the line into censorship. There have been four Files thus far, released in the form of massive tweet threads by journalists hand-picked by Elon Musk. All have offered insights into the challenges of managing speech on the microblogging site, which holds a place of outsized cultural influence owing to its status as a favourite hangout for media folks, but the adverse relationship between Twitter management and humorous content was on fullest display in Matt Taibbi’s recent thread about the site’s collaboration with government agencies to combat misinformation in the leadup to the 2020 election, which culminated in the permanent banning of Donald Trump from the site.

Among the tweets that Twitter employees had highlighted as cause for concern was a joke from October 2020. Former Arkansas governor and one-time presidential hopeful, the Republican Mike Huckabee, took a jab at the mail-in voting system: “Stood in rain for hour to early vote today,” Huckabee wrote. “When I got home I filled in my stack of mail-in ballots and then voted the ballots of my deceased parents and grandparents. They vote just like me!  #Trump2020”

As dumb as this joke was, there’s a certain dark absurdity to the response it inspired behind the scenes at Twitter: “This appears to be a joke, but other people might believe it,” one anonymous employee wrote when the tweet was flagged. Trust and Safety head executive Yoel Roth wrote: “I agree it’s a joke, but he’s also literally admitting in a tweet to a crime.”

He’s literally admitting in a tweet to a crime. If this were a work of fiction, here is the line that would elicit an editorial eyeroll and a polite note about the need to maintain subtlety in satire. But then, in a way, it is fiction. When Roth says, “he’s literally admitting to a crime,” he knows full well that the “crime” in question never happened; he’s telling a joke of his own, concocting a winking pretext for ideological censorship under the guise of policing misinformation.

As Kathleen Stock noted in a recent essay, there are two explanations for this affected literality, this iron-fisted narrative control: either the censor himself is stupid, or he thinks everyone else is. This makes for its own set of problems in the worlds of media and academia, but it has especially worrisome implications for comedy, and for art, where the message of the work, what it makes you think, is a distant second to what it makes you feel. The cult of the fact-check, this notion that we cannot sacrifice accuracy even for the sake of having a laugh, is the antithesis of fun — even when intentions are good.

Last June, Twitter implemented “birdwatch”, “a community-based approach to misinformation”. The feature allowed users to add relevant context to misleading tweets, but people immediately set about not only correcting the record on factually incorrect news items, but also dissecting a whole lot of metaphorical joke-frogs to death. One representative example, a clever jibe about NASA’s history of offering amnesty to Nazis, was instantly ruined by the attachment of an explanation that not only reduced the substance of the joke to a third-grade reading level but reads as though it had been written by an actual third grader (“This is a joke based on the fact that the early days of NASA was ran by Nazis that were granted amnesty in exchange for working for the U.S. government in research and development”). Looking at this note — which a majority of users rated as useful for being “easy to understand” — one wonders whether it is worse to fact-check a joke or to just suppress it outright.  In the latter case, at least the frog survives.

Beneath the contemporary anxiety over misinformation, it seems something older and more insidious lurks: the eternal, authoritarian urge to stamp out irreverence and imagination lest they give people ideas. The threats to the narrative can come from anywhere: in 2017, for instance, the makers of the video game Minecraft eliminated a whimsical feature that allowed users to feed (digital) chocolate chip cookies to the game’s (digital) parrot population, after an uproar over the possibility that real parrots might be harmed. In 2020, the Auschwitz memorial condemned the Amazon series Hunters, a show about modern-day Nazi hunters, for a depiction of fictional (albeit directionally accurate) wartime atrocities that, per the memorial, was “not only dangerous foolishness” in its injection of imagination into a Holocaust story, but “also welcomes future deniers”. Of course, reasonable people can disagree on whether the show’s human chess match was in good taste, but the notion that aspiring Holocaust deniers are likely to be found watching an Amazon series about a group of Jewish vigilantes hunting down and murdering Nazis seems misplaced at best. Those folks are watching Disney, obviously. (That was a joke.)

This desire to intellectually handhold consumers to the proper conclusions about what they’re watching, reading, or looking at has also found expression lately in the “recontextualisation” of art exhibits. Where paintings were once displayed alongside notes about the artist’s use of light, or the life events that might have influenced the work, some museums now instruct viewers to interpret the art through the timeliest political lens. Last year, a Tate exhibit of paintings by the artist William Hogarth raised hackles for imbuing a wooden chair with sinister subtext: “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people”, read the label displayed alongside one of Hogarth’s self-portraits. “Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”

According to this new paradigm, the beauty of the art is a secondary concern — if it’s present at all. Meanwhile, some works have been deemed so offensive that no amount of contextualisation can make them safe for viewing by the general population, as with the cancellation in 2020 of a long-anticipated Philip Guston exhibit. Guston’s depictions of hooded, cartoonish klansmen were always meant as a critical statement on the banality of evil, but how could curators be assured that the public, those fools, would understand this?

