Can We Take a Joke, a feature-length documentary about stand-up comedy, "outrage culture," and censorship is now available for digital download on iTunes, Google Play, and on-demand through most major cable providers. The film was directed by former Reason TV producer Ted Balaker and co-produced and co-written by yours truly.
The reviews already have begun to roll in, with the LA Times saying that "Can We Take a Joke? poses a valid question at a juncture when freedom of speech is a hot topic," and The Hollywood Reporter writes that the film delivers "sobering commentary" and "strongly makes the case that we've all got to get over ourselves."
The movie features several stand-up comedians who've had unpleasant encounters with the online outrage mob, including Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, and Gilbert Gottfried, who famously lost his job as the voice of the AFLAC duck after he sparked outrage on social media after making Twitter jokes about the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
"When people are outraged, they're also patting themselves on the back," says Gottfried. "Like, 'Hey, I'm a good person. I was outraged.'"
Everyone, of course, has the legal right to be offended and the right to demand the firing of comedians for telling jokes. The First Amendment only protects against the government censorship of ideas, not corporate or mob censorship. But the film argues that the very idea of "free speech" requires more than simply government protection of the press.
"The First Amendment, although it's necessary, it's not sufficient. It has to rest on a social foundation of First Amendment values," says Jonathan Rauch, scholar at the Brookings Institute and author the book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. "Once you get into the business of saying you are going to prohibit things you find offensive or wrongheaded, that's where the most sensitive person in society gets to determine what all the rest of us can hear."
The documentary also features Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that fights for free speech on college campuses. Lukianoff helps connect the culture of instant outrage and offense to developments on college campuses, which have seen a rise in speech codes and rules requiring "trigger warnings" for offensive content. Watch the Reason TV interview with Lukianoff on that topic below.
Lukianoff and social scientist Jonathan Haidt wrote eloquently about some of the themes touched upon in Can We Take a Joke in a cover story for The Atlantic magazine entitled, "The Coddling of the American Mind" and singled out an impulse that they term "vindictive protectiveness":
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into "safe spaces" where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
This notion of pushing back against vindictive protectiveness is perhaps what excites me most about Can We Take a Joke? While there are concrete policies, such as FIRE's advocacy for the abolition of all speech codes on campus, that can help nudge American culture back towards a greater appreciation for free speech, the documentary is also a call for self-reflection. Being offended is an emotional state, not a rational one. Instead of reacting immediately, the movie implores the viewer to examine his or her own emotions: Why am I offended? Is it possible that the offensive statement is a joke? Am I giving the speaker the maximum benefit of the doubt? Are these words really causing me harm?
And the best part is that developing this mental process, also known as "growing a thick skin," doesn't require attending an expensive seminar or years of counseling and meditation. One of the best—and most fun—ways to thicken your skin and gain a deeper appreciation for novel, thought-provoking, and sometimes shocking viewpoints is to frequent your local comedy club.
Click here to buy or rent the film on iTunes. And check out an interview with the film's director, Ted Balaker, below.