Monty Python’s John Cleese Worries That Political Correctness Will Lead Us into a Humorless World, Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984

As with all of our polit­i­cal debates, those over “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” have become even more polar­ized, vit­ri­olic, and out­sized than when I was in col­lege at the height of the first cul­ture wars, when it often seemed to me like just new eti­quette for increas­ing­ly plu­ral­ist cam­pus­es and work­places. Now, peo­ple use the phrase to refer to any call for basic human decen­cy and intel­lec­tu­al honesty—and use it to dis­miss such calls out of hand. On the oth­er hand, many efforts at curb­ing or crit­i­ciz­ing cer­tain kinds of speech can seem gen­uine­ly, unnec­es­sar­i­ly, repres­sive. Whether it’s an illib­er­al col­lege group pres­sur­ing their uni­ver­si­ty to dis­in­vite enter­tain­ers or shut down debates, or fanat­i­cal gun­men threat­en­ing, and tak­ing, the lives of jour­nal­ists or blog­gers, the stakes over what can and can’t be said have grown expo­nen­tial­ly.

Have we reached a cri­sis of “Orwellian” pro­por­tions in the U.S.? I’d hes­i­tate to say so, giv­en the overuse and abuse of Orwell’s name and ideas as a catch-all for soci­etal dys­func­tion. We have ral­lies in which tens of thou­sands gath­er to cheer for the demo­niza­tion and slan­der of entire peo­ple groups. It hard­ly seems to me that anyone’s los­ing their free­dom of speech any time soon. But John Cleese in the Big Think video above makes an argu­ment about a par­tic­u­lar kind of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness that he defines as “the idea that you have to be pro­tect­ed from any kind of uncom­fort­able emo­tion.” Describ­ing this kind of speech polic­ing as patho­log­i­cal, Cleese refers to a the­o­ry of a psy­chi­a­trist friend, Robin Skin­ner, that peo­ple who can’t con­trol their own emo­tions “have to start to con­trol oth­er people’s behav­ior.”

Cleese does­n’t blan­ket­ly impugn the motives of all activists for polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect speech. He notes a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry as I have when it comes to col­lege cam­pus­es. “Polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness,” he says, “has been tak­en from being a good idea, which is ‘let’s not be mean, and par­tic­u­lar­ly to peo­ple who are not able to look after them­selves very well,’ to the point where any kind of crit­i­cism of any indi­vid­ual or group can be labeled cru­el.” Per­haps he’s right. (And Cleese is by no means the first com­ic to say so—and to swear off col­lege cam­pus­es.) In any case, his obser­va­tions about the nec­es­sary rela­tion­ship of com­e­dy to crit­i­cism or offense are dead on, as well as his con­clu­sion that once the humor’s gone, so “goes a sense of pro­por­tion, and… you’re liv­ing in 1984.” I can’t think of a book, or a soci­ety, with less humor in it.

One point of inter­est: Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness means a great many things to a great many peo­ple. For some it is about agency and self-deter­mi­na­tion, and right­ing his­tor­i­cal wrongs so as not to per­pet­u­ate them in the present. For oth­ers, it tends more toward a patron­iz­ing activist cru­sade on behalf, as Cleese says in his def­i­n­i­tion of the term, of “peo­ple who are not able to look after them­selves.” While he calls a lit­tle of this lat­ter atti­tude a good thing, George Car­lin saw it as con­de­scend­ing and disin­gen­u­ous. By no means a respecter of any par­ty ide­ol­o­gy, Car­lin described even seem­ing­ly innocu­ous forms of polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect lan­guage as fas­cism mas­querad­ing as man­ners.

In my expe­ri­ence, few peo­ple can make argu­ments against polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect lan­guage with­out occa­sion­al­ly falling into the trap of prov­ing its point. But Car­lin and Cleese make thought­ful cas­es, espe­cial­ly when they use humor—as Car­lin did over an entire career of rail­ing against the speech police. In his bit above on the increas­ing insis­tence on ungain­ly euphemisms and puffed-up jar­gon, he demon­strates what Cleese calls the effec­tive anti­dote to a polit­i­cal move­ment run riot: a sense of proportion—as well as a sense of com­pas­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Slavoj Žižek Calls Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness a Form of “Mod­ern Total­i­tar­i­an­ism”

John Cleese on How “Stu­pid Peo­ple Have No Idea How Stu­pid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dun­ning-Kruger Effect)

What “Orwellian” Real­ly Means: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • brad says:

    I was intro­duced to polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness in art school in the late 80s. At the time, in it’s sim­plest terms it meant — do the ratio­nal, intel­lec­tu­al­ly cor­rect, informed thing. The pri­ma­ry sub­ject was hir­ing art teach­ing and the ‘right thing to do’ — the polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect thing to do — was pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion: hire teach­ers who were women, peo­ple of colour, LBGT, native peo­ple, etc. Which is what they did. It was on the news. As a white guy, this was dis­ap­point­ing but under­stand­able. Reform was not going to work. Rev­o­lu­tion was nec­es­sary. I’d find some­thing else to do. I still had more oppor­tu­ni­ties than most. At the time, polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness had lit­tle to do with lan­guage polic­ing.

    Amaz­ing­ly, if we zip for­ward to today, we see the polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect BDS move­ment — stand­ing against the ille­gal occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine — being con­front­ed by state ‘polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness’ laws which inter­pret their boy­cott of Israeli prod­ucts as anti-Israel, which they con­flate with being anti-semit­ic, and there­fore racist. Boy­cotting Israel for bomb­ing the world’s largest prison into rub­ble and body parts is racist, it seems. The gov says so.

    Stew­art Lee — Polit­i­cal Cor­rect­ness

  • Bill W. says:

    Will? We’re already there! Try mak­ing a movie like ‘Blaz­ing Sad­dles’ today, and see what hap­pens. The always-but­thurt frag­ile snowflakes would lose their minds. We, as a nation and cul­ture, have indeed lost our sense of humor.

  • Shell Scott says:

    It is nei­ther pos­si­ble nor our duty to “right his­tor­i­cal wrongs”. It is, how­ev­er, pos­si­ble and cer­tain­ly our duty to “not per­pet­u­ate them in the present”.

  • Golem100 says:

    I hope you won’t mind if I use that as a quote from time to time.

  • elizabeth frantes says:

    Yeah, let’s just ignore all the crimes against human­i­ty that Islam is doing and blame it all on the Jews. Wow. Speak­ing of occu­pa­tion, it has been the his­to­ry of Islam to destroy all “com­pet­ing” reli­gions by what­ev­er means nec­es­sary, which is why ALL of the indige­nous reli­gions of what is now the Mid­dle East hap­pened, and is still hap­pen­ing.

    And they are not very nice to women and gays, either.

    But you prob­a­bly get off on killing women, tak­ing away all their rights, rap­ing lit­tle boys and then killing adult men who do the same to oth­er adult males.

  • Klaas says:

    Polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness comes down to that we are forced to tol­er­ate the intol­er­ant.

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