The creative world is increasingly haunted by the spectre of this hypothetical moron, who cannot sort fact from fiction, or art from news, or humorous gags about overconsumption from the mistaken conviction that beer is a fruit. Nobody ever demands contextualisation on their own behalf, of course: they’re not stupid! But other people are — not just stupid, but vapid, a collectively empty chassis awaiting an ideological engine. It’s like the anonymous Twitter employee said: sure, it’s obviously a joke, but other people might believe it.

The irony is that we know more than ever how true this isn’t. The age of social media offers us a far more expansive view of what people think, and why, and how they reach those conclusions, than we have ever had before. Yet as with the Twitter Files, this greater transparency only seems to fuel ever greater mistrust — and a sense that the stakes are far too high to simply leave people to their own devices. And while the impact so far has been largely administrative — a silly museum label here, a fact check there — how likely is it to end there?

This quest to explain art, and in doing so to instruct people how to feel about it, inevitably trickles down until the work itself is being policed at the creation stage. A curator can only do so much to steer patrons to the proper conclusions; the artist, too, must always keep the moron in mind, dumbing down every line, and every punchline, to the lowest common denominator so that it’s comprehensible to everyone (and, coincidentally, truly funny to no one).  Faced with the terrifying prospect that people might get the wrong idea, the best — actually, the only — solution is to get rid of ideas altogether, dissecting them for offence, contextualising the life out of them, until there’s nothing fun — or funny — about any of it.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

katrosenfield

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Oddly enough, since joining Unherd and contributing to Comments which has increased exposure to discourse with our friends in the US, it’s given me pause for thought. I’ve found myself wondering whether to include the usual amount of good old British irony when posting, out of concern for being misinterpreted by our US contributors, which has actually happened.

Am i guilty of self-censoring by this concern? And if so, what are the implications?

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“wondering whether to include the usual amount of good old British irony”
You’re not self censoring but you are being incredibly arrogant and misinformed.

Haydn Pyatt
Haydn Pyatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Oh such irony ! The vindictiveness in your comment is precisely what Kat Rosenfield was alluding to.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Haydn Pyatt

Oh, the “good old British irony”. And the poor Americans. It’s the self satisfaction of the British that lacks humour.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Haydn Pyatt

“This desire to intellectually handhold consumers to the proper conclusions about what they’re watching, reading, or looking at â€œ
This is what the story’s really about, not humour. The subject of humour was used to carry the idea. However, that aside, in the comments section you can regularly read about “the good old British irony” and how Americans just don’t understand irony and that they misinterpret it. Why I don’t know? Can Americans really not know what irony is? It’s a generalisation that’s seems to be pretty thin in reality, as all generalisations tend to be. But if I make a comment about someone perpetuating this idea or about the self satisfaction of the British I get the red marks. Do you see the irony there?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Haydn Pyatt

Oh, the “good old British irony”. And the poor Americans. It’s the self satisfaction of the British that lacks humour.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Haydn Pyatt

“This desire to intellectually handhold consumers to the proper conclusions about what they’re watching, reading, or looking at â€œ
This is what the story’s really about, not humour. The subject of humour was used to carry the idea. However, that aside, in the comments section you can regularly read about “the good old British irony” and how Americans just don’t understand irony and that they misinterpret it. Why I don’t know? Can Americans really not know what irony is? It’s a generalisation that’s seems to be pretty thin in reality, as all generalisations tend to be. But if I make a comment about someone perpetuating this idea or about the self satisfaction of the British I get the red marks. Do you see the irony there?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Wait a minute; you’re joking, aren’t you?

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

The thing is…we’ll never know! Either it’s a ‘whoosh’ or a clever(ish) raising of the irony quotient. Either way there is humour to be had!

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

“Wait a minute; you’re joking, aren’t you?”
No. Do you think Americans don’t understand irony?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

The thing is…we’ll never know! Either it’s a ‘whoosh’ or a clever(ish) raising of the irony quotient. Either way there is humour to be had!

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

“Wait a minute; you’re joking, aren’t you?”
No. Do you think Americans don’t understand irony?

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
owen macneill
owen macneill
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Brett, get over yourself.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  owen macneill

Brilliant reposte.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  owen macneill

Brilliant reposte.

Haydn Pyatt
Haydn Pyatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Oh such irony ! The vindictiveness in your comment is precisely what Kat Rosenfield was alluding to.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Wait a minute; you’re joking, aren’t you?

owen macneill
owen macneill
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Brett, get over yourself.

Cheryl Cheston
Cheryl Cheston
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Old American woman here
 Dint worry yourself. We can handle it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Cheston

Same and same.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Cheston

I don’t doubt it! I’m similarly aged, and therefore we’ve both been “through the mill” and are able to deal with pretty much anything. But it’s still a concern that misinterpretation between cultures (the US and UK divided by a common language) can cause problems where there needn’t be any.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Cheston

Same and same.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Cheston

I don’t doubt it! I’m similarly aged, and therefore we’ve both been “through the mill” and are able to deal with pretty much anything. But it’s still a concern that misinterpretation between cultures (the US and UK divided by a common language) can cause problems where there needn’t be any.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

In these recent ‘woke’ years I have had a lot of fun with wicked risque puns involving my surname. For example … no … second thoughts … I’m not going into print. So self-censoring is real and humour is withering.

Dave R
Dave R
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Please let us enjoy your Puns of Color! The forces of Grundyesque wokery are on the march in my part of Canuckistan as well…and must be opposed. As must the antihesidenialist convoy-slime who have stolen the hearts of far too many of the nominally Unherded.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave R

No, puns too dodgy – but a true story… During the Gulf War, in the crew-room of a ME airbase, yanks and brits were relaxing: many USAF personnel were PoC. A colleague burst in and shouted, “where’s that black b*****d! ” (an address of endearment between Scots): I rushed out with him to attend. Apparently, after we left it was reported that ‘you could have cut blocks out of the atmosphere!’

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave R

No, puns too dodgy – but a true story… During the Gulf War, in the crew-room of a ME airbase, yanks and brits were relaxing: many USAF personnel were PoC. A colleague burst in and shouted, “where’s that black b*****d! ” (an address of endearment between Scots): I rushed out with him to attend. Apparently, after we left it was reported that ‘you could have cut blocks out of the atmosphere!’

Dave R
Dave R
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Please let us enjoy your Puns of Color! The forces of Grundyesque wokery are on the march in my part of Canuckistan as well…and must be opposed. As must the antihesidenialist convoy-slime who have stolen the hearts of far too many of the nominally Unherded.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

F-the seppos, what they do not get won’t hurt them.

martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t mind the irony at all. And suspect that many Americans use it quite a bit.
It’s the PUNS that are insupportable!!

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“wondering whether to include the usual amount of good old British irony”
You’re not self censoring but you are being incredibly arrogant and misinformed.

Cheryl Cheston
Cheryl Cheston
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Old American woman here
 Dint worry yourself. We can handle it.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

In these recent ‘woke’ years I have had a lot of fun with wicked risque puns involving my surname. For example … no … second thoughts … I’m not going into print. So self-censoring is real and humour is withering.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

F-the seppos, what they do not get won’t hurt them.

martin logan
martin logan
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Don’t mind the irony at all. And suspect that many Americans use it quite a bit.
It’s the PUNS that are insupportable!!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Oddly enough, since joining Unherd and contributing to Comments which has increased exposure to discourse with our friends in the US, it’s given me pause for thought. I’ve found myself wondering whether to include the usual amount of good old British irony when posting, out of concern for being misinterpreted by our US contributors, which has actually happened.

Am i guilty of self-censoring by this concern? And if so, what are the implications?

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

In 1913, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to the NY Armouries exhibition.

More than a century later, i dread to think what a curator would write on an accompanying label, if the piece were accepted in the first place.

Marcel could be forgiven for not taking the piece.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

He he – the mind boggles 🙂

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

One of the favorite examples of NGO’s missing the point of everything is one that was giving classes on ‘Art’ in Afghanistan to enlighten the stone age locals on the world, and used this exact piece in their lecture.

And rather a perfect example is how the writer missed the entire point of the Twitter releases.

They are about the US Constitution. The Agencies caused the Social Media to alter posting to enable Biden to be elected over Trump. Even if this was fine for Twitter to do – for the Government cause Twitter to limit free speech is 100% in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, on Free Speech’.

This is one of the most ground shaking wrongs a government can do – and de-facto de-legitimized Biden’s presidency.

I think the frog joke should be more of how the government, via illegal handling of Twitter was slowly heating the water in the frog pan so the voters would not know they were being cooked and leap out.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

He he – the mind boggles 🙂

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

One of the favorite examples of NGO’s missing the point of everything is one that was giving classes on ‘Art’ in Afghanistan to enlighten the stone age locals on the world, and used this exact piece in their lecture.

And rather a perfect example is how the writer missed the entire point of the Twitter releases.

They are about the US Constitution. The Agencies caused the Social Media to alter posting to enable Biden to be elected over Trump. Even if this was fine for Twitter to do – for the Government cause Twitter to limit free speech is 100% in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, on Free Speech’.

This is one of the most ground shaking wrongs a government can do – and de-facto de-legitimized Biden’s presidency.

I think the frog joke should be more of how the government, via illegal handling of Twitter was slowly heating the water in the frog pan so the voters would not know they were being cooked and leap out.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

In 1913, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to the NY Armouries exhibition.

More than a century later, i dread to think what a curator would write on an accompanying label, if the piece were accepted in the first place.

Marcel could be forgiven for not taking the piece.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Graffiti Avenue
Graffiti Avenue
1 year ago

Morrissey kind of summed it up in a recent interview Culture has been replaced & dumb down for the morons in a very woke political correct world we now are in.Where you pin the word diversity to thing it is not diversity,It’s very much the opposite it is call conformity it stifle’s Art,Music,Culture & Entertainment pin the word diversity to anything and it dies.People can no longer have a say or think for themselves anymore or be out spoken.Anyone can get shut down easily now for even being different or sounding different.The BBC has been the most worst for this no one know’s what British culture is anymore or humour.The days of something like a Master Piece like Benny Hill is no more they want you too forget he was real.It’s now filled with insufferable people Micheal Mactyre & Mind numbing middle class Londoners who think they know better than the viewer. ITV is going the same way is it any wonder why people have switched off and gone too see streaming services and You Tube & Tik Toc instead.British advert now are very annoying if not something horrible talking about pee pant’s or having cartoon talking singing and dancing about death,Too reminds us that someday we will be dead soon but just be dead happy & sing along.Then we have a weird advert with Pepsi that sounds more un-British with this horrible rap Bow Bow did she mean Ho Ho Ho that how bad culture is now.

Last edited 1 year ago by Graffiti Avenue
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

TemptedtocriticiseyourcommentbutbearinginmindthesubjectofthearticleIrefrain.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

He should run his comments through chatgpt or Notions

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

He should run his comments through chatgpt or Notions

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

TemptedtocriticiseyourcommentbutbearinginmindthesubjectofthearticleIrefrain.

Graffiti Avenue
Graffiti Avenue
1 year ago

Morrissey kind of summed it up in a recent interview Culture has been replaced & dumb down for the morons in a very woke political correct world we now are in.Where you pin the word diversity to thing it is not diversity,It’s very much the opposite it is call conformity it stifle’s Art,Music,Culture & Entertainment pin the word diversity to anything and it dies.People can no longer have a say or think for themselves anymore or be out spoken.Anyone can get shut down easily now for even being different or sounding different.The BBC has been the most worst for this no one know’s what British culture is anymore or humour.The days of something like a Master Piece like Benny Hill is no more they want you too forget he was real.It’s now filled with insufferable people Micheal Mactyre & Mind numbing middle class Londoners who think they know better than the viewer. ITV is going the same way is it any wonder why people have switched off and gone too see streaming services and You Tube & Tik Toc instead.British advert now are very annoying if not something horrible talking about pee pant’s or having cartoon talking singing and dancing about death,Too reminds us that someday we will be dead soon but just be dead happy & sing along.Then we have a weird advert with Pepsi that sounds more un-British with this horrible rap Bow Bow did she mean Ho Ho Ho that how bad culture is now.

Last edited 1 year ago by Graffiti Avenue
Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

In the future, at the rate things are going, any work, visual or written, that is complex or presents difficulties in comprehension to those with a limited education or controlled access and interpretation, will automatically be regarded as suspicious, because it may contain hidden meanings, codes and dog whistles. So difficulty in understanding a text is grounds for having it banned. Because of the dumbing down and auto-censorship of people that means most books published in the past will need to go because they are potentially terrorist works. If it can’t be understood then it’s dangerous. And it can never be understood because if it was then the subversive message would be released.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

In the future, at the rate things are going, any work, visual or written, that is complex or presents difficulties in comprehension to those with a limited education or controlled access and interpretation, will automatically be regarded as suspicious, because it may contain hidden meanings, codes and dog whistles. So difficulty in understanding a text is grounds for having it banned. Because of the dumbing down and auto-censorship of people that means most books published in the past will need to go because they are potentially terrorist works. If it can’t be understood then it’s dangerous. And it can never be understood because if it was then the subversive message would be released.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

The left cannot meme.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

The left cannot meme.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

The piece-de-resistance of deliberately taking a joke literally is Trump’s “Russia, if you’re listening” jab at Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private server. It still gets used as ‘proof’ that Trump asked for Russian interference.
So being literal about a joke isn’t necessarily about a lack of intelligence. It is also used for political effect and as a power ploy – pretending to be offended to take control of a situation for personal gain.
However, jokes are also used as markers for people in-the-know. If someone doesn’t get the joke, you know they are bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion, and is probably someone you need to be cautious around when sharing other viewpoints.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

“they are bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion,”
Not necessarily. A difference in humour doesn’t mean a difference in viewpoints. Because what you’re really saying is there is only one correct sense of humour and its yours.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

It’s not about a difference in humour, it’s about grasping (or better groking in computer-speak) the implicit meanings to get the ‘aha’ of the joke. You might not think it funny, but at least you still recognise the humorous intent. Otherwise, it’s like explaining Samantha to an American.

MDH 0
MDH 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Who can forget the time when the panel visited Portsmouth and Samantha had to rush off to attend a seafood vendors’ convention. She was hoping for some winkles in cider.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

So how does that make someone “bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion”?

MDH 0
MDH 0
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Who can forget the time when the panel visited Portsmouth and Samantha had to rush off to attend a seafood vendors’ convention. She was hoping for some winkles in cider.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

So how does that make someone “bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion”?

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

It’s not about a difference in humour, it’s about grasping (or better groking in computer-speak) the implicit meanings to get the ‘aha’ of the joke. You might not think it funny, but at least you still recognise the humorous intent. Otherwise, it’s like explaining Samantha to an American.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Likewise when Ronald Reagan joked “We begin bombing in five minutes” (with regard to the Soviet Union), the humorless scolds in media lost their minds, shrieking that he was going to start WWIII. When Barack Obama promised to “fundamentally transform America”, he wasn’t joking, the media applauded, and the country is now a crime-ridden basket case.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

“they are bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion,”
Not necessarily. A difference in humour doesn’t mean a difference in viewpoints. Because what you’re really saying is there is only one correct sense of humour and its yours.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Saul D

Likewise when Ronald Reagan joked “We begin bombing in five minutes” (with regard to the Soviet Union), the humorless scolds in media lost their minds, shrieking that he was going to start WWIII. When Barack Obama promised to “fundamentally transform America”, he wasn’t joking, the media applauded, and the country is now a crime-ridden basket case.

Saul D
Saul D
1 year ago

The piece-de-resistance of deliberately taking a joke literally is Trump’s “Russia, if you’re listening” jab at Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private server. It still gets used as ‘proof’ that Trump asked for Russian interference.
So being literal about a joke isn’t necessarily about a lack of intelligence. It is also used for political effect and as a power ploy – pretending to be offended to take control of a situation for personal gain.
However, jokes are also used as markers for people in-the-know. If someone doesn’t get the joke, you know they are bathing in the orthodoxy of received opinion, and is probably someone you need to be cautious around when sharing other viewpoints.

MĂŽnica
MĂŽnica
1 year ago

“The irony is that we know more than ever how true this isn’t.”

To be fair, this is a world where people can be lead to eat Tide pods through social media. I’m not really confident on the cleverness of the general public. If such people should be left to their own devices is a discussion worth having, but bear in mind they do exist in alarmingly high numbers.

MĂŽnica
MĂŽnica
1 year ago

“The irony is that we know more than ever how true this isn’t.”

To be fair, this is a world where people can be lead to eat Tide pods through social media. I’m not really confident on the cleverness of the general public. If such people should be left to their own devices is a discussion worth having, but bear in mind they do exist in alarmingly high numbers.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Youi could argue that in historical times the Powers That Be didn’t like jokes, songs, or unofficial art by the Rude Mechanicals because it shook the basis of (their) law and order. The shakier the grasp of the Powers That Be the more po-faced and vigorous the response or suppression.
Perhaps the lack of a sense of humour is a symptom of the current Powers That Be realising the game is up? I bet populism has some good jokes though.

Claire England
Claire England
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Depending upon what historical times you’re referencing, the powers that be well understood the social benefits of anarchic humor allowed at certain times/ festivals. The medieval carnival was always about upending standard power structures and poking fun at the aristocracy etc. . Officially sanctioned humor and satire functioned as a safety valve, allowing the poor and powerless a moment of nose-thumbing. Ergo centuries past power understood the need for humor and satire.

Claire England
Claire England
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Depending upon what historical times you’re referencing, the powers that be well understood the social benefits of anarchic humor allowed at certain times/ festivals. The medieval carnival was always about upending standard power structures and poking fun at the aristocracy etc. . Officially sanctioned humor and satire functioned as a safety valve, allowing the poor and powerless a moment of nose-thumbing. Ergo centuries past power understood the need for humor and satire.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Youi could argue that in historical times the Powers That Be didn’t like jokes, songs, or unofficial art by the Rude Mechanicals because it shook the basis of (their) law and order. The shakier the grasp of the Powers That Be the more po-faced and vigorous the response or suppression.
Perhaps the lack of a sense of humour is a symptom of the current Powers That Be realising the game is up? I bet populism has some good jokes though.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

Yoel Roth is best left ignored.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

Yoel Roth is best left ignored.

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
1 year ago

I left Facebook because of this. I did get involved in a flare up with someone and was given a warning because of that. Within a week, a joke on a British comedy site, was taken seriously and I was banned for twenty four hours. At that point, I left knowing that Americans don’t understand English humour and it was only a matter of time before I was kicked off the site.

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
1 year ago

I left Facebook because of this. I did get involved in a flare up with someone and was given a warning because of that. Within a week, a joke on a British comedy site, was taken seriously and I was banned for twenty four hours. At that point, I left knowing that Americans don’t understand English humour and it was only a matter of time before I was kicked off the site.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

‘Love thy Neighbour’ (1970’s British sitcom) is definitely out then. Broad brush strokes, in primary colours only, Black and white might be acceptable, in equal measure, but only with an emphasis on the former, and ‘colourism’, in all it’s various shades, is definitely suspect.

Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
1 year ago

‘Love thy Neighbour’ (1970’s British sitcom) is definitely out then. Broad brush strokes, in primary colours only, Black and white might be acceptable, in equal measure, but only with an emphasis on the former, and ‘colourism’, in all it’s various shades, is definitely suspect.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

OK, so beer isn’t a fruit, but chocolate is, right? I mean, it grows on a bush and everything.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

OK, so beer isn’t a fruit, but chocolate is, right? I mean, it grows on a bush and everything.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
1 year ago

“either the censor himself is stupid, or he thinks everyone else is” The fact that he believes the latter, of course, proves the former.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
1 year ago

“either the censor himself is stupid, or he thinks everyone else is” The fact that he believes the latter, of course, proves the former.

Smalltime J
Smalltime J
1 year ago

Surely the premise or message of Mike Huckabee’s joke was that people in the US are routinely committing voter fraud? If twitter had a policy of deleting comments that simply stated (falsely) that voter fraud was a widespread issue in the US then it wasn’t inconsistent of them to delete a tweet that carried the same message in joke form. Whether it was right of them to delete such posts is a separate issue, but I don’t see that as being an issue around humour per se. Why should jokes get special treatment? A joke whose punchline depends on the view that a certain ethnic minority being inferior is just as harmful as an outright statement that that ethnic minority is inferior, for example, and most social media platforms would censor both.
I also don’t get the issue with a Holocaust charity critiquing a TV show’s depiction of the Holocaust. This seems to me to fall well within the line of legitimate criticism (whether or not you agree with it). Disagreement or criticism is not in itself cancel culture. Suggesting that criticism ought to be suppressed on the other hand…
Like it or not, ‘explaining art’ aka criticism has been around as long as art itself. Artistic criticism (or literary/film/TV criticism) is only redundant if you believe that art cannot carry a message, which is in my view obviously not the case.

Last edited 1 year ago by Smalltime J
Smalltime J
Smalltime J
1 year ago

Surely the premise or message of Mike Huckabee’s joke was that people in the US are routinely committing voter fraud? If twitter had a policy of deleting comments that simply stated (falsely) that voter fraud was a widespread issue in the US then it wasn’t inconsistent of them to delete a tweet that carried the same message in joke form. Whether it was right of them to delete such posts is a separate issue, but I don’t see that as being an issue around humour per se. Why should jokes get special treatment? A joke whose punchline depends on the view that a certain ethnic minority being inferior is just as harmful as an outright statement that that ethnic minority is inferior, for example, and most social media platforms would censor both.
I also don’t get the issue with a Holocaust charity critiquing a TV show’s depiction of the Holocaust. This seems to me to fall well within the line of legitimate criticism (whether or not you agree with it). Disagreement or criticism is not in itself cancel culture. Suggesting that criticism ought to be suppressed on the other hand…
Like it or not, ‘explaining art’ aka criticism has been around as long as art itself. Artistic criticism (or literary/film/TV criticism) is only redundant if you believe that art cannot carry a message, which is in my view obviously not the case.

Last edited 1 year ago by Smalltime J
harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago

Great article. One quibble, the reference to “the cult of the fact-check.” If only there was truly a cult of fact check. What there is now is a cult of ideology-check to ensure the “correct’ ideas are presented, and if the facts don’t do that, fact-checking goes out the window, which is why increasingly, people trust fact-checkers about as much as they trust the various media that employ them.

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago

Great article. One quibble, the reference to “the cult of the fact-check.” If only there was truly a cult of fact check. What there is now is a cult of ideology-check to ensure the “correct’ ideas are presented, and if the facts don’t do that, fact-checking goes out the window, which is why increasingly, people trust fact-checkers about as much as they trust the various media that employ them.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

Censors are stupid. And devoid of humour. It’s part of the job qualification.
But as the fiery and hilarious satire and jokes of the Communist era showed, censorship begets a phenomenal creativity, full of language-stretching, petard-hoisting double-speak and double entendres, while permissiveness pushes creativity in into shallow outrage generation.
For us in the West, censorship is still a new phenomenon, but as it gets institutionalised, the creativity will come to the fore. Ask Lucy Kellaway.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
1 year ago

Censors are stupid. And devoid of humour. It’s part of the job qualification.
But as the fiery and hilarious satire and jokes of the Communist era showed, censorship begets a phenomenal creativity, full of language-stretching, petard-hoisting double-speak and double entendres, while permissiveness pushes creativity in into shallow outrage generation.
For us in the West, censorship is still a new phenomenon, but as it gets institutionalised, the creativity will come to the fore. Ask Lucy Kellaway.

Mike Thatsallyouget
Mike Thatsallyouget
1 year ago

the didactic art won, unfortunately! surprising, so did the kitsch. social realism just lost the capital letters.

Mike Thatsallyouget
Mike Thatsallyouget
1 year ago

the didactic art won, unfortunately! surprising, so did the kitsch. social realism just lost the capital letters.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
1 year ago

The confusion between American and British culture has been responsible for a huge amount of mischief over the last decade. Brits are far more like Danish, Dutch or (whisper it) French than they resemble Americans, despite the shared language and history.

Seth Edenbaum
Seth Edenbaum
1 year ago

“when content moderation arguably crossed the line into censorship.”
Only the state can censor. Are you arguing that tech firms are monopolies and represent the state? When Hamas and Hezbollah were thrown off twitter did you complain? I was pissed. I followed them.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/technology/terrorist-groups-social-media.html
“Twitter said 100 accounts with Russian ties were removed for amplifying narratives that undermined faith in NATO and targeted the United States and the European Union.”
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter-content-idUSKBN2AN1WW
Twitter meets with the Feds all the time. Nothing’s changed. And you pretend it’s new. Taibbi fantasizes a past when people like him could trust the mainstream. That’s because he calls himself a liberal.But the mainstream is always biased towards power. We’re living through a period of internal conflict. During the cold war you would’ve been happy and complacent.
“Twitter’s internal data shows its algorithm amplifies right-wing political content”
https://www.businessinsider.com/twitter-says-algorithm-biased-toward-right-wing-politicians-conservatives-2021-10
Maybe boosting and limiting is the problem, but then you’d have to talk about how twitter and facebook make their money.
And then there’s hypocrisy
Greenwald on Bari Weiss, in 2018
“Since that article, Weiss has predictably written multiple banal columns for the Times denouncing what she perceives as growing left-wing intolerance for dissent in general, but particularly on college campuses. I’ve watched as Weiss has become celebrated in right-wing circles as some sort of paragon of free expression and academic freedom, and mourned by centrists as the tragic victim of online PC mob silencing campaigns (imagine being a columnist and editor at the New York Times — with full access to the most influential media platform in the world — and seeing yourself as the victim of silencing and censorship), even though her entire career is grounded in precisely the viewpoint suppression, vilification, and censorship campaigns she now depicts herself as loathing.”
Every one of you idiots is in favor of policing speech. But you want to be the judge. Chatterton-Williams defended censorship but everyone ignored it.Let’s try something else
“According to this new paradigm, the beauty of the art is a secondary concern — if it’s present at all.”
Is “Breaking Bad” beautiful? “Beauty” is for kitsch. And Hogarth is remembered an illustrator of earnest moralism. The joke’s on you as much as the idiots at the Tate.
“Guston’s depictions of hooded, cartoonish klansmen were always meant as a critical statement on the banality of evil.”
“the banality of evil” Don’t use that phrase around Bari Weiss; she might to get you fired for belittling the Holocaust. But you’re describing the one early drawing that got him in trouble this time. The big sloppy paintings at the end of his career were an art world joke about being cancelled by Clement Greenberg.

Last edited 1 year ago by Seth Edenbaum
Seth Edenbaum
Seth Edenbaum
1 year ago

“when content moderation arguably crossed the line into censorship.”
Only the state can censor. Are you arguing that tech firms are monopolies and represent the state? When Hamas and Hezbollah were thrown off twitter did you complain? I was pissed. I followed them.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/technology/terrorist-groups-social-media.html
“Twitter said 100 accounts with Russian ties were removed for amplifying narratives that undermined faith in NATO and targeted the United States and the European Union.”
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter-content-idUSKBN2AN1WW
Twitter meets with the Feds all the time. Nothing’s changed. And you pretend it’s new. Taibbi fantasizes a past when people like him could trust the mainstream. That’s because he calls himself a liberal.But the mainstream is always biased towards power. We’re living through a period of internal conflict. During the cold war you would’ve been happy and complacent.
“Twitter’s internal data shows its algorithm amplifies right-wing political content”
https://www.businessinsider.com/twitter-says-algorithm-biased-toward-right-wing-politicians-conservatives-2021-10
Maybe boosting and limiting is the problem, but then you’d have to talk about how twitter and facebook make their money.
And then there’s hypocrisy
Greenwald on Bari Weiss, in 2018
“Since that article, Weiss has predictably written multiple banal columns for the Times denouncing what she perceives as growing left-wing intolerance for dissent in general, but particularly on college campuses. I’ve watched as Weiss has become celebrated in right-wing circles as some sort of paragon of free expression and academic freedom, and mourned by centrists as the tragic victim of online PC mob silencing campaigns (imagine being a columnist and editor at the New York Times — with full access to the most influential media platform in the world — and seeing yourself as the victim of silencing and censorship), even though her entire career is grounded in precisely the viewpoint suppression, vilification, and censorship campaigns she now depicts herself as loathing.”
Every one of you idiots is in favor of policing speech. But you want to be the judge. Chatterton-Williams defended censorship but everyone ignored it.Let’s try something else
“According to this new paradigm, the beauty of the art is a secondary concern — if it’s present at all.”
Is “Breaking Bad” beautiful? “Beauty” is for kitsch. And Hogarth is remembered an illustrator of earnest moralism. The joke’s on you as much as the idiots at the Tate.
“Guston’s depictions of hooded, cartoonish klansmen were always meant as a critical statement on the banality of evil.”
“the banality of evil” Don’t use that phrase around Bari Weiss; she might to get you fired for belittling the Holocaust. But you’re describing the one early drawing that got him in trouble this time. The big sloppy paintings at the end of his career were an art world joke about being cancelled by Clement Greenberg.

Last edited 1 year ago by Seth Edenbaum
Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

Making up a story about sending in bogus voting slips is a crime. It is an incitement to others to follow suit and commit the same crime.

Any joke teller knows that you tell certain jokes for certain audiences and Twitter does not allow you to select the audience.

John Montague
John Montague
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

@chris w… By your rules…. Wrong audience here then mate. Bye.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

John, you have just demonstrated the exact problem that the author and many of the commenters have highlighted. Zero tolerance.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

John, you have just demonstrated the exact problem that the author and many of the commenters have highlighted. Zero tolerance.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Actually you do have a point, jokes are of their time and place, and the audience is impoertant. However I’m not so sure about his committing a crime; he was not telling others to go out and do the same.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Is this ironic or tragic?

John Montague
John Montague
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

@chris w… By your rules…. Wrong audience here then mate. Bye.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Actually you do have a point, jokes are of their time and place, and the audience is impoertant. However I’m not so sure about his committing a crime; he was not telling others to go out and do the same.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Is this ironic or tragic?

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

Making up a story about sending in bogus voting slips is a crime. It is an incitement to others to follow suit and commit the same crime.

Any joke teller knows that you tell certain jokes for certain audiences and Twitter does not allow you to select the audience.